Saturday, January 30, 2010

Can US pressure eventually collapse Iran's government?

The simple answer is no. But the question comes up in thinking about the exchange between Nick Burns and Gary Sick in their interview with Charlie Rose which offers a more penetrating view of US thinking on Iran than we normally get in public. I'm quoting a lot from the interview here as background.
[Nick Burns] And so in playing for the long term, we assume that there is some kind of solution here short of the use of U.S. military force. That is the hand we played. That happens to be my own view as well.
[Gary Sick] They were so busy trying to get sanctions in place that they never stopped to explore with us whether there was some kind of a deal available. And that was -- that was surprising to us.
[Nick Burns] And there is an option here outside of war, and I would just say that we might want to watch and wait and see how President Obama is able to set up a nonmilitary option that would put enough force on Iran, I think, at some point to have them back to the negotiating table.
[Gary Sick] My argument, not only as an American but -- and as an observer but also as the player of this game is that you cannot bring enough pressure to bear on Iran
by these sanctions.
[Gary Sick] We were negotiating. And basically we -- I said you know, here are -- here is where we want to begin. We’re ready to talk about everything. But we’re not going to start out by saying we’re going to stop our whole enrichment process. And they said, you know, you’ve got to do that or else we’re out of here. And I said, you know, there we are. So we tried, actually. They tried and we tried, but the negotiations really didn’t go anywhere.
[Nick Burns] Sanctions probably cannot work in isolation. But a policy of combining sanctions, both through the Security Council and outside the Security Council, targeted on the Revolutionary Guard and the people working the Iranian nuclear program, followed by international isolation, military containment, while keeping the door open for negotiations should the Iranians want to come back, that seems to me is what the Obama administration is doing.

And frankly, I think it’s the right thing for the United States. This is not going to play out in the next couple of months. It will play out over the next few years.
[Nick Burns] Well, Charlie, I think we ought to look at this as a long-term struggle for the United States. And there a tendency here in these simulations to try to stop the game in the second or third inning and keep score. And I guess that’s the problem I have with some of the comments being made.

It’s a long-term struggle. And the goal is to prevent the Iranians from using force if they acquire it.

I do think, I think the United States, in combination with our partners, allies and even countries like China and Russia, has the ability over the long-term to contain the Iranians. So the key policy question is should we use force in the next year or two to try to stop a program before it can begin, or do we in essence draw a cordon around Iran, contain them, as we successfully contained the Soviet Union and Maoist China.

I vote for the latter. I think the early use of force or the risk of a war is not in the American interest. I have a lot of faith both in the persuasiveness of President Obama, but also the strength of our country in concert with others to limit the Iranians and play for the long-term.
Nick Burns is expressing two positions. One is that the US should continue to press for maximalist demands on Iran's nuclear program, demands that he knows Iran will not submit to unless the regime is under enough pressure that it is folding. These demands that he knows Iran will not accept will provide a rationale for continuing pressure. The other is that the US should seek to impose a cordon around Iran, in the meantime accepting an Iranian enrichment capability until an external game-changing situation arises.

Together these positions create the situation the US would like to see persist for the indefinite future: Iran's economy squeezed to the fullest degree possible, with the nuclear issue providing tools the US can use to increase pressure on Iran's economy but beyond that, the US intends to wait, even if that means waiting with a nuclear-capable Iran.

Leaving Iran with an enrichment capability for an indefinitely long term struggle is clearly not Israel's preference, since for as long as it lasts, Israel's ability to threaten to use nuclear weapons on its neighbors without fear of retaliation is compromised. But with an American understanding that neither sanctions or a military attack will effectively prevent Iran from attaining either enrichment capability or an actual weapon, Israel's preference just has to be ignored.

But as we settle into the situation the US is trying to achieve, maximal economic pressure on Iran for a long term project of containment we have the question of how much economic pressure can the US apply on Iran. Can the US apply enough pressure that the economic pressure itself creates a crisis of Iranian leadership that in some sense dissolves the Islamic Republic.

The answer to that question is that there is a tradeoff between how much difficulty the United States is willing to accept in Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for increased pressure on Iran. The approximately 100 deaths per month of US soldiers has been demonstrated to cause a reduction in US attempts to pressure Iran. If Iran is able to reach that level again, US pressure on Iran would decrease again.

There is an upper limit to the amount of pressure the US can impose because at some point Iran would stop using proxies and send actual Iranian forces to directly confront US forces in the neighboring countries. This would happen before Iran sacrifices key strategic objectives such as its right to acquire nuclear technology. US pressure sufficient to fundamentally change Iran's government policies is the same thing as war. US calculations that war itself are not in the interests of the US hold also for economic pressure intense enough to re-orient Iran's government.

Burn's examples of the successful containment of the USSR and Maoist China are misleading in the case of the USSR and instructive in the case of China. The USSR made fundamental mistakes in its dissolution that everyone in the world witnessed and that will not be replicated. Yeltsin's submission to Western demands on Russian policy and on its economy were far more drastic than were necessary or in Russian interests. Putin's rise to power was a corrective measure and Russia has recently been working to restore the strategic objectives that Yeltsin gave up.

Maoist China exists today. There has not been a fundamental change in China's government structure or foreign policy priorities since Mao. China today is a more potent threat to US interests in West Pacific sea trade routes, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan than it was under Mao. What happened with China is that the US came to accept that China's rise is more expensive to oppose than it is to accommodate.

Did US economic pressure create Yeltsin who blundered away, if in most cases only temporarily, Russian strategic advantages? Even if so, just upon seeing the Russian example, Iranian strategists are aware of the dangers to Iran's national interest of full compliance with Western demands of their country. Today Russia is independent and effective at opposing Western intervention in regions where its interest is most intense.

Did US pressure alter the course of China? Very clearly not. Taiwan, the weakest US ally and the one most threatened by a rising China, has come to terms with a China that is much stronger than it was when the US rapprochement with China was first contemplated. The US has benefited as hundreds of millions of former Chinese subsistence agriculturalists are now in factories producing goods for US consumers but the pressure China is able to exert on Taiwan has, as a trend, increased since 1972. It is clear now that over the long term, if China wants, it will in a short time by historical terms be able to apply irresistible pressure on Taiwan. The US calculates and hopes that by that time it's interests will be served in some other way and that the benefits of years of increased trade end up being worth it for Americans.

It is pretty clear that US pressure will not end up changing Iran's foreign policy direction or cause Iran to relinquish any important strategic objective, including independent nuclear technology. If, as Burns suggests, the United States "contains" Iran the way it did Maoist China, that means eventually accepting an independent Iran in the midst of Israel and the pro-Israel US colonies of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the changes to those countries that an independent Iran would render inevitable.


Lysander said...

Using strictly economic means, it is unlikely, almost impossible, that the US could cause a favorable change in government. Even Iraq like sanctions will not do that and unless Iran invades Kuwait, no such sanctions will be placed.

But is the US strictly limited to economic means? We both agree that a nuclear capable Iran with reasonable economic growth would eventually overwhelm US regional client states. Are the US and Israel prepared to accept this predicament? Are they prepared to simply say "good bye to all that" and move on?

Quite possibly they are, but we and certainly Iran, have to consider the possibility that the US will use military means to stop Iran and may simply choose to accept the consequences and take their chances.

Also, US policy makers will not proceed under the assumption that Iran seeks only nuclear capability. I agree with you that that is likely all Iran wants and needs for the moment. But that will not be how worst case scenario policy makers see it. They will look at Iran's capability to go fully nuclear and assume they will do so. They will look at its successful satellite launches and assume Iran intends to pursue actual ICBMs.

In 15-20 years time, if Iran really wanted too, it almost certainly could develop not simply a handful of nukes, but a full fledged arsenal with the means to deliver it all the way to US soil. That would totally negate any US venture in the middle east. It would also eliminate any influence the Israel lobby would have over the US. Even they cannot convince the US to risk nuclear war.

I don't believe for a moment that Iran actually intends to commit the enormous resources required to do that. Only that it could, and so that is what US policy makers will assume it will do. They will present these worst case scenarios to other decision makers. They will make all sorts of Hitler/Nazi Germany/Munich analogies and if they are convincing, then the costs of war with Iran now will seem trivial.

I don't think war is likely at all. Certainly not in the next 2-3 years. But we both agree that US/Israeli dominance in the middle east and Persian Gulf is extremely important to them and they will not want to loose it. It therefore follows that they may take risks and make sacrifices so as not to loose it.

Arnold Evans said...

One thing. US and Israeli dominance of the Middle East are not fundamentally the same thing. The US now has the luxury of saying Israel's concerns are, more or less, US concerns but this is not a permanent state of affairs.

Israel needs a weak Saudi Arabia. The United States does not. The Saudis have an army that will barely fight for them because the country is ruled by docile, feminine, corrupt pro-US colonial leaders who are an embarrassment to the nation, but bar Israel and Saudi Arabia has a smaller population but much more disposable cash and could build a military more than adequate for defense against Iraq and Iran.

The United States right now strategizes that once a two state solution is put in place, everyone in the region will accept Israel and a weak Saudi Arabia will no longer be necessary, it will even be possible to agree to a nuclear free Middle East with Saudi Arabia balanced the way Chile, Argentina and Brazil are more or less balanced.

This is a strategic blind-spot on the part of the US because in fact, a reservation that the Palestinians are forced to accept under the duress that the US would openly threaten to starve them otherwise, would not resolve the issues in the region - but the US is not able to see the region clearly.

The US is already saying it will not be able to support Israel in its present form forever. Until the US gives up on two states and figures out where to go from there, it seems to me the US expectation is that two-states will fix everything in time.