Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Participants in Harvard simulation of US conflict with Iran on Charlie Rose, ends up providing a very informative picture of where we are

We learned about war games, or simulations of how the conflict over Iran's nuclear program could play out in December. The short story was that Iran was projected to continue enriching and would find itself with a stronger nuclear program at the end of the year than at the beginning, despite any action the US could take to prevent that.

More recently, many of the participants conducted a joint interview with prominent US journalist Charlie Rose in which they go into further detail about the motives and possible actions of the participants.

Gary Sick, who like most US analysts on the Middle East has the magical idea that somehow Iran will be prevented from becoming a threat to Israel because it is psychologically painful for him to imagine otherwise, played Iran. To his credit, he seems to have drawn the reasonable, and even obvious, conclusion that the US does not have tools that would prevent Iran from continuing its program. To his detriment, he says that the simulation was conducted before the late-December opposition protests which have convinced him that Iran's regime is in real trouble.

Just so that Americans can understand, Ron Paul today probably has something like ten percent national support in the United States. About the same as the amount of Iranians who doubt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's legitimacy as president of Iran. Ron Paul's supporters could stage big demonstrations, fighting police, if they wanted to. If they were goaded and funded by foreign parties hostile to the US government they could amount to an annoyance for US security forces. But there is no way that they would pose a threat to the stability of the rule of the current leadership. You can think of Iran's green movement as unusually well organized, with foreign help, Ron Paul supporters.

But if you must, if it kills you to imagine Iran actually emerging as a nuclear capable nation that would end Israel's ability to issue unanswerable threats to cause catastrophic damage to its neighbors, then you can join Gary Sick, Juan Cole, Richard Haass, Robert Kagan most of the US foreign policy community in believing that the opposition will miraculously make Iran more like the US colonies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia today or Iran under the Shah than it is now. The wishful thinking embodied in this belief harms the analysis of its holders more than it harms anyone else.

But back to the interesting interview. I want to excerpt with comments the parts that caught my attention.
When President Obama took office, he committed to a policy of engagement with Iran. He also set a deadline, December 31st, 2009, for Iran’s leadership to respond to negotiations about its nuclear program.
Now this is delivered in Charlie Rose's voice. The United States and its euphemisms. The United States has a much more specific goal than Iran "respond to negotiations" Iran has responded to negotiations. The US has to goal of "commit to suspend enrichment" with its resumption subject to a US veto.

Whenever I read these euphemisms used I wonder who are they trying to fool? If you mean you want Iran to export the uranium it has already enriched and keep its stock beneath a certain level indefinitely, why not say that? In effect the US' position is to demand more than a suspension, it demands that Iran replicate the situation that would prevail if Iran suspended years ago. In actuality, Obama set a deadline not for Iran to respond to negotiations, but to submit to US demands that are no less unreasonable than the demands of the Bush administration.

Here is Nick Burns, who in the game played the US led by Barack Obama.
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.
We've seen this idea before, that Nick Burns thinks the US should shift into containment of Iran and wait for Iran to submit to US pressure at some later time. I made the point last time, that if 2010 through 2018 are as difficult for Iran as the years 1980 through 1988, then Iran still is likely to come through. But I see no chance of the US being able to apply nearly the pressure that was applied to Iran's regime in the 1980s. The United States would probably be better served by decreasing hostility with Iran, but while Iran will pay more the US will pay its own cost for keeping the level of hostility elevated.

Containment, trying to stall and wait for the miracle that will turn Iran into Pavlavi Iran, seems to be the effective US policy at this point. The goal of the US is to apply as much pressure as possible on the Iranian economy and Iranian society in hopes that after some number of years Iran will buckle and become ripe for the US-assisted elevation of a leader who will restore Iran to the status of a dependency it had under the Shah.

I do not expect the US strategy to work, but Burns is describing a process under which the US maximizes pressure on Iran over a long time period. If the US is following that strategy then the US cannot reach an agreement over the nuclear issue, as that issue is the most effective lever the US has ever found in getting international cooperation with sanctions to pressure Iran's economy. The drawback of the strategy is that if Iran understands this is what the US is doing, it will make all US activities in its area as difficult and costly as possible. This seems to be how the rest of the Obama administration will play out.

Here's Gary Sick.
Our whole objective was to establish that we had certain rights, which is to enrich uranium, and to have a nuclear capability. A capability not to have a bomb but a capability to have enrichment. And that we should be treated the same as every other country in the region or in the world that had a nuclear capability.

The -- we were surprised that the Americans basically ignored us completely. 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. And at the end, we actually were -- we were surprised that nobody was actually bringing pressure on us because the Americans never succeeded in getting the sanctions that they were aiming at.
From our perspective, the Iranian case that we were playing, we were actually ready to engage in negotiations that would minimize how quickly we had access to nuclear weapons or nuclear development. But we weren’t willing to just give it up. And basically the United States policy from the beginning has been either do nothing or we’re going to come after you. And the reality is they can never put together with the Russians and the Chinese and others, they can’t get enough people to go along.
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.
We did get together and decide where we wanted to go and what our strategy should be and so forth, just as the Americans did and others did. And as we did that, we said what is the danger of war? You know, that somebody is going to attack us? And we pretty much discounted that.

Well, for all the reasons because -- this is not Saddam Hussein, it really is a very different situation. And it is -- basically you can attack, you can, no doubt, knock out a good part of Iran’s nuclear capability. But what will happen, one, they will retaliate in ways that are going to be very unpleasant to us in Iraq and Afghanistan. and other places and Hezbollah and all of this. They are also probably going to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. They are going to go underground. Then they are going to put all of their efforts not into building a nuclear structure but in building a bomb. And they are going to do it underground, completely out of sight. We will have no inspectors there. And the only way you can stop that is going on the ground with troops. And you know, I don’t think the Americans are really prepared to do that. And I think they are correct in not being ready to do that. So we basically decided at the beginning that when the Americans and the Israelis and everybody else looked at the costs of this thing, they would decide that that wasn’t a good -- that wasn’t a good option.
It is surprising how accurately Sick is able to understand the Iranian negotiating position, and understand the obstacle presented by the US position that it will not negotiate unless Iran is willing to stop its enrichment program. Sick also well understands the inability of any US option to prevent Iran's enrichment program. I'm convinced that these understandings, that sanctions won't work and a military attack won't work to accomplish a goal that Sick considers psychologically necessary, explain Sick's over-estimation of the importance of the green protesters. His view of the protesters is clearly not the result of any objective evidence.

Graham Allison's overview that where we are headed is an increasingly large Iranian stock of LEU is accurate as far as it goes. Burns essentially concedes that and says that over the long run, Iran can still be contained even nuclear capable until the miracle happens that returns someone like the Shah to Iranian leadership. Israel speaks of a military option, but I wasn't paying close attention to that given that the US and Iran both understand that a military option is not feasible.

Whether labeled "engagement" or "two tracks" or whatever, the first thought that comes from this discussion is that US policy towards Iran is, in a cold way, hostile and ultimately aimed at regime change to a "moderate" leadership such as that in Egypt. The fact that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other US colonies in the region are far less democratic than Iran is an indication that despite the rhetoric, US ambitions for Iran are profoundly anti-democratic.

The second thought, and I've agreed with this when I've seen it expressed in comments to previous posts here and elsewhere, is that Iran is not a threat to Israel only because of its nuclear program, even though that is a threat. Iran's nuclear program gives the US leverage to get international cooperation in applying pressure on Iran's economy that hopefully, from the US point of view, will force Iran to reinstate the equivalent of the Shah.


Lysander said...

Great article on Rafsanjani in Asia Times today.

Thoughts and comments from Iranian readers of this blog would be much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link Lysander. That was a great article. If I had to criticize it, it's biggest shortcoming is it's simplistic deliniation of 'Islamic Left' vs. 'Islamic Right'. I think these
terms should be discarded, in Iran left vs. right is just meaningless. I also disagree with Abedin's charecterization of Rafsanjani's speech as a failure or a trap. I think it was successful, and once again placed him in a position to mediate between the new wave reformists and the various factions of principlists. But it's quite clear that he and his associates are being pressured, even though he remains entrenched. A couple of months ago, one of his son's who is in charge of the City's metro, hijacked a press conference on new subway developments to defend his family's record against the public accusations of corruption that have been made. He was going on for quite a while and got pretty emotional. There is a youtube video of it somewhere. Reportedly, there was eventually some kind of walk out, and they turned off the lights on him while he was still speaking.

Rafsanjani still retains a lot of power as head of expert and expediency councils, and I think it would be counterproductive for Khameini to try and push him out completely. It would cost too much in terms of political capital, and yield very little in terms of dividends. Additionally, if everyone in a position of power is perceived to be a crony of Khameini's this makes him more suceptible to politcal attacks, which could significantly weaken his 'brand' and draw him further into the day-to-day minutuae of governance, which is not where he needs to be. Rafsanjani could do a lot of damage to his rivals simply by resigning his posts, and keeping quiet, but then he would lose institutional means he has to defend himself agaist 'anti-corruption' onslaughts. The current equilibrium is pretty much the best either Khameini or Rafsanjani can hope for.

I also highly doubt anyone will be 'eliminated', what goes around comes around, and it's hard to take things back down after they've past a certain level.


Lysander said...

Thanx a lot for the input, Masoud! That's the kind of info we could spend days on the internet looking for and still not find. Much obliged.