Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Can the United States achieve a "cold peace" with Iran?

By now it is clear for me that a "grand bargain" that resolves all, most or a significant number of the differences between the United States and Iran cannot be reached. From the US point of view, such a grand bargain would require to adopt a stance as subservient to the principle of Israeli regional dominance as the Shah's, or Egypt's today and it would require guarantees that Iranian policy could not shift back to hostility toward Israel - which means US-imposed limits on popular or democratic leverage over government policy.

From the Iranian point of view, a grand bargain would require the United States to stop seeing the region through the distorting influence of the idea that the existence and security of a majority state for about 5 million Jewish people is of greater importance than any other strategic objective in the region. The United States is incapable, at least under the current generation of its foreign policy corps, of adjusting its prioritization in large part because that generation has been indoctrinated with the false, widely-held but nearly never outwardly challenged idea in the West that it is anti-Semitic to question the importance of the Zionist project.

However a cold peace is far less than a grand bargain. A cold peace is what Barack Obama found in place when he was inaugurated. It is the idea that while disagreeing widely on many issues in the region, the United States and Iran can establish limits that each side will informally respect regarding hostility against each other. An example is the decrease in tension over Iran's nuclear program under Bush while the US still officially held that Iran must end its uranium enrichment while Iranian-supported confrontation of US forces in Iraq decreased with Iran still officially holding that the US must immediately fully evacuate the country.

Today we see escalating hostility between the United States and Iran. I disagree with those who project that this will lead to war, as the US still seems to be a militarily deterred power with regard to Iran, but it will lead to a more hostile equilibrium state. The US seems to hope that a more hostile equilibrium will over time pressure Iran more effectively towards submission to US objectives. If the US pays a cost for this pressure, the US calculates that overall the cost may be worth it.

This is not what I would do, but I don't share with the US foreign policy corps' conception of the primacy in importance of a majority state for five million Jewish people. Given US perceptions and objectives, it is a gamble that the amount of pressure the US may be able to apply to Iran may be greater than the pressure Iran can apply in Iraq and Afghanistan and that US pressure can force at some point an Iranian submission.

An Iranian submission seems very unlikely at this point. My sense is that US policy-makers over-estimate the likelihood of pressure emanating from the US changing Iranian policy partly because the alternative, that Iran will not change its policy, is difficult and even painful for those policy-makers to envision. If an Iranian submission will not happen, then pressure will just cause unnecessary pain on both sides before reaching a state that could have been reached cooperatively.

February 11 is supposed to be a big test. On February 12 there supposedly will be another data point regarding how vulnerable the Iranian governing regime is. I don't see any plausible occurrence on that day that will convince US policymakers to abandon a policy of attempting to increase pressure on Iran. Even if there were no protests at all. Large protests would not prove that the opposition is the majority or that it has resources at its disposal necessary to out-compete the regime in any way for power. So even large protests would not change my calculations about the ability of the Iranian regime to remain viable.

Assuming February 12 looks like February 10 in terms of regime stability, which I consider by far the most likely scenario, the contest between the US ability to harm Iran through international sanctions and support for regime dissidents and Iran's ability to harm US interests especially in Iraq and Afghanistan while it creates facts on the ground with its nuclear program will resume.

Clearly a cold peace is possible, it took deliberate effort by the US to move away from policies consistent with that. I unfortunately do not think we will see the US will for a cold peace again until the US has paid a substantial cost in troops in the countries neighboring Iran.

No comments: