Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Diplomacy of Breaking the Headlock

There were few tactics available on the playground to neutralize a potential combatant (especially one of larger stature and more imposing build) that were more useful than the basic headlock. [From Wikipedia - Headlock: Circling the opponent's neck with an arm, especially from the side.]. This is especially true if the headlock could be parlayed into a pinning of the opponent on the ground, with you on top, while the hold was still in place. If you could manage the headlock and pin tandem, the hold became almost impossible to break.

Properly employed, the headlock is a wrestling move of such simplicity of design, and economy of motion, that it's ease of mastery is rivaled only by its efficacy. It is the Kalashnikov and RPG of the schoolyard - enabling the smaller, skinnier "insurgents" to ward off the aggression of the larger nation-state bullies in a primal precursor of asymmetrical warfare. It was my savior on more than one occasion.

But a funny thing happens a short while after the maneuver is applied to the aggressor: as your opponent wastes energy and stamina trying to get free from the hold - often ceasing his counterattacks in submission to the warning implicit in your constricting of the grip around his neck - you reach a bizarre form of stalemate. You discover that you are both "locked-in," as it were, with no clear resolution in sight. If you let go, your soon to be erstwhile captive will likely make you pay for his time in bondage - with a healthy dose of vengeance built up during such tenure. But, on the other hand, you can't exactly keep holding on forever either.

This uncomfortable reality usually ushers in the negotiation phase of the conflict: "If I let you go, you have to promise not to pummel me," or some such variation is set forth as the terms for disengagement. While the first few entreaties are usually met with stubborn bravado on the part of the head-locked - refusing your overtures and instead vowing to make you pay when you let go - eventually the subdued is forced to capitulate to the facts on the ground. At least if you're lucky - and your adversary is sufficiently exhausted from the ordeal, and wary of your wrestling acumen and ability to re-apply the dreaded hold.

This playground dynamic reminds me, in some ways, of the indirect standoff in Iraq between Iranian forces and US forces. Currently, Iran is using proxies to apply a sort of headlock on US military assets in order to tie us down in Iraq and restrict our range of motion and ability to strike against Iran itself. We want them to ease up, which would allow room for Iraqis to garner more stability in some regions, but Iran won't let go until we assure them that when they let us off the mat, so to speak, we will not turn our sights on them. Vali Nasr, in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, sets forth this dynamic in some detail.

In Iraq especially, the two governments' short-term goals seem to be at odds: whereas Washington wants out of the mess, Tehran is not unhappy to see U.S. forces mired there.

So far, Tehran has favored a policy of controlled chaos in Iraq, as a way to keep the U.S. government bogged down and so dampen its enthusiasm for seeking regime change in Iran....Seeing the Bush doctrine proved wrong in Iraq would be an indirect way for Iran's leaders to discredit Washington's calls for regime change in Tehran.

On the flip side, however, Iran and the US do share the long term goal of stabilizing Iraq. Aside from the risks to the burgeoning economic ties that have been benefiting Iranians who are exploiting the increase in tourism through the southern, Shiite shrine-rich region of Iraq (with Iranians poised to continue to exploit the tourism industry through close ties to, and influence over, the region), Iran no doubt realizes that it is playing a dangerous game. Controlling "chaos" is not an exact science, nor is "chaos" a particularly cooperative subordinate.

And yet, in the longer term, U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq may well converge. Both Washington and Tehran want lasting stability there: Washington, because it wants a reason to bail out; Tehran, because stability in its backyard would secure its position at home and its influence throughout the region. Iran has much to fear from a civil war in Iraq. The fighting could polarize the region and suck in Tehran, as well as spill over into the Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish regions of Iran, where ethnic tensions have been rising. As former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki has put it, chaos in Iraq "does not help Iranian national interest. If your neighbor's house is on fire, it means your home is also in danger." Clearly wary, Tehran has braced itself for greater troubles by appointing a majority of its provincial governors from the ranks of its security officials and Revolutionary Guard commanders.

Two groups within Iran could help convince the Iranian leadership that cooperation with Washington is in its interest. The first are Iraqi refugees, who act as a lobby for Iraqi Shiite interests in Tehran. They have encouraged Iran to pursue talks with the United States over Iraq, partly because they view Washington and Tehran as the twin pillars of their power in Iraq. The escalation of tensions between the two governments would not serve the interests of Iraqi Shiites, and that lobby does not want to see Iraq become hostage to the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program. The second important constituency is made up of the many Iranians who are greatly concerned about the sanctity of Iraq's shrine cities. Every major bombing in Najaf and Karbala so far has claimed Iranian lives. The Iranian public expects Tehran to ensure the security of those cities; its influence has already provided Khamenei with a pretext for publicly endorsing direct talks with Washington over Iraq.

So both the captor and the captive are, predictably, looking for a way to break the hold, but the captor needs an assurance similar to the one mentioned above.

Still, Iran will actively seek stability in Iraq only when it no longer benefits from controlled chaos there, that is, when it no longer feels threatened by the United States' presence. Iran's long-term interests in Iraq are not inherently at odds with those of the United States; it is current U.S. policy toward Iran that has set the countries' respective Iraq policies on a collision course. Thus a key challenge for Washington in Iraq is to recalibrate its overall stance toward Iran and engage Tehran in helping to address Iraq's most pressing problems.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is still stuck in the phase of the negotiations in which they are threatening Iran and letting them know that once they release their headlock, we are going to beat them mercilessly. As I have argued recently, this bellicose rhetoric is not doing us any favors in our efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran is not going to abandon their quest to obtain nukes if they believe that there is a significant chance that we will invade if we can keep them nuke-less.

Similarly, it is clearly forestalling any potential for cooperation on the part of Iran (and probably Syria too) with respect to the situation in Iraq. Remember, Iran worked with US interests to improve the transition of rule for Hamid Karzai in post-Taliban Afghanistan. So it is not as if there is no template to work from, or history to point to in order to suggest that the two nations can work together where their interests align. We just need to emphasize the mutual interests, and accept the fact that in some ways Iran will benefit in Iraq as it has in Afghanistan. That is inevitable anyway. We will also have to stomach actually negotiating with Iran and accept the notion that Iran will be a partner in some respects.

While it may give Bush administration officials and their allies a dubious sense of moral superiority to adhere to a strict policy of not negotiating with Iran because of that nation's employ of terrorism, that sanctimonious stance comes at a rather significant cost: the continued non-cooperation vis-a-vis Iraq and the resulting mayhem. If President Bush and other Iraq war supporters are to be believed, failure and/or premature departure from Iraq will lead to several catastrophic occurrences. While I think they tend to overplay their hand, and use fear as a cudgel for political reasons, many of the concerns enunciated are valid. That is why I have not, as yet, advocated for a complete withdrawal of US forces. But if the stakes are indeed as high as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld would have us believe, isn't it about time we thought about changing our rhetoric and loosening Tehran's grip around our neck?

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