Monday, January 28, 2008

You Probably Think This Uranium Enrichment Program Is About You

Discussing the new/old revelations that Saddam was bluffing about WMD for purposes of keeping his regional rivals at bay, Ilan Goldenberg makes an astute observation:

Saddam was more focused on the neighbors and the regional players on his borders, who represented the most direct threats, than he was on the United States. This pattern repeats itself again and again in American foreign policy. As a global superpower, with military reach that stretches the globe, we consistently view things through the broader geopolitical dynamics as they relate to the United States (In this case the "War on Terror" and WMDs). In that process we tend to miss the trees for the forest. Thinking only big, but never about the details. Most countries don't have the luxury of thinking about broader geopolitical strategy. What they care about is protecting their borders and territorial integrity. That means worrying about your neighbors first.

This doesn't just apply to Iraq. It applies to Pakistan. Why does Pakistan and especially the military and intelligence services have a long history of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan? It has nothing to do with the "War on terror." It is all based on the one and only thing that truly concerns the Pakistani military - India. The Pakistanis have always promoted friendly governments in Afghanistan - no matter what form the government takes - because the last thing it wants is an Indian ally on its Western border.

This was also one of the tragedies of Vietnam.

I'd add one more country to this list: Iran. From Iran's perspective, Iran has many legitimate reasons to pursue an active nuclear weapons program and, despite some of the more heated rhetoric from domestic Iran-hawks, the list does not include using such weapons against the United States and/or Israel in some sort of terrorist strike.

Consider a few of the facts on the ground so to speak: Iran is surrounded by nuclear-armed powers like Israel to the west, and Russia, Pakistan, India and China to the north and east. Many of the Sunni-dominated nations in the region speak openly about containing Iranian power, and have historically cool relations with the Shiite-majority state. In addition, the United States (whose ruling administration has been overtly threatening toward Iran) has had 150,000 troops in neighboring Iraq, as well as an enormous amount of very expensive, highly lethal military hardware assembled in the Persian Gulf and nearby areas for the past five years.

Rumors of expanding the war to Iran have been rampant during the Bush administration's tenure. In recent months, high ranking White House officials have been been shuttling to and from the region in an effort to shore up support in the region for a larger diplomatic and/or military strategy against Iran.

The view from Iran must be more than a little unnerving. Obtaining the deterrent power of a nuclear weapon would do much to secure Iran's position. Even creating the impression that it has done so - or could shortly - would fortify its position. Yet the tendency toward solipsism that Goldenberg touches on leads far too many observers to interpret Iran's moves through a skewed US/Israeli-centric lens.

Iran's primary animating principle is not to pull off a spectacular nuclear-enabled terrorist attack against the US or Israel. Such a move, after all, would lead to the annihilation of Iran and its people. Iran's flirtation with nuclear weapons - like Saddam's continuing bravado in the face of the Bush administration's bellicosity - has everything to do with self-preservation and regional power-politics and nothing to do with collective, national suicide. Alas, there are more important things to Iranian leaders than landing a blow against the US and Israel. Like, remaining Iranian leaders for example. Also: alive.

As set forth above, the US does play a role in Iran's calculations, but not as much, or in the ways, attributed. Further, our clumsy attempts to roll back Iran's program have been, in some ways, counterproductive in that they tend to increase Teheran's anxiety and strengthen hardliners in that nation's government. There is a way to shift Iran's calculus if the goal is to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If the most recent NIE is any indication, sanctions and other international pressure can achieve certain positive results.

However, defusing tensions should go part and parcel with any diplomatic pressure via sanctions. Security guarantees would also help to assuage some of Iran's strategic concerns. Unless we approach the situation with an appreciation for Iran's part of the equation, and avoid the tendency to cling to cartoonish Manichean formulations of the world, we will continue to be stymied by our miscalculations.

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