Commentary-Strategy for Iran

A Strategy for Iran 

On the assumption that Iranian leaders are unwilling to halt or even slow their determined march toward a nuclear weapons capability, the United States and other concerned nations have but three options: 1) decide to live with a nuclear Iran, hoping to contain its aggressive tendencies and limit nuclear proliferation by worried neighbors, 2) put in place a regimen of harsher, targeted economic sanctions than exist today in an effort to coerce a change of conduct, or 3) contemplate a campaign of preemptive air strikes aimed at crippling or at least significantly delaying Iran’s nuclear program. 

For containment to be effective, it assumes a rational, risk-averse body of decision-makers in Tehran. Who would confidently base policy on that assumption? 

Preemptive strikes, presumably by Israel, could trigger an escalating series of retaliatory actions, by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, by Iranian agents and supporters in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, for example, by Iran mining the Strait of Hormuz to disrupt oil deliveries to the West. As a last resort, given its fear of an existential threat, Israel might nonetheless risk air strikes, but it obviously would prefer not to do so. 

The Western powers, led by the United States,  threatened more biting but unspecified economic sanctions if Iran fails to curb its nuclear efforts by the end of last year.  Iran may not be all that worried since thus far it has managed to circumvent existing sanctions.  But it ought to worry.As pointed out in an excellent new book, “Winning the Long War” by Ilan Berman, Iran’s Achille’s heel is its dependence on imported petroleum products for about 40 percent of its requirements. Four Western companies, he notes, account for nearly all of those supplies. They are: British Petroleum, France’s Total, the Swiss firm Vitol, and the Swiss/Dutch company Trafigura.

The House of Representatives, by a vote of 412-12, recently voted to bar from US markets any company that conducts energy business with Iran. Strangely, the Administration urged the Senate to postpone taking up the measure. 

But a near total embargo would soon cripple Iran’s economy, causing widespread work stoppages and bringing much of its domestic and foreign commerce to a standstill. However, unless such an embargo is justified in terms that would attract significant support in the streets, it could conceivably cause the suffering Iranian public to rally around the beleaguered regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

On the other hand, if a petroleum embargo, along with a number of other bare knuckled measures, is persuasively explained in terms of putting severe pressure on Ahmadinejad and his heavy-handed Revolutionary Guards and their baseej street thugs in order both to ease their draconian crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, as well as to ease global concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, that just might resonate with the students and others rallying around their cause. It might well trigger enormous internal pressure on the regime.Until most recently, Barak Obama had largely avoided meaningful support for the pro-democracy movement for fear that it could undermine his objective of trying to convince the Iranian regime to at least slow its nuclear weapons program. Students and others in street demonstrations, in which they have literally risked life and limb, have carried signs demanding: “Obama, Are You With Us or With Them?”

The imposition of a new series of tough sanctions affords Obama and other like-minded leaders an outstanding opportunity to get on the side of the angels in Iran–if they explain their action in a compelling and convincing manner. 

Obama had been counseled that Ahmadinejad was not the appropriate person to approach, but rather Supreme Leader Aytalloah Ali Khamenei. Two secret messages from the President to Khamenei, however, were met with rude rejection. 

Increasingly, the real power in Iran has been assumed by the Revolutionary Guards who have taken over a wide range of industries and control of government ministries, courts and prisons to the point where the country is now more a military dictatorship than an Islamic theocracy. 

But Western intelligence has a detailed dossier on which companies and banks the Revolutionary Guards control and could take targeted financial measures to restrict their access to international markets, akin to what was done during the Second World War against the commercial activities of Hitler’s Waffen SS. 

And the message to the Iranian people, when such actions are imposed and communicated, should be broadcast not only on the Voice of America, the BBC World Service, the Deutsche Welle World, and Radio France Internationale, but also circulated on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, to which Iranian students pay the closest possible attention. 

The combination of hugely painful external and internal pressures might be sufficient to force the Iranian power structure to back down. 

Or, if sizeable numbers of soldiers and police become so disgusted they refuse orders to continue to crack student heads or even join in the demonstrations, what is now a protest movement could suddenly become a full-fledged revolution.

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