November 28, 2004

Iranian Carrots, Iranian Sticks

Here are a few recent comments I've left elsewhere on the vast World Wide Web pertaining to Iran. They answer some common questions on Iran so I figure I'd expand on 'em a bit.

1) Does Iran want for Iraq what we want for Iraq? In the vague sense that neither of country wants widespread civil war, yes. Still, there are smaller, but crucial, differences. Tehran still remembers the Iraq-Iran war vividly, and its leadership would prefer not to have a strong Iraqi state next door. If I had to guess, I'd say that the present Iranian-backed disruptions in Iraq aim to keep the latter in a state of low-level instability. Nothing chaotic, mind you, but moderately unstable. An Iran analyst once put it to me nicely: the Iraqi Shi'i want a strong Iraq, Iran wants a weak Iraq, and the U.S. wants a pluralistic Iraq. Those are all very different things.

Keep in mind, too, that the mullahs in Tehran have very good reasons to worry about Ayatollah Ali Sistani's hawza in an-Najaf replacing that in Qum as the center of Shia scholarship and influence. The Najaf school is largely opposed to the Iranian idea of velayat i-faqih, or rule by clerics. And Sistani is definitely opposed.

It's worth remembering that Sistani is the undisputed leader of the Najaf hawza only because a car bomb killed the vastly more popular (though less learned) Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim last fall. Bakr al-Hakim was an avowed Khomeinist who might have taken the Najaf hawza in a more Iran-friendly direction. (Though even this is not assured—Bakr al-Hakim defied Tehran by backing the American invasion. Iranian politics tends to be one double-cross after another—it's why I hate following it.)

2) What sorts of incentives could the U.S. offer Iran? Obviously there are security guarantees and the like, but those often aren't worth all that much. Economic incentives may be the key here. Iran's in a world of shit economically -- facing a growing youth population, massive unemployment, etc. What will be interesting to see is whether the price of oil and natural gas rises enough to let Tehran ride out these bumps and quell discontent, or whether things get rough and the "pragmatic" wing of conservatives feel the need to start globalizing the economy.

By "pragmatic" conservatives I mean people like former president Akbar Hasemi Rasfanjani. No mistake: the man's a thug at home, advocates the destruction of Israel abroad, and is dead-set on acquiring nukes. But he also understands economic reality, and unlike the neoconservatives in the "Islamic Iran Developers" council, he's not averse to privatization, foreign investment, and all that.

Anyways, if Rasfanjani's sort ever won out -- though it's far from certain it could -- then the U.S. can certainly offer a whole bunch of incentives (WTO entry, for example) that Iran would be loath to break by retaliating. This sort of economic integration, I think, is the only way you get a stable denouement with the Islamic Republic. It's just not as easy as it sounds. Nor is it clear that Bush would ever take this route.

3) What happens if Iran goes nuclear? Dunno. I've written up a brief guess as to why it might not be such a bad thing below. But it's worth noting that while Pakistan's nuclear program helped to "stabilize" that situation, it also brought about AQ Khan and a whole new generation of proliferation nightmares. Same could go for Iran.
-- Brad Plumer 8:23 PM || ||