February 26, 2005

"Taking On Tehran"

I have a great deal of respect for Iran analyst Ray Takeyh. He's extremely smart, keeps up-to-date on just about everything going on in Iran, and he's always been helpful whenever I've called to ask for his expertise on this or that. But that aside, it's hard to deny that he's a good deal more sanguine about some of Iran's hardline leadership than most people. So I'd take some of the analysis in his big new Foreign Affairs piece, coauthored with Ken Pollack, with a tiny grain of salt. Are there really as many Iranian pragmatist willing to cut a deal with the U.S. as the authors think?

For instance, they quote defense minister Ali Shamkhani as saying that "nuclear weapons will turn us [i.e. Iran] into a threat to others that could be exploited in a dangerous way to harm our relations with the countries of the region." Fine, he sounds wonderful, but he also seems like something of a bit player here—many analysts think deputy defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, the former Qods force commander with links to al Qaeda, really has the ear of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. And hey, let's say Shamkhani's not as irrelevant as rumored; you can find just as many quotes in which he's playing the part of bellicose warmonger, like the time he threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces in Iraq. There's so much posturing and charade among Iranian leaders, they say so many different things, that it's easy to cherry-pick quotes and come up with the narrative you want. As I say, I think Takeyh does great work, and he certainly could be right, but Iranian politics are so complex and rife with ambiguity, and it's easy simply to see what you want to see.

Personally I'm a lot more skeptical about the influence of the "pragmatists" in Tehran—though I can't read Persian and I've never been to Iran, so take this with massive salt truck dumps. But the really crucial point is this: Even if you're like me and think Iran is dominated by hardliners and are skeptical that engagement will work, the Pollack/Takeyh engagement approach still seems like precisely the best option. What does it hurt to try? Why wouldn't you try? At best, it succeeds, Iran disarms its nuclear program and starts focusing on economic development, and we've bribed off some evil dudes but also achieved our goals. Happy days. At worst, we find out for sure that negotiating won't work. But there's no downside to engagement—that the White House seems to be rejecting this path purely for moral reasons is actually crazy. I don't know any other way of putting it.

MORE: Greg Djerejian thinks Bush grasps all this. Eh, I'll believe it when I see any deviation from the do-nothing policy of the last two years. Also, from an economic standpoint, I wonder how appealing the carrot of U.S. foreign investment in Iran really is. If I'm reading Brad Setser correctly, most of this investment would be financed by Chinese and East Asian central banks. But China could just as easily start saving less and investing directly in Iran (say, in its oil infrastructure). Who needs the U.S.?
-- Brad Plumer 3:00 AM || ||