In the ever-dysfunctional menage a trois between Iran, Israel, and the United States, it is difficult to know when to be really worried and when to be ‘just’ concerned. In many respects, over the last six months things have gone from bad to worse in all three countries. Sadly, the three nations have recently shared many ugly and politically worrisome trends, and it remains a depressing truth that pessimism about developments in the Middle East is the safest bet of all.
In the United States, election hysteria has been all consuming, sidelining rational thinking and thoughtful strategy towards Iran. Meanwhile, in Iran, new sanctions have made things worse for the average citizen while the effects of the disputed 2009 Presidential election continue to play out in the run up towards the country’s March 2012 majlis (parliamentary) elections. In Israel, the Prime Minister impatiently awaits the enactment of new U.S. and European sanctions against Iran before predictably announcing that they “might” not be enough and that more must be done or else. Once closely guarded discussions within Israel’s so called “kitchen” cabinet and security establishment have transformed into a public war of debates and counter debates about whether it is worse to go to war with Iran or to allow the Islamic Republic to develop a nuclear bomb. In the mean time, lawmakers and politicians in Israel are expressing greater intolerance for dissent in general and in their relations with the Palestinians in particular.
In this atmosphere of doom and hysteria, where so-called “viable” and “reasonable” policy options towards Iran are limited to outright military confrontation or economic and other types of pressure, very little thought has been given to the proverbial “day after”. Since this, longer time frame is not kept in mind, some of the most destructive and bizarre policy options are entertained without consideration to their consequences.
It is after all the basic lesson of any war or revolution: one side may win a battle or overrun a state but the real winner is the one who plans and manages in advance for the day after. Iran’s 1979 revolution is a case in point. Many of the groups and organizations involved in mobilizing to depose the Shah believed their revolutionary credentials entitled them to govern after the revolution ended. Groups like Tudeh (the main Communist party), the liberals, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq believed that those ‘mullahs’ with their quaint notions about the relevance of religion in the 20th century would go back to the theology seminar and leave day-to-day politics to the secularists. As it turned out, to varying degrees, these groups had both underestimated the Islamists and their leader Ayatollah Khomeini and forgotten that those with the wherewithal to plan prudently for the future (including for the use of Kalashnikovs if necessary) have the best chance not only of winning the battle (ousting Iran’s Pahlavi rulers) but also of winning the war (control over the Iranian state). By disregarding these lessons, these groups and many ordinary Iranians paid dearly in blood and hardship.
In the West, many policy makers answer the somewhat despairing question ‘what to do about Iran’ in terms of the false dichotomy of “war v. sanctions”, without thinking of the mid/long-term consequences. Economic war, in the form of sanctions, may push the Islamic Republic to make some kind of compromise on the nuclear issue. But, with sanctions often easier to implement than remove, the question remains as to whether these compromises would be sufficient for the United States and the EU. With this in mind there is little incentive for Tehran to compromise in the first place. By contrast the sanctions against Iran seem more likely to fit the Iraq scenario. Under this scheme, which involves permanent and crippling sanctions, the consequences to Iranian society will be severe. The sanctions will impoverish the middle and working classes and generally degrade social institutions. As in Iraq, those groups and institutions vital for regime survival will be the least impacted by the sanctions program.
For armchair revolutionaries, this kind of generalized social despair is desirable in its potential to unleash a popular uprising. These theorists forget, however, that there is little historical evidence supporting this outcome. They have also given little thought to who will lead the country the day after. Iran’s amorphous Green movement survived as long as it did because it did/could not create a hierarchical nation-wide organizational structure. While this may be desirable or unavoidable during the early stages of a revolution in a highly repressive society, establishing an organizational framework is crucial to governing any country, particularly during the chaos of a revolution and the immediate post-conflict phase. As we know, amalgamated opposition groups (whatever their compositions) rarely agree on much other than eliminating the old order. Ancién regimes do not typically leave without a fight and once they have been eliminated, intrigues and competition over resources begin, and the importance of having, and being able to use, an armed force grows. In order to control the state, its monopoly of violence must be re-established, something that itself usually requires the use of some violence. While some of these problems may find organic solutions, placing one’s hope on “things working themselves out” would be reckless to say the least. In Iran, it is difficult to point to a group or leader who can shoulder these burdens, a tall order that is further complicated by the West’s withering sanctions program.
The war scenario suffers from similar problems. There is confusion over the aims of this strategy and even less thought given to the kind of outcomes these goals would have. Talk of targeted strikes is hopelessly disingenuous, resting on the fallacious hope that Tehran’s rulers would view an armed attack on the country as limited to the nuclear program, and not as a first step toward regime change. In reality, it is difficult to understand how the Iranian regime could be measured and conservative about a foreign military strike on its soil, no matter how limited in scope. Nor would it be incorrect for the Iranians to treat such an attack as a veiled attempt at regime change, regardless of Washington’s shrill protestations to the contrary.
A war primarily fought from the skies would be one in which the United States would quickly and easily establish its supremacy. Since there is a suspicion that the location of some of Iran’s nuclear facilities are unknown and others are buried deep under ground, an attack that only targeted nuclear site would be little more than a temporary setback, providing Iran with an unassailable justification to actually develop a nuclear weapon. Aware of this likely outcome, the United States (and/or Israeli) would probably strike Iran’s technological and industrial infrastructure in order to incapacitate Tehran’s ability to govern the country and restart the nuclear program. Thus, the line between destroying the nuclear program and toppling the regime is a fine one, and thinning by the day
While a military attack may inspire the Iranian population to rise up against the regime, the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) is well equipped to crush such an uprising, whether non-violent or armed. In 2005, several years after the spectacular defeat of Iraqi army by the United States in 2003, the IRGC changed its military doctrine and opted for asymmetrical warfare and a more decentralized command structure. As a result the Guards are unlikely to stand and fall with the central leadership in Tehran. Moreover, there is no indigenous armed group that on its own could pose a threat to the IRGC (perhaps under a Libya scenario, U.S. military aid would make the odds more favorable). Even if the Islamic Republic’s political and military apparatus implode, the question of who will pick up the pieces still looms large. It could very well be that the United States, for domestic reasons, will consider its mission accomplished simply with the demise of the Islamic Republic. For those living in Iran and in neighboring countries, however, a power vacuum in Iran would create a wave of chaos and instability stretching from Afghanistan in the east to Iraq in the west.
Wars are by definition messy affairs. Often the human toll in deaths, misery and trauma, and the war’s long term social repercussions are underestimated. A crippled, post-war Iran, made up of different political groups, (supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic), in a country with fissures partly understood in ethnic and religious terms, is a recipe for civil war. Iraq is the historical proof of such an outcome, one which Western war-hawks studiously avoid thinking about and publicly addressing.