Commentary

A Reality Check on Iran

The world has over the past months witnessed one of the periodic upsurges of speculation in the ongoing drama over whether the United States will attack Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Tehran test-fired some of its long-range ballistic missiles last week to signal that it is taking the threat of an attack by Israel or the US seriously. Subsequently, John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, saying, “We should be intensively considering what cooperation the US will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran. We will be blamed for the strike anyway, and certainly feel whatever negative consequences result, so there is compelling logic to make it as successful as possible.”

Yet, ironically, the George W Bush administration, is, at least for the moment, ignoring the calls of the neo-conservatives, and is pushing forward with some of the highest-level diplomacy with Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Bush is sending Under Secretary of State William Burns, third in line at the State Department, to talks this weekend aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He is traveling to Geneva with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to talk to Iran’s main nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. The move is reportedly fully supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The initiative includes plans by the US to post diplomats in Tehran for the first time since the revolution in the form of a US Interests Section - a move halfway to setting up an embassy, subject to approval by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Iran already has such a section based in Washington.

For those hardliners who want to overthrow the Iranian government, not cooperate with it, these are unsettling moves. And a new monograph by the RAND Corporation, a prominent US think-tank which has long produced reports on various national security issues for the US Air Force, will likely only worsen their mood.

The monograph, titled “Iran’s Political, Demographic, and Economic Vulnerabilities”, finds that despite the theocratic basis of its state, Iran is one of the more democratic countries in the Middle East. And despite these authoritarian characteristics, most Iranians perceive the regime as legitimate. Although many Iranians are dissatisfied with the authoritarianism of the regime, few have been willing or prepared to act outside the electoral process. It notes, “The regime appears to be under no imminent danger of collapse or coup.”

Given the July 7 New Yorker article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that late last year the US Congress agreed to a request from Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, to destabilize its leadership, including support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Balochi groups and other dissident organizations, this will come as bad news.

Indeed, the report states, “Ethnic cleavages persist in Iran but do not provide an easy means of swaying Iran’s leadership. Although Persians, the dominant group, account for only half the population, Iranian governments have been relatively successful in inculcating an Iranian identity into citizens from most other ethnic groups by emphasizing Shi’ism as a unifying force and fostering Iranian nationalism.”

This kind of reality-based truth telling is a refreshing, if rare, change from what one normally sees in reports by government contractors. In a phone conversation, Gary Sick, who was on the staff of the National Security Council under presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Persian Gulf affairs from 1976 to 1981, and is now the executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project at Columbia University, said, “I was surprised also; it doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing they normally tell the AF [air force]. Basically, the underlying theory of what they are proposing is that Iran needs to be brought into the international community.”

Sick added, “Dissident elements are not a threat to Iran. It is not an effective strategy to try and overthrow the regime. It would require massive resources and a long, long time. This is a 2,500-year-old entity. Most tribes identify themselves as Iranian first; they are looking for more respect, not to overthrow the government.”

This is not to say Iran doesn’t have vulnerabilities. A more pressing problem for the Iranian government is how to satisfy expectations for higher quality government services and lower-cost housing for Iranians living in urban areas. Iranians endure some of the highest urban housing costs relative to incomes in the world, making housing one of Iran’s most pressing social problems.

The Iranian government also faces great pressure to generate employment for the children of the 1980s population boom. The number of young people entering the labor market has risen by four-fifths over the past two decades and is at an all-time high.

But for neo-conservatives, the most alarming section of the RAND report is that discussing the likely domestic consequences of US military actions against Iran if Iran’s facilities were to be bombed - public support for any retaliation its government took would likely be widespread.

And at current oil prices, an attack would be unlikely to stop the Iranian nuclear program. The government would be able to finance the reconstruction of the facility and continue the current program without major budgetary consequences.

The RAND report takes issue with the conservative position that an attack would lead to Ahmadinejad’s comeuppance. It says, “In our view, a more likely response would be a strong push to retaliate. Critics of such a policy would likely choose to keep silent.”

According to Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, DC, “What it highlights is that it indicates the problem with US pressure, it is counterproductive.”

According to Logan, the longer-term concerns Iran faces - economic, political and demographic - are serious. “The one thing that will increase their [rulers’] legitimacy is that if they are seen as the vanguard of resistance to the great Satan.”

The report also found that with respect to blockading Iranian oil exports, this would probably do more to solidify public support for the regime than weaken it. It noted that during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, living standards plummeted. Yet opposition to the war was muted because most Iranians rallied around the flag.

A sharp rise in the price of oil on the world market because of a massive disruption of oil exports from the Persian Gulf would probably push the world economy into recession.

All told, the RAND monograph and the trip by Burns confirm what Sick wrote this week: “In other words, Bolton, as someone whose policies (in my view) are certifiably insane, recognizes real pragmatism and moderation in Washington when he sees it. And he does not like what he sees in this lame-duck administration.”

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, and a US Navy veteran.