Let’s Be Realistic About Iran

Too often our political dialogue devolves into a Manichean division of extremes. Yet the world and its various issues and conflicts are often much more nuanced and complicated than all that, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

Which brings me to Charles Fisher’s post from last week, “The Case Against Iran.” While there was much I agreed with in this article, there are also many key things that Fisher just gets wrong.

Take for instance the idea that “war between Iran and Israel is nothing but inevitable.” This has been a frequent and frantic prediction for years. That is not to say war may not happen, just that we should take these assertive, clairvoyant claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nothing is set in stone. There are various factors that could deescalate the conflict from either side (a change in Israeli leadership, U.S. pressure on Israel, and internal Iranian unrest against the regime— just to name a few).

Also, the idea that the “U.S. would extend its military hand in aid of Israel” is a bit presumptuous as well. For a country that just got done with two long, expensive (in lives and money) occupations of Muslim-dominant countries, hopping right into another such conflict, with ground forces and occupation included, seems ludicrous. The likelihood that the American political leadership or the general populace would be gung-ho for such a venture, even if Mitt Romney were in the White House, seems slim.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, and his underlings may be tyrannical, ruthless theocrats but they still make decisions based on their country’s national interest rather than on any suicidal apocalyptic embrace of nuclear annihilation

However, the part of Fisher’s post that is most off-base is the picture he paints of the Iranian regime and the assumption that the only available response to it be military.

Yes, the Iranian regime is a brutal, theocratic bunch from whom nuclear weaponry would be best kept away. And yes, Iran extends a pernicious influence around the region; although, for accuracy sake, Fisher’s claims that Iran is “supporting insurgencies in Iraq” are a bit dated. The Shia insurgency has largely died down, in part because of the diverse religious group’s overall dominance of the state over the Kurdish and Sunni Arab factions and the absence of a large-scale U.S. military presence.

It could actually be argued that Iran is now working as a force of stability in Iraq, providing resources and money not only for the country’s Shias but for other parties as well (for instance providing parts of the autonomous Kurdish region with electricity). The reason for this is simple: at this point in time Iraq’s stability is in Iran’s national interest.

This is not to ignore negative Iranian meddling in other areas, like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. Iran also possesses a deep history of international terrorism, most recently with speculation about its role in a suicide bombing in Bulgaria.

Yet despite all these heinous deeds the idea that the Iranian regime comprises a group of apocalyptic zealots ready to sacrifice themselves and their populace in a nuclear armageddon is far from accurate.

As Fisher’s own article attests (with the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani), Iran, like any country focused on following its national interest, is susceptible to international pressure. The regime retains a well-documented history of working within the international framework (even with the U.S.) when it suits their interests and spurring that same framework when it does not. Even Iran’s recent Syria-focused international meeting, as unfruitfull as this gathering may turn out, demonstrates the regime’s concern with its international image. These theocrats practice more realpolitik than religious nihilism on the foreign stage.

Therefore, a policy of containment and using age-old foreign policy “sticks” like sanctions is more than effective in preventing the regime from obtaining nuclear weapons in the long run. There exists no need to go rushing towards bombing, invasion and occupation. Such a path remains pure, hysterical folly.

Now, it is true that the American left includes factions that stand apologetic and impotent in the face of foreign tyranny and extremism, preferring the comfort of a simplified, robotic anti-Americanism to a nuanced thought on individual issues. However, to broadly state that “the American left stand in opposition to regime change in Iran” is simply inaccurate. Many stand in support of regime change in Iran, but the question is: by what means? And there are numerous answers to that question.

As the contrast of the Arab Spring with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars evinces, invasion and occupation are more often than not the least desirable or prudent of options.