What’s the matter with Iran?
Let me rephrase that: What, exactly, is the Bush administration’s problem with Iran? What are the administration’s grievances and what are the likely remedies?
As usual, the answers may depend on a prior question: who is running this show?
I’m far from convinced that the so-called “neoconservatives” are steering the ship of state. But let’s map their grievances and remedies, just in case.
Norman Podhoretz recently noted,
[A]s it happens, there is a split among neoconservatives on the desirability of military action against Iran. For reasons of their own, some–including Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute… [oppose] such a course…
Where Iran is concerned, those neoconservatives who oppose military action, and detect no possibility of even relatively free elections there, have instead placed their hopes in an internal insurrection that would topple the mullocracy and replace it with a democratic regime. They also keep insisting that the failure of this long-predicted insurrection to materialize is largely the fault of the Bush administration, whose own failure to do everything in its power to help the democratic opposition is in their eyes a blatant betrayal of the Bush Doctrine.
On this account, Richard Perle, one of the most influential of the neoconservatives, is furious with the president (in whose administration he formerly served as chairman of the Defense Policy Board). “Why Did Bush Blink on Iran? (Ask Condi)” reads the headline of a piece he recently published in the Washington Post. Here Mr. Perle charges that Mr. Bush has “chosen to beat . . . an ignominious retreat” by yielding to the State Department’s wish “to join talks with Iran on its nuclear program.” In thereby betraying the promises of his own doctrine, Mr. Perle adds, the president has crushed the hopes that his “soaring speeches” had once aroused in the young democratic dissidents of Iran.
Am I the only one who thinks Podhoretz is distancing himself from the “internal insurrection” camp? Something about how they “keep insisting” on the same thing they have “long-predicted,” notwithstanding its “failure” to materialize. Wouldn’t Podhoretz find less dismissive ways of writing this sentence if he thought an internal insurrection was likely?
Later in his essay, Podhoretz returns to the issue of Iran in order to respond to Perle’s charge that Bush is now appeasing the regime through diplomacy, but he never responds to the charge that an internal insurrection might be in the offing if only the Bush administration would embrace Iranian dissidents.
Podhoretz and his son-in-law, White House NSC staffer Elliott Abrams, are likely on the same page in this regard.
Note, for example, the public disappointment expressed by the “democratic dissidents” who recently attended a White House confab on Iran, co-hosted by Abrams and the State Department’s Nicholas Burns.
There was virtually no discussion of… US plans to give millions of dollars to Iranian pro-democracy activists. Instead the agenda was dominated by Iran’s nuclear programme, and the US diplomatic approach at the United Nations to stop it. “They are obsessed with the nuclear issue,” commented one Iranian.
Either Abrams was biting very hard on his tongue during this meeting–subordinating himself to Burns without a public fight–or Abrams and Burns agree that the regime change/popular insurrection idea is dead.
Regarding the confrontation over Iranian nukes, Podhoretz denies that Bush has blinked.
To me (pace Richard Perle), it has seemed more likely that he has once again been walking the last diplomatic mile… The purpose… is… to show that the only alternative… is military action.
Robert Kagan–a neoconservative who has not given up on Mr. Bush–puts this well in describing the negotiations as “giving futility its chance.”… [O]nce having played out the diplomatic string, Mr. Bush will be in a strong political position to say, along with Senator John McCain, that the only thing worse than bombing Iran would be allowing Iran to build a nuclear bomb–and not just to endorse that assessment but to act on it.
Needless to say, a ritualized walk down the diplomatic path will not necessarily put the Bush administration in a “strong political position” internationally. It did not do so in the case of Iraq. And, if Chirac has anything to say about it, the same will hold true in the case of Iran.
The emphasis on nukes, rather than internal insurrection, may be the most instructive element here.
The neoconservative split over Iran hinges on divergent priorities with the so-called “neoconservative” movement.
There is a neoconservative camp–call them “Unipolarists” after Charles Krauthammer’s famous 1990 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Unipolar Moment“–for whom battles with countries like Iraq and Iran are most important for the way in which they project American power around the world. As such, the real targets are not only the oil-rich states and Arab street. Unipolarists also favor massive demonstrations of American power and resolve as a shot across the bow of potential “Great Power” rivals including France, Russia, and especially China.
Unipolarists include Krauthammer, but also William Kristol. Indeed, the unipolarist vision was a primary inspiration for Kristol’s “Project for A New American Century.”
It must also be said–although it is not said often enough–that the patron saint of unipolarists is Senator John McCain, as much as it is George W. Bush. Back in 2003, the Washington Post called Kristol a “champion of John McCain during the 2000 primaries.”
Both Kristol and McCain have, at various times, criticized Rumsfeld for favoring “military transformation” (and force protection?) over “boots on the ground.” Boots on the ground are presumably essential for a “New American Century.”
For Unipolarists, military action in Iran is urgent–even if highly risky–because the US cannot possibly afford to back down from any challenge if it has any chance of beating back Great Power antagonists. Chinese and Russian engagement with Iran actually precludes the possibility of a US compromise with the Iranian regime. Even if Unipolarists might have wanted to find a way of engaging Iran at some point during the 1990s, Chinese and Russian efforts to curry favor with the Iranian regime represent an implicit challenge to US power so long as US policy was, for better or worse, isolation of the regime.
The “neo-conservatives” I identify as Right Zionists have a somewhat different profile than the Unipolarists. As I explained in my profile of Right Zionists, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq,” this faction of the neo-conservative movement is primarily focused on the strategic position of Israel within the Middle East.
Needless to say, most Unipolarists are also Zionists. But there is a difference in emphasis between the two camps and this difference helps explain the split regarding Iran.
At the heart of Right Zionist interest in Iran is the so-called “Doctrine of the Periphery” whereby Israel seeks to build regional alliances by promoting and exploiting divisions between hegemonic Sunni Arab nationalist rulers and various peripheral populations–Persians, Turks, Kurds, etc. who might be willing to collude with Israel against a common enemy.
Iran under the Shah figured prominently in this scenario and the fall of the Shah represented a crisis for the Doctrine of the Periphery. Israel lost an ally in the Shah, but whatever the tensions between “official Iran” of the Shiite revolution and Israel, Right Zionists have never renounced the hope of restoring an alliance with “eternal Iran.”
For Right Zionists, the possibility of Arab-Persian rivalry for control of the Gulf makes Iran and indispensible ally.
A populist insurrection in Iran offers the prospect–for Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen at AEI–of restoring a powerful (even nuclear) US- and Israel-aligned Iran to its proper place in the Gulf: as a rival to Saudi Arabia’s dominance of the Gulf.
The Neo-conservative Split on Iran
At present, Unipolarists have essentially accepted that Iran is an enemy of the US (and Israel) and seek to beat the regime into submission–either through the use of military force or threats of the use of military force.
Right Zionists, however, accept that Iran is currently an enemy of Israel. Unlike those who want to beat Iran and vanquish the enemy, Right Zionists need to win “eternal” Iran as an ally.
A weak, isolated Iran may be the endgame for Unipolarists–and Right Arabists.
Not so for Right Zionists.
As it happens, the key split in the Bush administration right now is probably between Unipolarists bent on military confrontation and Right Arabists committed to diplomatic containment of a relatively weak revolutionary regime.
For now, the Right Zionists–and their dreams of a populist, pro-“Western” insurrection–appear to be out of the running.