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Iran Spits Nails As Sanctions Bite

Iran is rolling out one defiant step after another these days.  In recent days it has begun ten days of naval games in the Straits of Hormuz while warning that it would close those straits to oil shipments if it is attacked.  It has warned Turkey that, if attacked, it will respond by attacking NATO facilities on Turkish soil.  It has announced the successful construction of its first nuclear fuel rod.  It has tested a medium range missile. The recent upsurge in sectarian violence and polarization in Iraq seems to reflect in part Iranian efforts to deepen relations with militant Shiites next door.

Iran also seems to be stepping up its efforts to forge relationships with some Latin American countries whose leaders are not overly fond of the United States. The great A-jad has a four country tour planned this month as Iran looks to build economic and security relationships that might help it evade sanctions.

Busy, busy, busy.

But this looks like the defiance of a cornered animal rather than the insolence of a rising power.  Iran’s chief regional ally, Syria, continues to disintegrate. Hamas, the radical Palestinian group whose previous links with Iran gave the unpopular Shiite Persians greater standing in the mostly Sunni Arab world, is shifting from a Syria-Iran alliance toward one with Turkey and possibly Egypt.  The rial continues to fall as sanctions hit the weak economy.  The recent decision to stop fuel subsidies will make the government less popular at a time of great stress. As protests sweep Russia, Putin seems to be shifting toward a more cautious foreign policy, one that offers little comfort to Iran. China, too, is unlikely to offer anything more than a bit of political cover at the UN.

The wisest course for the US would appear to be steady as we go: continue ratcheting up sanctions, watch for danger signs in Iranian-Latin dealings, strengthen the coalition, increase  the direct pressure on Tehran and press for the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria.

Recent headline arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not to mention a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jordan this week, suggest that the US and its allies have something like this in mind.  It would be fatuous and naive to suppose that sanctions will inevitably change Tehran’s nuclear calculation or lead it to a more realistic regional policy; but it would be foolish not to recognize that the situation keeps moving in our favor.

Push, watch, wait, prepare: those are the four things the US needs to do in 2012. Tehran is off balance and flailing; the Supreme Leader is not as happy with President A-jad as he once was and the fissures in the Iranian ruling elite seem to be widening.

The US goal of stopping the Iranian nuclear program without war remains a stretch, but the US position continues to improve while Iran’s options narrow.

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  • bob sykes

    You are assuming, of course, that the mindset of the Iranians is not that of the Japanese in 1941. Or, for that matter, the Germans in 1914 and again in 1939. In each case, one of the reasons for going to war was that time was on the side of the enemy, and it was now or never to save the Fatherland.

    No doubt we would win in the long run, but early on it might go badly for us. Stock market crash?

    Our elites are ignorant in the extreme, and know no history, so they will force an explosion and then be astonished.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    No matter how my nationalistic tendencies cry out for an overwhelming show of force to break it and not buy it in Iran, the green movement led me to agree with your analysis and opinion Prof. Mead.

    I’ve been reading the situation through various headlines and see it much as you do, but I think the Iranians will likely push things far enough that a response will be required, which is what they want. They require it as justification to their populace.

    The problem is just that. We can’t ignore every provacation, there are some trigger lines. And the Iranians are very good at not respecting the enemies outrage at certain acts. Even back to Genghis Khan.

    The plot on the Saudi ambassador, the Israeli belligerence, the Libyan overthrow when oil was threatened, even the Euros will jump when you threaten them like that.

    Our major weakness to me is our pourous southern border, and the absolute disaster of mexico, combined with the decades long if not longer friendship in Latin American countries by Iran make me more than a little nervous that the predator drones and legal “cover” (I just don’t care how legal it is, this NDAA makes me really nervous in the hands of this gang, and any gang after.) have dual uses.

    Most video games acknowledge the reality that a lot of us feel war is coming to our shores. I think Iran or China will be the first to do it in a meaningful way.

    There is too much chaos and plenty of people who don’t let a crisis go to waste.

  • rkka

    “‘A peaceful Iranian nuclear program—as Tehran contends that its program is—has broad and strong support among Iranians. Any feasible change in Iranian policies that could be the basis of a new understanding with the United States and the West would include a continuing Iranian nuclear program, very likely including the enrichment of uranium by Iran. The substance of any such understanding would involve technical details about inspections and safeguards. Such details would need to be negotiated. Feasible arrangements that would provide the minimum assurances to both sides could be negotiated, but they are unexplored. They remain unexplored because the United States has abandoned negotiations and has made its policy toward Iran solely one of pressure and sanctions.”

    “Some in this country—including some who have been most responsible for stoking the atmosphere just described—probably do not want sanctions to work. They instead see them as a necessary preliminary to the war that they really want. They may get their way, even without a deliberate decision in either Washington or Tehran to start a war. In response to the most recent escalation of sanctions, which threatens to have material effects on Iranian oil exports (if they don’t just have the counterproductive effect of raising the price of oil and boosting Iranian revenues), we hear, unsurprisingly, threatening Iranian talk about closing the Strait of Hormuz to all exports. The situation is ripe for the kind of incident that can rapidly escalate out of control and become a highly destructive conflagration.”

    http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/keeping-iran-saying-yes-6328?page=1

    Amd one more point. The Iranian leadership have seen from Qadaffi’s example what happens to those who attempt to appease the West by surrendering to Western demands and giving up their nuke program.

    The West attacks them anyway.

  • http://pubsecrets.wordpress.com Phineas

    A little more open support for the Green Movement and the Iranian democracy movement would be nice, rather than the pusillanimous silence out of DC.

  • Robert Hanson

    “They remain unexplored because the United States has abandoned negotiations”.

    Which part of “there is no point in negotiating with a tyrannical dictatorship” don’t you understand? Unless you are a paid lobbyist for the Iranian Mullahs….

    Remembering that they are in a declared state of war with US since the time of Carter, have backed terrorist attacks on US, from the Marine barracks under Reagan thru today in Iraq, have an official policy of “Death to America”, and finally have been caught lying about their bomb program numerous times….

    Why in the world would we try to negotiate anything with them? You need to study your history. Start with Chamberlain and Hitler, then go on to the meetings the US had with Japanese officials that ended a mere half hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sheesh…..

  • Richard Aubrey

    WRT the Germans in 14 and 39 and the Japanese in 41 noting the window of opportunity was closing: It accepts the fact that they had war in mind and facts on the ground accelerated their move. There is no evidence that the facts on the ground caused them to think of going to war in the absent of any motivations to do so first.

    It would be silly to think the Iranian government thinks the way we do, would respond to incentives (positive or negative), would see a logical procession of events, in the way we do. They have a different world view, come from a different culture, care considerably less for casualties among their own–so presuming “they’d never do that, it would get ten million Iranians killed” is missing a point or two.
    Before WW II, both the Germans and the Japanese put a great deal of confidence in the presumed superiority of their soldiers over the weak and decadent societies of the west. It was crazy. But it was, possibly, all they had going for them after objectively looking at the facts. Whatever, it convinced them they had a pretty good shot. Convincing them otherwise was expensive.
    This is all going to get very expensive, but the idea that there’s much we can do about it besides hope they collapse first is not worth much time.

  • anon

    bs wrote:

    “You are assuming, of course, that the mindset of the Iranians is not that of the Japanese in 1941. Or, for that matter, the Germans in 1914 and again in 1939.”

    Oh please give it a break. Both Germany and Japan had victorious military traditions, and the Military to back it up, in 1914, 1939 and 1941.

    Iran battled Iraq to a draw in the 1980’s. Does THAT seem like a victorious military tradition coupled with a superb military to YOU?

    Iran wishes to make the west in general, and the US in particular out to be ‘paper tigers’.

    Only the extremely naive – the MSM, academia
    the professional Lef – take that seriously. But for ideological reasons they must do so, even if reality points to something entirely different.

    As usual, Professor Mead is 100% correct in his analysis. If you wish to disagree, start your own blog.

  • Taco Charlie

    They are begging for a good old fashioned nuke-job, eh?

  • teapartydoc

    During my residency back in the 1980’s during the time of the Iran-Iraq war we were visited by a high-ranking surgical sub-specialist who showed us photographic evidence of his work in the war as well as some of his research. He was operating at times out of a hospital near the war-front that was completely underground. He showed us slides of the entrance and what was underneath it. It was rather astounding. If they have put anything like the kind of effort into building their nuclear facilities like they did this field hospital, I suspect that they are much more hardened than many suspect.

  • http://www.miserabledonuts.blogspot.com LTC John

    I’d be real careful drawing any paralells with Germany or Japan – the Persian ruling class is hated (and being resisted to some extent) by a majority of its own citizenry, and no nationalist rallying cry or “incident” will suddenly make people love the mullahs and the IRGC. No crowds of delirously happy people cheering war like August 1914 would be found in Tehran or Isfhan, etc.

  • Mormon Socialist

    Richard Aubrey: I’m sorry, but I find your comments about Iranian politics perplexing –

    “It would be silly to think the Iranian government thinks the way we do … They have a different world view, come from a different culture”

    This is sometimes termed the “orientalist” view – about the inscrutable, unknowable other. The problem is, it’s poppycock.

    Even if we ascribe some sort of incomprehensible, alien thinking to the Iranians (something that is ridiculous, given the number of commentators and experts who understand Iranian behaviour pretty well – like John Limbert, Gary Sick and Juan Cole), this entirely misses the point about what drives the Iranian leadership (which by now means largely the IRGC).

    And that is power. How to grab it, and how to keep what you’ve already got. And how to survive. In other words, the same impulses that drive every other politician and dictator. They are willing to send out young men to fight and die for them. But they are not willing to risk all that they have themselves. Religion has nothing to do with it. Only power.

    The best tool the Iranian regime has for maintaining power is to focus all struggles and fears outwards – towards a hostile US and West that is “out to get us”. The worst thing the West can do is to keep playing that role – the best thing to do would be to ratchet down sanctions and threats, but contain the regime’s mischief abroad.

    That would focus the struggles inwards, and would enable history to take its course. Without a “Great Satan” to point to, Iran’s oppressors have nothing to prop themselves up.

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