Is Time on the Iranians’ Side?
That’s the central claim of David Ignatius’s column in the Washington Post this morning:
So imagine that you are Qassem Soleimani, commander of a covert Iranian army deployed across the Middle East: You doubt the Bush administration would run the risk of a military strike against Iran, but you can’t be sure. You think America can’t afford to play chicken in an election year, but you can’t be certain of that, either. You think Iran is on a roll, but you know how quickly that advantage can be squandered by unwise choices. You know that Arabs, even in Iraq, have become peeved at what they see as meddling and overreaching by Tehran.
So you watch and wait. You give ground where necessary, but you prepare to strike back, as devastatingly as possible — and on your own terms, not those of your adversary.
Over the last five years events certainly seem to have been going their way. To its west Iraq, previously dominated by a regime with which the Iranians had fought a punishing war, is now led by a political party the Iranians were instrumental in creating. To its east the Taliban, with whom they’d been at daggers drawn (that’s the reason the Iranians were happy to cooperate with us against the Taliban), are no longer in control in Afghanistan. U. S. forces are largely occupied with keeping the fires in Iraq and Afghanistan tamped down to the extent that in the short term to deploy more troops anywhere we’d need to take them from one place or the other.
Rising oil prices have given the Iranian economy an enormous shot in the arm.
Iranian-supported Hezbollah influence in Lebanon is rising.
Whatever the Iranian’s nuclear weapons development program, their efforts at stymieing the IAEA in its attempts to monitor their nuclear development activities have been successful and that, combined with the recent NIE’s findings on the Iranians, makes further sanctions against the Iranians unlikely.
But is time really on their side? I don’t believe so.
Iraq is a thorny problem for the Iranians just as it is for us. Our best interests in Iraq lie in a strong central government or at least a solid, cohesive federation taking hold there. Iranian interests are for a weak federation or something just short of chaos. How likely is that to happen?
Sunni Arabs, correctly, don’t see such a weak federation as being in their interests. It leaves them largely without resources, unless the oil in Anbar province can be developed.
The Kurds in the north are being harried by the Turks on the west and the Iranians on the east (I suspect the Turks and Iranians would say that they’re pushing back). The harder the Turks and Iranians react, the better a strong Iraqi federation may look to the Kurds.
The Iranians’ greatest strength in Iraq has long been assumed to be Iraq’s southern Shi’ites but I think it’s possible to evaluate that relationship incorrectly for several reasons. First, Iraqi Shi’ism and Khomeinist Iranian Shi’ism are not identical, Iraqi Shi’ites, taking the most senior of all Shi’ite clerics, Ali Sistani’s lead, have avoided the direct participation of its clerics in government thus far.
Will the Maliki government (or its successor, if any) be a reliable puppet for the Iranians? An agenda of its own could be even more dangerous for the Iranians than it would be for us.
Iran’s economy is struggling. It is overly dependent on oil and the Iranians aren’t investing in the improvements to their production necessary to maximize yields, electing instead to spend the money on nuclear development and subsidies on the price of gasoline, especially vexing since Iran refines relatively little of its own gasoline.
Outside of oil Iran’s economy is nearly feudal, dominated by a handful of huge monopolistic companies. These monopolies are mostly untaxed and unregulated and are monstrously inefficient. They survive because the Iranian business climate, with its masses of red tape and endemic corruption, renders starting new businesses so difficult.
Two thirds of the country’s population is below the age of 25. Iran’s economy is incapable of producing jobs for them, the new Iranians don’t remember the Shah, and modern communications makes it difficult to close Iran off from the rest of the world. These young people know what people elsewhere in the world have that they don’t. Will Iran’s younger generation support the older generation’s Iranian Revolution indefinitely?
The imprudent and heedless behavior of the Bush Administration is frequently identified as a source of Iran’s ascendance over the last half dozen years but I think that the mentality that informed the Bush Administration, thinking only as far ahead as the next election cycle, is even more problematic. Rather than thinking in terms of weeks or months we should be thinking in terms of years and decades. I believe that time is on our side.