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.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Triumph says:

    I believe that time is on our side.

    Exactly–We just need to wait until 1 Feb. 2009 when President McCain starts bombing those mullah bastards back to the stone age.

    It will take about a week to deploy a few batallions in Herat, Farah, and Nimruz on the east flank and Basrah, Dialya and Wasit on the west.

    A week later, the two flanks will meet in Theran to flower-bearing Iranians and the joyous smiles of little children. As we take down the statue of the Ayatollah Khomeni that sits in the central square of Sadeghiyeh, American troops will spread good will and freedom to the newly emancipated Iranians.

  2. legion says:

    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…

    I think this, and the related point after it, are the real keys to the potential Iranian threat. Oil is getting expensive enough that we will soon reach a breaking point, and changes will have to be made forcibly. The question is all about timing – will the US economy be able to limp along until the other major buyers driving up oil demand right now (China, India, etc) feel the pain too, or will our economic collapse give them a few more years to binge before the ‘big purge’?

    I mean, it’s not like we can (as some neocons have proposed) just ‘go over there and make them pump more oil’, since that would disrupt supplies to those other oil-demanding countries. And China would respond in a hostile manner to such acts.

    It’s a game of economic chicken. And the oil companies are driving rentals.

  3. Outis says:

    Two thirds of the country’s population is below the age of 25.

    This appears to be incorrect. The CIA’s World Factbook gives the median age as 26.4 years old in 2006. The United Nations Statistics Division shows that approximately 53.7% of the population was below age 25 in 2005. UN Estimates for 2010 vary from ~47% to ~48% of the Iranian population being under age 25 at that time.

    Just for the sake of comparison, the July 2008 CIA estimate for the USA’s median age is 36.7 years old, and according to the UN Statistics Division ~33.9% of the USA’s population was under age 25 in 2005.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I used the same source you did, Outis. I eyeballed it and apparently I miscalculated. Thank you.

    The point I was making remains valid: most Iranians were born post-revolution.

  5. Jay Mulberry says:

    Dave, good work as always, but I hope time being on their side does not further encourage an attack on Iran.

    For as long as I can remember there has been very serious talk about Israeli or/and American plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

    Way back in 2003 or 2004, I asked a friend in the military policy world if the Israelis could do it. He answered, in a detailed and convincing way, that Israel had no planes capable of going to Iran an back without refueling. He was right at the time, but a month or so later I read of new, long-range aircraft being supplied to Israel by the U.S.

    Then, in 2006, there was Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker, *The Iran Plans*

    In 2007, Harry Reid was worried enough to say:

    “Much has been made about President Bush’s recent saber rattling toward Iran. This morning, I’d like to be clear: The president does not have the
    authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking Congressional authorization—a the current use of force resolution for Iraq
    does not give him such authorization.”

    In September, 2007, came Israel’s mysterious bombing of a “nuclear facility” in Syria, and about the same time an ex-CIA officer said, “I came back from a trip to Israel in November convinced that Israel would attack Iran.” The bombing is now thought to have been a “message to Tehran.”

    Then came the U.S. National Intelligence Report that Iran didn’t have an active nuclear weapons program. It didn’t slow things down, but put the Israelis in the front row for an attack and changed the American emphasis from the nuclear threat to Iranian aid to Iraqi insurgents.

    Next, Gen. Fallon was removed as Head of Central Command because he wanted to negotiate with Iran rather than bomb it. Now Gen. Petraeus’ nomination is up and he is malleable on the subject. (see

    A few weeks ago the IAEA report suggested there could very well be a nuclear weapons program in Iran despite the American findings and this put the US right up front again.

    And don’t forget Hillary Clinton’s threat to incinerate Iran. (AIPAC got its money’s worth on that one.)

    A couple of weeks ago there was the Jerusalem Post’s declaration that “Bush intends to attack Iran before the end of his term.”

    This week Olmert says:

    “The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to
    Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued
    pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating.”

    And yesterday Bush was being belligerent about it in Europe.

    Will Bush “attack Iraq before the end of his term”? Remember that in 2003 Iraq was supposed to be a stepping stone into Iran and Syria. According to that scenario we “should” have conquered Iran soon after our soldiers got their flowers and smiles from liberated Iraqis.

    So this is it; now or never. Time is on their side. Caution says “not now, hopefully never” but look who’s the decider.