The Iranian Gambit

Austin Bay has an excellent piece that offers much of the context and background for the taking of 15 British sailors as hostages by Iran. The Iranians are clearly trying to rattle the saber, but Bay persuasively argues that it isn’t a true show of strength:

Late spring 2007 finds the Iranian “revolutionary government” facing an extraordinary range of internal and external problems.

There’s a war inside Iran — several wars, actually. Minority Baluchis, Azeris, Kurds and Arabs are restive.

The mullah’s core problem is the Iranian people. Under-30 Iranians have had it with the mullahs’ failed revolution.

A recent visitor to Iran described a twenty-fold increase in “the standard bribe” Tehran bureaucrats demand for a building permit. Call it indicative rumor, supporting the assertion that Iranians now believe their current government is more corrupt than the Shah’s. Moreover, Iranians are aware of Iraq’s political progress. There’s a war in Iraq, yes, but also an emerging Arab democracy — and that irritates Iranians who regard themselves as being more sophisticated than Arabs. The latest U.N. sanctions resolution increases political and economic pressure. It also freezes the economic assets of 28 people and organizations — so the sanctions are tailored to hit specific Iranian actors (bad actors). The resolution passed unanimously, meaning the mullahs cannot count on China and Russia.

Confronting these problems, Iran’s Islamist hardliners take Western hostages.

Isolation may be enough to get the regime in Tehran to back off or end up provoking regime change within Iran. If that were all that were involved, that would be the right strategy. The problem is that Iran is pursuing and may be perilously close to obtaining a working nuclear weapon. Should they do that, can the West trust Ahmadinejad not to take an action that would lead to a nuclear confrontation? Given the messianic streak in his rhetoric and his past history as an Islamist radical and hostage-taker in 1979, that’s not a bet that any leader should be comfortable taking.

In other words, we’re under a time crunch that is not of our devising. If Ahmadinejad gets ahold of a nuclear weapon, it will be too late. Even if his regime collapses, he could very easily allow that weapon to fall into terrorist hands. Worse, even if a “better” government comes on in Iran, the Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon would undoubtedly set of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East at large. A world in which Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, or even “allied” countries like the UAE have nuclear weapons is not a safe one — it would be too easy for one or more weapons to fall into radical hands and end up being used in a terrorist attack.

Isolation and containment may be the best course of action over the short term, but if Iran obtains nuclear weapons it won’t be enough. Any sanctions regime must be absolutely effective in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or the use of military force (such as Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in 1998) should still be on the table.

The Iranian government may be shaky, but we’ve all heard rumors of impending revolution coming from Iran for years now, and it still hasn’t happened. It would be nice of the situation organically defused itself, and perhaps it will. However, the job of policymakers isn’t to look at the world through rose colored glasses, it’s to predict what the worst-case scenario is and prepare accordingly. If we’re not ready to see a nuclear-armed Iran allow a nuclear weapon to fall into the hands of a terrorist organization, we had better have a strong plan on the table to prevent that happening — because such an event is very possible and may be much closer than we’d like to hope.