Iran’s strong negotiation position, and the inevitability of a military strike

In the negotiations to somehow prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the country has been treated with rather more deference than is warranted. This might well be one of the reasons:

The Saudi government is particularly sensitive about Shiite autonomy because the minority is concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern province, and any unrest or effort at secession might devastate Saudi oil production. A year after the war in Iraq, the Saudi regime has reached out to Shiite leaders.

“Things are really better than before. And Saudi Shia are ready for more and more,” said King Saud University professor A.A. Abdul Hai, a Shiite recently appointed to a new state-sponsored human-rights commission. “It is a natural thing that the majority should get their share of things, but at the same time that does not mean they deny the rights of the minority.”

Iranian agents are busy in Southern Iraq already, doing their best to stir up trouble among the Shia there, as the British found out to their sorrow in Basra. If they now can rile up the Saudi Shiites, and sabotage the Saudi oil production significantly, Iran would effectively be the only major oil supplier left in the region. They would increase their oil revenues by a huge margin, and at the same time make oil a much more effective weapon in their arsenal. On top of that it would make the threat of using the oil weapon much more credible than before, for sharply inflated prices would make it possible for them to reduce output, or to pick and choose whom to sell oil to, and to whom not. Oil may be fungible, but in case of a real shortage that won’t help any.

Saudi Arabia, among many others, wants to avoid this outcome, so they are making concessions to their Shiite minority, as indicated in the article. A positive side-effect I’m hoping for is that the most fanatic Wahhabi doctrinaires will be marginalized in Saudi Arabia, for there is no way that can go along with concessions to a religious minority the Saudi government has to please somehow. Another side-effect could be that Saudi Arabia will be more helpful when it comes to the global war on terror, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

On the other hand there is the possibility that Wahhabi zealots could make their displeasure about any outreach to the Shia in their country known by imitating the Sunni terrorists in Iraq, and start blowing up large numbers of Shiites. They wouldn’t care that the resulting unrest could disable Saudi oil production, and thereby increase Iranian power.

In any case the Saudi Shia certainly are potential allies of Iran, and might very well be one of the reasons why the Iranian bargaining position concerning its nuclear ambitions is stronger than it ought to be on the face of it. Rebuilding the Iraqi oil industry will take years yet, and the consequences of taking out the Iranian leadership could hit both Iranian and Saudi oil production. So negotiations, fruitless as they are, will be pursued until the last illusionary hope about the peaceful prevention of an Iranian nuclear arsenal is gone (link via Daily Pundit):

President George W Bush has backed a plan to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia. The sudden change in tactics over Teheran’s controversial nuclear programme has angered hawks in Washington and surprised European diplomats.

Mr Bush, who met President Vladimir Putin at a Pacific Rim summit on Friday, told him he would support Moscow’s plan to offer Iran the chance to conduct nuclear enrichment at facilities in Russia. The US was previously against any deal that would allow Iran to enrich its own uranium.

The latest proposal would allow Teheran to convert uranium if subsequent enrichment, which could have weapons applications, took place only overseas, under Russian control.

European officials, who back the Russian initiative as part of a wider set of proposals to end the nuclear stand-off with the Islamic republic, have been surprised by how openly America has entered the process.

“It may provide a way out,” Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, said last week.

Russia has previously signalled that it would not support any sanctions against Iran.

The EU3 and the State Department think that that stance may change if it experiences its own snubs by the Iranians, who have shown no interest in the Russian deal.

Or maybe Putin thinks that a huge increase in the price of oil would inflate profits from the sale of Russian oil more than enough to offset any damage to his country. Even more likely, he doesn’t care much about the damage to Russia, as long as his power over the country is strengthened. And as it happens, large parts of the Russian oil industry have been nationalized lately, so that increases in revenue would go directly to the Russian state, meaning Putin.

So what’s to worry for him? If American forces take out the Mullahs, the oil price would increase drastically for a while, even if the worst won’t happen. If they acquire nuclear weapons, the increased insecurity in the region would also raise the oil price, and Russia has little to fear, for Iran wouldn’t dare to send nukes there. A man who had many thousands killed in Chechnya to show how big his testicles are won’t mind some brinkmanship, especially if he sees the result as a win-win situation. Any hopes for Russian good-will are completely out of place.

The only way to prevent Iranian nukes will be the use of force, and the sooner this is commonly accepted in the West the better. It is a question of when, and not if. Any future action will have to be evaluated in this context: What will help to prepare for the eventual strike, and what can soften the economic blow?

The two most important measures I can think of are

-Getting the Iraqi security forces up to strength as fast as possible, so that they can handle the insurgency with minimal assistance for some months

-Increasing the strategic oil reserves to the extent that they can tide the world economy over the crucial four or five months (my estimate, possibly to optimistic) during which oil production may mostly be shut down by terrorism (Iranian oil wells also likely are mined extensively).

Any ideas about other indispensable measures? (Please note that I have already dismissed a strike on Syria – without Iranian help, the country will be insignificant anyway).

14 thoughts on “Iran’s strong negotiation position, and the inevitability of a military strike”

  1. Thomas Barnet advocates letting the Iranians have the nukes in exchange for cultural / media openness. His bet is that Western culture will fully assimilate the Iranian youth and make Iran no more dangerous a nuclear power than India.

    I’m not so sure about that, as:
    (1) It’s a long game, with a decade or so of nuclear backed terror as a real possibility before the transformation takes place.
    (2) We couldn’t enforce their remaining open. They could go hermit kingdom on us like N. Korea, only with proven nukes and oil revenues.

    The main point of his argument, and one I believe, is that there really is no way of stopping Iran (or any other sufficiently advanced country) from getting nukes. Every country of consequence could put a nuclear fuel cycle together, and the technology will only get cheaper and more widely held. There’s no stopping the demand and no bottleneck for supply, which means it’s gonna happen whether we want it to or not (having part of the fuel cycle in Russia a way of trying to create a bottleneck, but it won’t work for more than half a decade or so).

    So, suggestions for how to handle Iran?

    1. Promise India and China that they’ll get their oil & gas. Heck, promise them full control of the Iranian fields. We don’t have the manpower to occupy Iran, even if we moved every man in Iraq over the border. It’s three times the size of Iraq, and we can barely control that. We need China and India on board.

    2. Deveop and disperse technologies for political participation. Blogging and internet chat is already a big thing in Iran. Develop that so that the young folk who aren’t radical can participate.

    3. Promise Russia we’ll urge the next Iranian regime to buy nuclear tech from them.

    4. Promise the French we’ll urge the next Iranian regime to buy some … uh, whatever they have to sell. Military jets and cheese, I guess.

    Basically, get the rest of the world on board.

  2. I agree with Ralf on most points. Unless we get a deus ex machina in the form of a democratic revolution, which seems unlikely, we are going to have to take action. The alternative — that we tolerate or “contain” a nuclear Iran — is unwise for the same reasons it was unwise to continue “containing” Saddam Hussein: the Iranian regime is hostile and aggressive and will have no reason to constrain its proxy-war operations once it gains nuclear weapons.

    I have been arguing this issue with Lex on and off for a long time. He says something like: What is Iran going to do, nuke Israel? The Israelis would annihilate Iran in response, so the Iranians aren’t going to try it; their belligerent talk is bluster. I say: One nuclear bomb could effectively destroy Israel as a society. What if the mullahs decided to roll the dice? Smart people sometimes do things that don’t make sense; it’s foolish to entrust your safety to your enemies’ good judgment. And sooner or later Iran would threaten us as well, either directly or by proxy.

    The logic of not tolerating regimes that back anti-western terrorism applies to Iran as much as it did to Iraq and Afghanistan. The main reasons to hesitate now are 1) the fact that Iran currently lacks both nukes and delivery systems, and 2) cost. But the problem becomes much worse as soon as Iran obtains the missing technology. And the issue of cost is mainly a matter of political will — we have the resources. I wish that Bush had been more diligent about making the case for regime change. It was valid in 2001 and I think it is still valid. We can take on Iran if we decide to, which means if the Bush administration makes the public case for doing so.

    I don’t think that the alternatives are war with Iran vs. containing Iran. I think, rather, that the likely choice is between some kind of preventive war on our terms (not necessarily invasion) and eventual nuke attacks on western cities by Iranian (or N. Korean or some other regime’s) proxies. We probably cannot prevent the spread of nuclear bomb technology, but we can make its use against us much less likely by again making clear, as Bush first did in his 9/20/2001 speech, that we will destroy regimes that underwrite terrorism. Now is not the time to declare that we are tired of fighting.

  3. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that the Iraqi clerical consensus is that the Iranian clerical regime is running a Shia heresy, Khomeinism. If Iraq can be made stable, it’s not opening to the West that will be the biggest threat to the present regime but allowing Iranians hearing that their leaders are heretics from some of the most learned and influential scholars of Shia Islam.

  4. This a comment about the “four or five” months of oil we could use to help the world economy through an Iranian invasion-please realize that oil companies will-no matter what-profit more off such a catastrophe. One cannot call for a free market and suggest that the system can be put on hold by one state-it’s not possible. It’s hard to think through a war-that’s why you stay out of it unless you can ensure the security of our future.

  5. Good point. Building up the SPR to cover the possibility of such a long supply interruption would probably result in oil prices being bid up to very high levels. Better to let the market handle any disruptions if and when they happen, rather than try to anticipate and fine tune an adjustment at certain high cost. Also, why telegraph our intentions?

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  7. When it comes to military action or warfare in uncertain situations like this, what is true in most cases is that nothing is inevitable.

    A war with Iran, at this point, would be not be beneficial to our nation… The fact is, this was one of the dangers of the Iraq war – nuclear proliferation has been occuring throughout much of the world, and instead of making us safer, the Iraq war has placed our national security situation into a worse condition than it’s been in quite awhile.

    When will we ever learn?

  8. TM Lutas,

    but what if Iranians in general are sick of Mullahs in general? They can’t shake themoff, but are fed up with them nevertheless. Sistani won’t hold much sway with them.

    Haydn, Jonathan,

    very good points about the oil reserves. Then again, without an adequate reserve, the political climate for a strike on Iran won’t be exactly favorable.

  9. There are two countries whose behinds we continue to (inexplicably) kiss no matter what they do to us or our interests. One is Communist China (remember that Air Piracy incident not too many years ago?) and the other is Iran.

    Our government will do nothing. Meanwhile, Iran will continue working on their bomb until it’s finished and tested.

    And then we will do nothing, just like North Korea. (or perhaps like North Korea, we’ll offer a bribe in exchange for ANOTHER made-to-be-broken promise.

    Iran, China, and North Korea present worse threats to our nation than Iraq ever did.

  10. I don’t think Israel will do nothing. (See Bret Stephens’s remarks in this interview.) Of course the Israelis want us to do it so they don’t have to, and it would be very difficult for them to pull off a major attack at such a long distance, but I don’t think any Israeli government will ignore an existential threat indefinitely. The central lesson of the 20th Century for Jews is that people who threaten mass-murder against Jews must be taken seriously and must be destroyed if their capabilities start to come within range of their stated goals.

    The Iranian situation can’t be finessed. The outcome if we don’t act isn’t likely to be a mullocracy with nukes that we somehow “keep in a box” or that doesn’t dare to use its new power because it fears retaliation. Either the current regime is replaced by a less hostile one or the USA or Israel will eventually attack the Iranian nuclear facilities.

  11. The way you deal with existential threats is you deter them. The USA spent decades with tens of thousands of Soviet warheads aimed at us. Krushchev said “we will bury you” back when they had far fewer weapons. We never attacked them. Mao got nuclear weapons during a period when he and his regime looked certifiably insane, much more than the mullahs. He never used them, and we never attacked him. The mullahs are not more crazy than the Soviet or Chinese communists. They want to run the country for themselves and their families and their cronies. They are not going to commit suicide for some ideology. They send other people’s kids out to ocmmit suicide, they don’t offer up their own.

    Nuclear weapons keep the peace and focus the mind. Iran is aware of Israel’s retaliatory capability which is precisely Iran will be the kind of regime that “doesn’t dare to use its new power because it fears retaliation.” So far, everyone has done exactly this — nothing.

    There is pretty much zero chance that the Israelis or the Americans will attack Iran’s “nuclear facilities”, whatever those may be. We probably don’t even know where they are. Iran has certainly buried the elements of the program in a variet of places, and located some of it in populated areas. To attack this dispersed and concealed program, we had to flatten the place. To do that effectively we’d have to launch a surprise attack with nuclear weapons which would kill millions of Iranians in the process, either immediately or as a consequences of the humanitarian disaster which would ensue in a nuclear-devastated Iran.

    The chances of that happening are about as close to zero as you can ask for. Neither Bush nor Sharon is going to do it.

    Iran is going to get nuclear weapons and they will not be able to use them and no one is going to do anything about it.

  12. Who is being deterred? If we won’t fight them now we are not likely to fight them once they have nukes, which is why they want nukes. Their nukes would deter us from retaliating if they or their terrorist proxies attacked us or our allies using non-nuclear means. Are Americans willing to die for Tel Aviv?

    The mullahs are not insane, they are evil. I have no doubt that they are sincere in their wish to destroy Israel, however irrational this wish may appear to middle-class westerners. The fact that such leaders are working assiduously to obtain nuclear weapons is reason enough to stop them. They aren’t doing it for national prestige, they are doing it because nukes are useful. The arguments that applied to Iraqi WMD under Saddam Hussein apply at least as strongly to Iran now. We should act.

    Anyway, Israeli voters are not likely to acquiesce to the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, so our speculations may be moot.

  13. “Who is being deterred?”

    Both sides, as usual.

    “If we won’t fight them now we are not likely to fight them once they have nukes”.


    “…which is why they want nukes.”

    Which is why everyone wants nukes.

    “…deter us from retaliating if they or their terrorist proxies attacked us or our allies using non-nuclear means.”

    Probably so. The Iranians have been operating an alliance with Hezbollah all these years and no one has attacked Iran in retaliation.

    “… Are Americans willing to die for Tel Aviv?”

    It depends on what is going on and how they are being asked to die.

    “The mullahs are not insane, they are evil.”

    Ditto the old Soviet leadership, Mao.

    “I have no doubt that they are sincere in their wish to destroy Israel…”

    The Soviets wanted us destroyed, too. They really did, as hard as that is for many “middle-class westerners” to grasp. The price became apparent early — they can only destroy us if they suffer destruction too. Evil as they were, they never pushed that button.

    “The fact that such leaders are working assiduously to obtain nuclear weapons is reason enough to stop them.”

    Depends on the cost of doing so. If you can do an Osirak-type attack, maybe. Iran is different. I do not believe the Israelis or the Americans will pay the price to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. Iran has learned from Iraq.

    “They aren’t doing it for national prestige, they are doing it because nukes are useful.”

    Nukes are useful to make people leave you alone. However, if you detonate one, you die. But, being left alone is useful.

    “The arguments that applied to Iraqi WMD under Saddam Hussein apply at least as strongly to Iran now. We should act.”

    Right. But we draw different conclusions from this. The Iraq war — however noble our troops are and however decent it is of us to be building schools and allowing elections — is an expensive, attenuated, attritional botch job that there is no way we are going to do again. Iraq should have been easy. Iran would be impossible to invade and occupy. Iran is participating in the war against us in Iraq. Tf they got heavily involved we’d be driven out. We are deterred from attacking Iran because we are in Iraq and hence vulnerable. Going into Iraq has made an attack on Iran impossible for a bunch of reasons.

    Unlike you, I think Israel is no less safe the day after Iran gets its first working bomb. Israel can destroy Iran, the Iranians know it, and evil as they are — and they are — they don’t want to be incinerated by an Israeli bomb, which they would be. So, Israel and Iran get to play the Mutual Assured Destruction game. In the long run, one regime or the other will crack. I put my money on Israel winning that game. BTW, that won’t mean Iran won’t have nukes. It will mean that Iran becomes like Russia — a country with nukes that we don’t worry about too much.

  14. Mutual Assured Destruction was a terrible idea because it posited that we would commit mass-murder in response to the other side’s mass-murder. I suspect that the Soviets did not take it seriously. To the extent that deterrence against them worked it was because we had the ability to identify the source of any attack and respond with a counterattack that would have crippled the attacker’s military assets. Since the USSR was motivated by conquest and expansion, and wanted to win battles rather than commit genocide, we were able to deter them. Even so there were several close calls.

    Iran and other nuclear-terrorism wannabes are a different case because if they perpetrate nuke attacks it may not be possible to determine in a timely way the origin of any attack, and hence the identity of a target for retaliation, and because they DO want to commit genocide for both ideological and tactical reasons. And if it happens and we identify them, are we (or Israel) going to nuke Teheran? I doubt it. At any rate there is sufficient uncertainty about how we would respond that I think it’s foolish for us to acquiesce to a situation in which our enemies get to make such calculations. Bin Laden thought we would fold after the 9/11 attack. The Iranian mullahs are probably smarter than that, but what if they miscalculate?

    Our invasion of Iraq is part of a larger war and, by the standards of war, isn’t going that badly. (Casualties? In the Six Day War, that model blitzkrieg, Israel, the victor, lost in action in a few days almost as many soldiers on a population-adjusted basis as the USA did in Vietnam over a period of years. Attrition? Iraq is well on its way to being an effective democracy with a competent army. The only botch job I see is in the imaginations of some Americans.) For us to decide, now, that we cannot handle major military engagements with additional countries is to put into question our seriousness about defeating the Islamists. This we must not do, both because the threat of mass-terror attacks will not go away until we defeat them, and because the very act of declaring ourselves to have reached the limit of our engagement will make it more difficult for us to prevail.

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