I started the discussion on Tuesday night with a sort of mini-argument: four points that I had arrived at over a couple of weeks reading on the subject of Iran, which I figured would get the ball rolling on the evening. Because of the sharp minds in attendance, it was all that was necessary to spark a great conversation. I said:
- Iran is the dominant power in the Middle East. This was a historical fact for a long time before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became a check on Iran’s power—and now the US has removed that check. While Israel and Saudi Arabia are America’s allies in the region, Iran could take both of them, as it had indeed already defeated Israel in Lebanon. Even the US could not really take over Iran. We could bomb them into submission and take Tehran, but we would not be able to hold the country against the guerrilla threat they represent.
- Iran has the power to make the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan untenable, and indeed they have already done this to some degree. They have become experts at proxy warfare, and at this point they are able to determine the level of violence that US forces have to deal with in certain parts of both countries.
- All of this, it is important to note, does not require that Iran possess nuclear weapons. Indeed we (America) are quite powerless to stop them acquiring nukes if they are determined to have them. Sanctions won’t work; military attacks won’t work. Iran has the power to drive oil prices through the roof, by mining the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at tankers, which would make life in America very painful.
- Given all this, the best option is for America to reach some kind of settlement with Iran. This would involve giving Iran a formal role in maintaining the security of Iraq, which would likely end up partitioned. We would share responsibility for security of the Strait of Hormuz, because both countries have an interest in keeping the oil flowing. Trade and talk would increase as sanctions were lifted and diplomatic ties restored, and Iran would agree to stop arming Hezbollah and Hamas. America would stop talk of regime change and guarantee Iran’s security, in order to foster closer ties and stop the Iranians inching closer to Russia and China. In short, the US would balance its strategic alliances in the region.
There was some controversy in my words, because Jarrod came in right off the bat to challenge my first point, saying that Iran, in the wake of last year’s elections and subsequent protests, had never been weaker. And while it seems the mullahs aren’t going anywhere yet, I would concede that they might feel a bit restricted right now. Jarrod came back later in the evening, twice, on the point on nuclear weapons: the concern is not that Iran will use them, but that they will give them to others who will. “If a white light flashes over Israel, then that’s it, and Iran can say they had nothing to do with it.” Alex contended this forcefully, saying the uranium traces (or something) after an explosion would definitively prove where the bomb was made. So it seems Iran wouldn’t be able to get away with it, although that provides little comfort to Israel, since they are too small to absorb a nuclear explosion and still viably exist.
A lot was made of Ahmedinejad’s words towards Israel; although I argued that he didn’t have the final say in Iran, Noah said convincingly that he obviously spoke for the leadership. But Alex reminded us all that the fact is that there is no evidence Iran is pursuing nukes—citing the most recent intelligence reports. Noah claimed otherwise, mentioning the articles we have been seeing on our front pages for so long. But we also read a lot about Iraq’s weapons programs in the newspapers, I said, which turned out to be bluster.
We debated whether we could know the character of the Iranian people. Is there a “red/blue” divide, similar to America’s, with rural people more supportive of Ahmedinejad’s populism and jingoism, and urban “elites” more inclined towards cosmopolitanism and internationalism? Some argued in general support of this idea, although my conclusion was that we generally know very little of the Iranian people, despite the seeming ease of false labels.
The conversation broke into pieces several times during the evening, which was great. There were 10 people there, so it was inevitable that mini-convos would break out here and there. Of course I couldn’t follow everything that happened at once.
My most contentious point may have been the partitioning of Iraq. Some participants, Noah most vocally, said this would be crazy, that after spending so much blood and treasure we should “lose” Iraq. My point was that it was inevitable without American troops on the ground: should we stay forever? “Well, we’re still in Germany, we’re still in Korea,” Noah said. This is true of course, but it worries me. I don’t foresee a day when American soldiers are not being attacked in Iraq, or Afghanistan. I don’t think Korea and Germany are good models (in fact, I don’t think we should have troops in those countries, anyway). I argued that Iran already had some de facto control over southern Iraq, and that they would take it over when we left, anyway. But Noah seemed to think that we could leave a strong Iraqi government behind. This I doubt, and so it seemed we would not reach any agreement here.
Mark said something which put everything in perspective. Over the last 15-20 years (and I would argue, even longer), when the US has seen a geopolitical problem in the world, it has resolved to do something about it. We have gone into countries, or engaged with countries, in a way which we determined would solve the problem. We’ve taken decisive action. But most of the time, there have been unforeseen consequences that have either made the original problem worse, or created wholly new problems to deal with. Perhaps, in the future, we should endeavor to do less, to be more passive, and to let things play out before we act.
What are your thoughts? If you were there, fill in my account with points I missed. If you weren’t, what would you have added?