Somebody set us up the bomb: Iran

We should not be too soft on Iran. A country with aspirations towards local genocide, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Israeli nation (which admittedly refuses to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians), should not be sympathised with overmuch. And an Ahmedinejad/Khamene’i Iran with a nuclear weapon could pose a terrible threat. Articles that argue how it could stabilise the region are delusional to the point of idiocy. Even comments that downplay the threat of this happening, such as those made by Vice President Biden in the Vice Presidential debate, feel a little irresponsible.

A nuclear Iran can be avoided. Military action, especially if undertaken by the Americans, could delay the nation’s acquisition of weapons-capable nuclear technology by at least four to six years. That is enough time for other strategies to follow, but it is permanent solutions that are needed.

Some are achievable. The economic sanctions hitting the country right now are crippling. Diplomatic avenues could open and close many times over in the years it will take them to develop and weaponise. And authoritarian regimes in that region are dropping like flies. A popular revolt in Iran may not seem likely today, but that could change. Especially in the face of a devastated economy and a surrounding region that is heading towards democracy.

But the potential for success in all long-term strategies depend on popular sentiment, and thus look like they depend on military restraint. An act of war, that would carry with it a risk of retribution that could pull America into another Middle Eastern conflict, would further assault and again victimise an already suffering people.

That is the main reason to avoid aggro. An attack could antagonise a general populace that has just witnessed popular revolt in three neighbourhood countries, and would provide the political regime with the rallying rhetoric it can use to strengthen its hold. It would again be making Iran and its people a victim. Is the role the United States and its Western allies would like to fulfill, one of returning aggression to a portion of a region that might at last be addressing the needs of its people?

– Persian melons and pomegranates, mate –

Generally speaking, it is all too easy to treat ‘Iran’ as one entity. But there are two political authorities in the country. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i (and the ayatollahs generally) are different from the ‘publicly elected’ President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and neither of them represent definitively the will of Iranian citizens.

The President, Ahmadinejad, dubiously elected for a second time in 2009, is increasingly at odds with the Supreme Leader, and more and more has been struggling to contain popular dissent among his people. He faces formal challenge from opposition movements and a sanction- and incompetency-driven crisis that is this week crippling the value of the rial, and soon may gut the nation’s economy entirely.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, appointed for life by an elected religious aristocracy, does not. Given his objections to the President, which have been growing since a public spat over then-intelligence-minister Heydar Moslehi’s abrupt dismissal and then reinstatement, he may actually benefit from public dissatisfaction – though that is a long way from certain. He has sided with the opposition before, and when the Presidential election comes around again in June it can be expected that he will play a role. This is unlikely to be a boon to the West, or to Israel.

The Ayatollah’s stance on foreign policy is decidedly anti-American and, though he may fear direct military confrontation and support a business community that is free from the meddling of the state, he is a long way from reformist. How the Supreme Leader will fare versus public opinion when the effects of the economic sanctions facing the country become unbearable is unknown, and whether or not the Iranian people attribute their suffering to his policy is paramount. Will the pro-nuclear, anti-Western platform they champion today make for a valuable-enough rhetorical standpoint for Khamene’i to risk popular dissent for it? For how long?

It is also difficult to foresee how a worsening situation domestically in Iran will affect its foreign policy in the Middle East. Almost none of its neighbours are pro-Iranian nuclear, and the nearby Sunni states could easily see an opportunity in a weakened Ayatollah. The bomb gives the leaders a rallying cry and a clear political message, but it is unclear how well that message will continue to hold up against the voices of their suffering people and the threat posed by their enemies.

– Et tu, people of Iran?

How the Iranian people themselves feel about the pursuit of nuclear weapons is undoubtedly varied. Some will support it, and others abhor. Many may object to its taking precedence over the economic and social wellbeing of their country. It is a country of 75 million. They are bound to be varied.

But few will want war with the US and Israel, and few will escape the effects of persistent debilitating sanctions. These constitute a valuable audience for Western arguments in support of abandoning pursuit of the bomb. They constitute a threat to those in the Iranian political elite preaching nuclear foreign policy as well. There are not alot of Western arguments reaching the Iranian public, it is true, but every opportunity should be taken to communicate with each audience separately. This is especially true when one considers who is watching from nearby Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

– Can I get a witness –

There is a risk of mistranslation as well. The social and communicative landscape in Iran is a world apart from that in the West. Politicians in America should not forget that. Threats made against foreign enemies may well be threats, but they are also posturing tactics in domestic political dramas, religious blowhard-ery, or emotional rhetoric in pursuit of a separate agenda. They are sparring thrusts with rival Islamist dictatorships, and they are the desperate gasps of those yearning for further power. They should not be ignored, nor downplayed, but they should be very carefully understood.

It is possible that we do not understand the Iranian pursuit of a nuke at all. We assume its construction is for violent assault on Israel or, through terrorist distribution, America, but that is a very Western and incomprehensive analysis. It could be a bludgeoning tool for better global economic and social treatment, or a bargaining chip to use with its few remaining friends. It could be a trophy, for bolstering the rhetoric aimed at its citizens. A lightning rod for the recruitment of terrorist factions. An expletive to local Sunni aggressors.

Any sensible understanding of the situation must acknowledge that it is likely a few of these things, maybe all. But Iran is either doggedly pursuing this technology with a goal in mind, or its leaders are stubborn enough, and lack the circumspection, to hard-headedly pursue the course of acquiring it no matter the cost. That may make the decision to oppose the country simple enough for Israel and the West, but it does not absolve those nations of a responsibility to understand Iranian reasoning. If there is anything the Arab Spring has taught us, it is that the publics in Middle Eastern nations are myriad and deserving of diplomatic attention. They are not the same as their authoritarian leaders.

– Communicate, non-proliferate –

A nuke in Iran’s paws would be a terrible outcome. The risk they could use it, lose it, share it, or sell it, makes its attainment more than worth averting. But the permanent strategies for Iranian abandonment of that tack are diplomacy, coercion, or regime change (ideally peaceful). These seem next to impossible if they are a follow up to a military strike.

Slowing technological progress in any context is often like holding back the ocean. If Iran really wants a nuclear weapon, and is not permanently diverted from its attempts to get one by those persuaded of the Western (and increasingly global) argument, it will get one. Sometimes it is better to simply learn the schedule of the tides, and plan your trip accordingly. If Iran were a better world citizen, that might be the case here.

Instead, permanent dissuasion is a near-necessary target, and it is only accessible via non-military, or at least non-overt-military, action. The American (and Israeli) posture needs to be one of engagement in diplomacy with all of Iran’s citizens: political, religious and public. It should be the continued incentivisation of abandonment of its nuclear program, and its sabotage when that is an option. And more than anything it should be cognisance of the effect that the West has on the public perception of its actions in the streets of Tehran.

If there is to be clear and permanent nuclear non-proliferation, it needs to voluntary, not coerced, and that seemingly depends substantially on the Iranian people themselves.

Jonathan Holtby is a Masters of Communication student at Bond University.