Washington expects Iran to accept a package of concessions in return for abandoning uranium enrichment, for an unsettling reason: American analysts believe that Iran can accomplish its strategic objectives without nuclear weapons. In Iraq, pro-Iranian politicians backed by Shi’ite militias already hold the balance of power. Iranian subsidies to Hamas as well as Iran’s control over Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon ensure that the Islamic Republic will have a veto over any prospective change in the status of the Palestinian territories.
If the Middle East merely were a chessboard, Iran would accept Washington’s offer in return for demands such as those suggested by Ehsan Ahrari in Asia Times Online on June 2: security guarantees, acquiescence to an Iranian oil pipeline to Pakistan and India, and so forth (Tehran wants more than talks). Rational calculation suggests that Iran is better off taking the US offer (along with economic incentives from the European Union) and waiting to see who replaces President George W. Bush in January 2009. The next US administration may be less inclined to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Nonetheless, there will be war, and Washington will strike Iranian nuclear installations, probably before the end of 2006 (see Why the West will attack Iran, January 24). Western analysts think President Mahmud Ahmadinejad a madman, and hope that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will evince more rational behavior. Reading the Iranian president’s Der Spiegel interview last week, in which he dismissed German indignation over his threat to wipe out Israel as the result of a “Zionist plot,” it is easy to believe that his rug is missing a few knots. But madness is an occupational hazard of becoming the leader of desperate men fighting against inevitable ruin. Napoleon Bonaparte, after all, was a lunatic who thought he was Napoleon.
The tragedy will proceed more or less as follows:
In Washington, the State Department has the cabinet’s grudging authorization to persuade the Iranians to abandon their imperial ambitions peacefully in return for economic concessions.
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has the government’s grudging authorization to persuade the Americans to concede to Iran a dominant position in the Persian Gulf without a fight. The Bangalore-educated Mottaki was the campaign manager for one of Ahmadinejad’s opponents in the 2005 presidential elections and is identified with the supposed moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Mottaki sincerely believe that a compromise is in their mutual interest, and have every hope of reaching such a compromise. Nonetheless they will fail, just as the diplomats of Europe failed to prevent war in July 1914 despite the near-universal conviction that war could and should be avoided at all costs.
Iran stands at the precipice of a demographic and economic tailspin. At current depletion rates Iran no longer will export oil a generation hence, and its subsidy-heavy economy will fail just as an entire generation of Iranians retires. By mid-century Iran’s demographic profile will resemble the inverted pyramid of the aging Western countries. For this reason, I have argued before, Iran has embarked upon imperial expansion (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005).
With oil trading in the mid-US$70 range and foreign-currency reserves above $50 billion, though, Iran theoretically could bide its time and wait for opportunities. Western resolve in the Persian Gulf is failing rapidly, as the American public repudiates the administration’s Quixotic effort to build democracy in Iraq.
From a game-theoretical standpoint, therefore, Iran could postpone nuclear-weapons development with little prejudice to its ambitions. When Mahmud Ahmadinejad threatens to wipe Israel off the map, he is expressing a heartfelt sentiment rather than a practical policy, for Israel has a nuclear arsenal large enough to make Persian an extinct language overnight. Mutually assured destruction is a frightful policy, but it did keep the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union through 40 years of Cold War, and it is conceivable at least that a similar uneasy peace might prevail between Iran and Israel.
Iran’s main strategic objectives are the Iraqi, the Azerbaijani, and eventually the Saudi oilfields, but its preferred and most successful methods are infiltration and subversion through the Shi’ite majorities who inhabit oil-rich regions on its borders. A collateral objective is to keep pressure on Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has sufficient rockets to destroy the Haifa refineries and other important Israeli targets.
Nuclear weapons, therefore, have little offensive value for Iran at the moment. To achieve its long-term ambitions, though, Iran cannot do without nuclear capability. In the event that the United States and its allies (if it still has any) were to attack Iran to forestall a regional oil grab, nuclear weapons would be of great use to Iran, either as a way of attacking enemy staging areas, or as a terrorist device.
If Iran were offered (1) subsidies for civilian nuclear technology, (2) research capability that kept the nuclear option open for the future, (3) a free hand among Shi’ites in neighboring countries, (4) endorsement of an oil pipeline to Pakistan and India, and (5) security guarantees from the United States, the Iranian government would agree to abandon the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade, at least for the time being.
Europe happily would make such an offer, for the present generation of Europeans wants nothing more than to pass away in peace. “Apres moi le deluge!” does not begin to express Europe’s aversion to conflict. But the United States will veto the concessions that Iran demands unless Iran abandons its Shi’ite co-religionists in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Indicative was National Intelligence Director John Negroponte’s accusation that Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. President Ahmadinejad already has boasted of Iran’s ability to hurt Western countries if Iran comes under attack. Iran’s influence among terrorist organizations constitutes a retaliatory weapon against the Western nations. The United States will not tolerate an agreement that leaves an Iranian knife at its throat.
But Iran’s leverage against the West depends on the Shi’ites’ enormous capacity for self-sacrifice (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 12, 2005). It cannot betray allies with whom it has ties of religion as well as blood without undermining its capacity to deploy such forces in the future. After more than a millennium the Shi’ite moment in history appears to have come, and no government can rule the major Shi’ite country without offering a path to victory for its denominational allies.
That is why it is so hard for Iran to bargain away its nuclear ambitions. As long as Iran lacks nuclear weapons, the Western powers (as well as Israel) have the option to scotch its plans at will. Without nuclear capability, Iran must live under the constant threat of an attack against which it cannot defend. Ahmadinejad’s generation of Iranians, who came to adulthood in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and bled for their cause through the terrible Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, is determined to secure Iran’s greatness for the ages.
If I were running a branch of US military intelligence (let us not speak of that asylum for unemployable academics, the Central Intelligence Agency), I would suspend all the game-theory exercises and order the senior staff to read classic tragedy. It is a fair bet that not a single senior US officer knows the German national tragedy, namely Friedrich Schiller’s 1797 drama on the death of the Imperial Generalissimo of the Thirty Years’ War, Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634). Despite its theatrical flaws and lapses into sentimentalism, Schiller’s Wallenstein presents an astonishing double portrait of a commander paralyzed by superstition and an army driven by impossible ambitions.
Wallenstein very nearly became a Napoleon a century and a half before the Corsican’s brief career. He created a new kind of army in the service of the Catholic cause, composed of adventurers attracted from all of Europe by the promise of loot and advancement, living off the land with disastrous consequences for settled populations. Ultimately the Thirty Years’ War killed off half or more of the people of Central Europe. Wallenstein sought a separate peace with the Protestants that would have left him and his locust-horde as the arbiter of European power. But he vacillated long enough for the emperor to divide his forces and arrange his assassination.
Schiller’s brilliant portrait of Wallenstein’s winter camp reveals an army whose success also must be its downfall. Its existence is an affront to civil society, which must find means to expunge it or perish. The secret of Wallenstein’s mysticism and paralysis of will was to be found in the ill-fated character of his soldiery. They had nowhere to retreat to, and nothing to lose. Jacques Callot’s 1633 prints, Miseries of War, show peasants wreaking horrible vengeance on discharged soldiers. Wallenstein may have been mad, but his madness was existential, for the Generalissimos’s existence was at odds with the order of things.
The same is true of the Iranian leadership. Iran has failed as a society in the face of the modern world. It embodies a fatal combination of modern demographics, that is, a rapidly aging population, without having assimilated modern productivity. The forces that have rallied to the banner of the Islamic Revolution both at home and abroad have no more hope than Wallenstein’s soldiery. Away from their jihad, they can look forward only to a relentless pulverization of the traditional society whence they came. Such is the stuff of strategic mysticism. When there is no retreat, nothing to which to return, Destiny beckons from the enemy’s lines and the army leaves its trenches and flies forward into the cannons.
That is why I do not expect a deal with Iran, despite the best intentions of the diplomats, and their terrible knowledge of what lies ahead should the West use force against Iran’s nuclear capabilities. What the West euphemistically calls a “war on terror” is, in fact, a religious war. It must be fought like the Thirty Years’ War. What the West requires, sadly, is not Condoleezza Rice, but a Cardinal Richelieu.