What is Iran playing at
It is said that in North Korea, the popular belief is that American aid packages are tribute from the vanquished American empire, eager to appease the Communist Paradise, lest they incur the wrath of the invincible Kim dynasty.
Saddam Hussein expressed disdain at the coalition forces assembled against him in the early ’90s Gulf War. To the Iraqi despot, the combined military might of 30 nations aimed at his own demise was the sincerest compliment; a testament to the greatness his nation had achieved.
And in January 2012, Iran made its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Islamic Republic of Iran has deployed a questionable force of small ships and boats to the tiny strait at the southern tip of the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf, depending on where the map was purchased).
At the moment, they are accompanied by a combined American-Anglo-French fleet of naval vessels, including two aircraft carriers. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that the American Fifth Fleet is stationed within spitting distance of the strait in Manama, Bahrain.
Sometimes dictatorships do things that, well, just don’t make no sense. At least, so it appears.
If not, then what are they playing at? Why all the saber rattling? Why provoke the ire of the world’s premiere military powers? Why promote alienation from one’s critical economic partners? How, and to whom, does any of this make sense?
Even the most bizarre political leaders have rhyme to their reason, in the proper context. That is not to say that the rationale is necessarily, well, rational. But when one’s actions have global consequence, it is difficult to justify the action without a fairly decent sense of why.
And what might this be, in the case of Iran? Observers are divided. Some believe the sanctions have worked, and that Iran may finally be starting to sweat. Others see defiance, made all the stronger by increasing isolation in world affairs.
The answer, quite simply, is both. Unfortunately, neither is a case for optimism.
President Barack Obama has been vilified by his opponents for his stance toward Iran, which has included everything from opening dialogue without preconditions to a miquetoast approach to the disputed elections of 2009. Unsurprisingly, this approach has been derided as idealistic, or simply weak. This criticism is unfair.
Most of us can remember the drama of the 2009 Iranian Election, wherein the Independent Reformists (later the Green Movement) under Mir Mousavi competed with incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad for the post of Prime Minister. Of course, Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory, in what many observers have since deemed a rigged election.
At the time, and on a number of occasions since, Obama has been criticized for his apparent unwillingness to decry the results. I cannot presume to know his motivation. But I can say with confidence that, had he done otherwise, the outcome would have been far worse.
“The democratic movements are being hijacked by the world powers,” said Dr. Tugrul Keskin, assistant professor of international and Middle East studies at Portland State. According to Keskin, overt pressure by Western powers in the Middle East is doing more harm than good.
In the case of Iran, vocal American support for the Green Movement would have played well into the hands of the regime, who can then effectively paint the opposition as puppets of the imperialist West. This draws the otherwise-moderate Iranian population closer to the Islamist regime, leading to the radicalization of the Iranian public.
It goes without saying that this is hardly conducive to the development of democracy. But then, democracy applied through foreign pressure is a historical rarity. “If they [U.S. and Western powers] leave Iran alone, Iran will be a democratic state,” Keskin said. “But this will not happen.” Not so long as short-term economic interests remain the guiding principle in international politics.
Indeed, economic interests often play the role of monkey wrench in the gears of the Middle East. Crippling sanctions on oil and petroleum products have made the Iranian economy stumble. The announcement from Saudi Arabia (never too friendly with its Shia neighbor) to compensate for the embargo on Iranian oil has made the waters even murkier.
On top of this, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (Ahmadinejad does not control his country’s foreign policy) has many troubling issues to consider. Four Iranian scientists have been killed in the past two years; the most recent one in early January.
Israel continues to (quite vocally) ponder the merits of a unilateral strike. The Arab Spring will likely yield a massive power shift in the Middle East in the coming decades, one far more Arab than Persian, and far more Sunni than Shia.
Add to this the American election of 2012, which will decide not only who will man the post of most powerful individual on earth, but who will craft the new U.S.-Iran policy. How unsettling it must be that all but one of the five potential officeholders entertain the possibility of war.
Rick Santorum has, in fact, gone so far as to refer to Iran’s nuclear scientists as “enemy combatants,” a la the Taliban. Newt Gingrich has openly expressed his commitment to regime change. Only Ron Paul has expressly dismissed the suggestion of a military strike.
As for that strike, the ramifications are chilling. “Attacking Iran would be the worst decision,” said Keskin. “Iran is not like Iraq. The people in Iran—they will fight.”
Part of me doesn’t want to find out. The other part says that’s what cruise missiles are for.
Sometimes we do things that just don’t make no sense.