National Security Network

Don’t Fall for Ahmadinejad’s Games

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Report 22 September 2010

Iran Iran diplomacy Iranian sanctions Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


As world leaders gather at the United Nations this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is up to his usual tricks. By using demagoguery to inspire fear and controversy, Iran's president is hoping to distract the international community from the internal Iranian political dynamics that are challenging his leadership.  The combination of controversies brought on by Ahmadinejad's clumsy power grabs, turmoil in the Iranian economy and a nuclear program beset with technical problems and rising public doubts makes it clear that a large gulf separates the president's rhetoric and reality. These dynamics provide a crucial window of opportunity for the U.S. and its partners to press their advantage and to resume active negotiations with Iran over its nuclear activities.  American national security leaders from across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. would "lose nothing" by pressing to restart talks.

What is also clear is that the U.S. must avoid lapsing into a status quo that leaves open the increasing possibility of a military confrontation with Iran. While conservative political figures may argue that there is little cost to reckless, war-mongering rhetoric, our military and national security leaders have warned consistently that military action against Iran would directly undermine U.S. interests.  The debacle in Iraq illustrates the tremendous costs associated with a military-only option, and calls for a steady escalation towards that end should not be heeded.

Despite his spin in New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces economic challenges at home, technical and political difficulties with nuclear program. Speaking before reporters yesterday, Iran's president denied his government's human rights violations and made vague threats aimed at the United States. But as veteran journalist Barbara Slavin observed, Ahmadinejad's bluster was an attempt to "use the U.S. press as a prop to distract from his shaky standing at home."  "Many clerics object to Ahmadinejad for promoting a superstitious folk interpretation of Shiite Islam and for increasing the power of the Revolutionary Guard over the clergy," wrote Slavin.  A report from The Century Foundation's InsideIRAN project described how Ahmadinejad's decision to appoint special envoys apart from the Foreign Ministry has provoked further hostility, "greatly antagonizing his rivals in other branches of the government as well as irking the Supreme Leader himself."

Ahmadinejad is also vulnerable to frustrations in Iran related to its struggling economy, now weighed down further by new international sanctions. In an interview with the Asia Times earlier this summer, Virginia Tech economist  Djavad Salehi-Isfahani attributed Iran's economic difficulties to "to the drop in oil prices and to Iranian government policies: over-stimulating the economy when oil prices were high and then cutting back on spending to reduce double-digit inflation." George Lopez, a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace, told the Times, "[t]here is a real credit squeeze."

All of this has taken place alongside new technical difficulties confronting Iran's nuclear activities. A New York Times article attributed some of these problems to external sources: "Sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to obtain precision parts and specialty metals. Moreover, the United States, Israel and Europe have for years engaged in covert attempts to disrupt the enrichment process by sabotaging the centrifuges." And, as another InsideIRAN report noted, a large majority of Iranians do not support a nuclear weapons program: according to a new University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, "Given the choice between developing (1) nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, (2) nuclear energy only, or (3) no nuclear technology, 55 percent of Iranians (and 57 percent of Moussavi supporters) chose door number two, while only 38 percent (and 37 percent) wanted the bomb." [Barbara Slavin, 9/14/10. InsideIRAN, 9/8/10. Asia Times, 7/15/10. NY Times, 8/20/10. InsideIRAN, 9/14/10]

Heightened leverage with Iran creates a new window for diplomacy over the nuclear program. Given the increased pressure facing Iran, it is important that the U.S. and its allies use this opportunity to resume negotiations in an effort to reach a diplomatic resolution on the Iranian nuclear program. And there may appear to be cautious receptivity to the restart of diplomatic talks in both Western and Iranian corridors. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ahmadinejad told reporters that "New talks over Iran's nuclear policies are ‘bound to happen,'" and State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley replied by saying "all we would do is encourage him to call Lady (Catherine) Ashton and provide a date and a location," according to AFP.

The U.S. would be wise to take this opportunity to press its advantage and resume international talks about Iran's nuclear program. Last month, former Bush Administration Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns explained the importance of re-establishing negotiations: "Since he took office, the president has believed that negotiations with Iran might possibly provide an escape from war for both countries. No U.S. administration since that of Jimmy Carter has had a sustained and serious discussion with the Iranian government. In the absence of any meaningful understanding of Iran's motivations and objectives, it is sensible for the U.S. to test the proposition that talks might possibly lead to a better outcome than war. We lose nothing by agreeing, as the Obama Administration has been signaling in the last two weeks, to talks with Iran this autumn." By not taking this opportunity, the U.S. risks lapsing into a status quo situation that could potentially escalate into worse options, including a replay of the road to the disastrous Iraq war.  As George Washington University's Marc Lynch stated: "Other possibilities? Perhaps a new uranium-exchange deal will become a confidence building measure which will allow a different cycle to kick in. Perhaps Iranian political change will produce a different leadership coalition which is both willing and able to turn a new page and strike a deal. If better ideas for off-ramps aren't developed and given a serious chance, then even if we manage to avoid war then I fear that this simulacrum of the Iraq experience of the 1990s may be our future. And so, the challenge: what are the off-ramps? I'm all ears." [LA Times, 9/22/10. AFP, 9/21/10. R. Nicholas Burns, 8/19/10. Marc Lynch, 9/16/10]

While conservative ideologues beat the war drum, military leaders and national security experts oppose a strike.  In a speech reminiscent of those given by President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War, this Monday Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that the United States must be prepared - as a last resort - to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to also push for regime change.  Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, "became the first senator to support direct U.S. military intervention in Iran," writes McClatchy.  He said at the American Enterprise Institute that, "If you use military force against Iran, you've opened up Pandora's box, ... If you allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, you've emptied Pandora's box. I'd rather open up Pandora's box than empty it."  Graham later went on to say that "From my point of view, if we engage in military operations as a last resort, the United States should have in mind the goal of changing the regime... Not by invading (Iran), but by launching a military strike by air and sea." Graham has now joined discredited Bush administration officials and neoconservative commentators such as Elliot Abrams and Reuel Marc Gerecht, who have advocated for military action by either the U.S. or Israel.

However, America's top military leaders and regional experts agree that the consequences of a strike on Iran would be disastrous:

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I worry, on the other hand, about striking Iran. I've been very public about that because of the unintended consequences of that..." [Admiral Michael Mullen, 4/18/10]

General David Petraeus, Afghanistan Commander and former CENTCOM commander:  Warned that the military option risks unleashing a popular backlash that would play into the hands of the regime.  "There is certainly a history, in other countries, of fairly autocratic regimes almost creating incidents that inflame nationalist sentiment," said Petraeus. "So that could be among the many different, second, third, or even fourth order effects (of a strike)."  [David Petraeus, 2/3/10]

General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander: "The problem with the strike is thinking through the consequences of Iranian reaction...You can see all these reactions that are problematic in so many ways. Economic impact, national security impact -- it will drag us into a conflict.  I think anybody that believes that it would be a clean strike and it would be over and there would be no reaction is foolish." [Anthony Zinni, 8/04/09]

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former Bush administration Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: "Air strikes would undoubtedly lead Iran to hit back asymmetrically against us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region, especially through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This reminds us of Churchill's maxim that, once a war starts, it is impossible to know how it will end." [Nicholas Burns, 5/06/09]

[Lindsey Graham, via McClatchy, 9/20/10]

What We're Reading

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao "strongly urged" Japan to immediately and unconditionally release from custody the captain of a Chinese trawler, threatening further action if Japan refuses.

Yemeni troops and counterterrorism teams have laid siege to a town in southern Yemen where several dozen al Qaeda militants were said to be holed up.

An international meeting to try to prevent the Arctic becoming the next battleground over mineral wealth has begun in Moscow.

On the sidelines of a U.N. anti-poverty meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Arab officials to bolster their financial contributions to the Palestinian Authority and to support the nascent peace talks more visibly.

At least 14 militants have died in a suspected U.S. drone strike in northwestern Pakistan.

Nigeria's chief election commissioner formally asked for a three-month delay to January's presidential elections, saying more time was needed to iron out problems with voter registration.

European Union countries will be forced to draw up detailed plans to deal with future gas supply crunches under legislation approved by the European parliament.

Efforts to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy suffered a near-fatal blow as senators fell short of earning the 60 votes necessary to start debate on the annual defense policy bill by a vote of 56 to 43.

A Polish prosecutor says his office has opened an investigation into whether a Saudi man accused in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole was mistreated in a prison that the CIA allegedly ran in Poland.

Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean says he no longer plans to run in Haiti's November presidential election.

Commentary of the Day

Ralph Cossa says an increasingly assertive China is unwittingly reinforcing America's role in Asia as the implicit guarantor of security and stability.

The New York Times argues that the best chance this year to repeal the irrational ban on openly gay members of the military slipped away Tuesday, thanks to the buildup of acrimony and mistrust in the United States Senate.

Jim Kolbe writes that with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York this week, the world is watching to see if Washington seizes this opportunity to show leadership in the fight against global hunger and disease.