Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Iran - It Really Isn't A "Big Deal"

To go with this week's podcast theme of perception vs reality, I'm highly frustrated with the amount of inaccurate information floating around the media and the internet, and the popular wisdom suggestions based on over-generalized speculation ranging from "bomb 'em!" to "diplomacy will bring prosperity and peace". The Iran situation is highly complicated and even I, despite a specialty in International Relations and years of studying Middle Eastern politics, do not understand all the intricacies of it. However, I will divulge what I do know and how it measures up to academic theories of diplomacy and national security, and in the process give you the tools you need to slap around annoying know-it-alls with one-size-fits-all, ideological solutions.

First: Facts and Fiction

- Nukes: Iran does not deny having a nuclear program. However, it has insisted for over a decade that this program is purely for civilian purposes such as producing energy, not intended to make weapons. The problem is that in scientific and technological terms, these functions are difficult to separate - and foreign experts and inspectors have in recent years come across some evidence that Iran is in fact trying to weaponize its nuclear program. HOWEVER, NO ONE IN THE CIVILIAN WORLD KNOWS WHAT STAGE THIS PROGRAM IS IN OR HOW MUCH OF WHAT IRAN HAS; ANYONE THAT CLAIMS TO KNOW IS SIMPLY LYING. Should Iran succeed in building a nuclear weapon, my opinion is that it's unlikely to use it other than as a bargaining chip for economic agreements. However, because of a variety of internal inconsistencies and dangerous affiliations, there is some risk of these weapons being leaked to others that are far more prone to using them.

- Terrorism: Whether or not Iran funds terrorism would depend on one's definition of doing so. Iran does NOT fund Al Qaeda nor the Taliban, and you should dismiss anyone that tells they do as an idiot. These organizations are Sunni extremists and the Iranian government are Shi'ite extremists - they hate each other far more than they do any supposed western imperialist. Iran DOES fund other violent and extreme Shi'ite organizations however; among them the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and sometimes Hamas. While the last 2 are classified as terrorist organizations by the United States, they are recognized by many countries as entities with legitimate claims to power. Iran cites this in openly endorsing them. Sunni terrorist organizations are primarily funded by elements of the Saudi and other gulf governments - the US's best friends which openly condemn said organizations. I'm naturally not a fan of either variety of violent fundamentalists, but these distinctions are very important to keep in mind.

- Iran's Internal Situation: Although Iran does not openly espouse any government-run model of economics, it's a fascist oligopoly that uses theocracy as an excuse. The majority of its heavy and sensitive industry is aligned with major political figures who can use their power to repress anyone demanding more egalitarian economic conditions. Naturally, various elements within this elite struggle w/ each other for power and economic resources, and Iran has recently seen sharp escalations in political clashes between proponents of various economic policies and their affiliated politicians.

- Sanctions: Because Iran is openly hostile to the US and its allies and funds enemy organizations, the US does not have consistent diplomatic relations with it nor does Iran receive US foreign aid. Economic sanctions on Iran imposed by the US and numerous other nations include trade embargoes, freezing of assets held in private banks in foreign countries, and other similar 'sticks in their wheels' tactics. The effectiveness of sanctions should be evident in light of the previous blurb - they deprive the elite directly of its money, forcing on them highly unfavorable political choices. They can cooperate with foreign demands, fight amongst themselves over who should bear the brunt of the costs, or pass these costs onto common citizens through their policies. Former President Ahmadinejad was a belligerent lunatic that made Bush Jr. look like a MENSA member, and his incessant stubbornness and (mostly hollow) threats brought a volley of sanctions on Iran. These coupled with a general shrinking world economy contributed heavily to internal elite rivalries and civil unrest - giving many in the West hope that the Iranian government would collapse in an internal revolution, giving way to a more democratic system. I should add that the implication often offered by libertarians that removing sanctions would bring prosperity and a friendlier Iran is completely unfounded. For 20 years an unsanctioned and united Iranian elite kept its masses just fed enough to avoid domestic rebellion, while abusing human rights and engaging in an openly hostile foreign policy.

The Deal:

The agreement itself is hardly a breakthrough. It's a short-term one that outlines conditions for teams of international inspectors to observe the dismantling of certain aspects of Iran's nuclear programs, and as they report this is being done some sanctions will be eased. On paper, Iran also acknowledged it will not claim a right to a non-weaponized nuclear program; but a few elements of the Iranian government have already openly indicated they still claim that right. In six months, the various diplomats are expected to agree on a wider, more comprehensive treaty based on the outcomes of this one.


New President Rouhani is largely a compromise politician between warring factions who is desperately trying to keep Iran intact. He is a talented politician and diplomat, although Ahmadinejad REALLY didn't set the bar all that high, and the sanctions threaten the entire elite so he is naturally trying to open the doors to ease them. However, there is 0 evidence that he can be trusted - he remains a card-carrying member of the unaccountable and brutal elite in charge of Iran. Meanwhile, Obama/Kerry and politicians from other nations involved are all drowning in failing domestic economies and swamps of scandals, and they desperately need a success story of some sort.

There are also 2 other very influential and very unhappy players in this equation.

The first is Israel. I'm very pro-Israel and even have family there, but this does NOT mandate me to support the warmongering psychopaths in its current ruling coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahou and his associates make US Neocons look like pacifists, and have very close relationships with US defense contractors. For years they have thrived by taking Ahmadinejad's idiotic provocation way more seriously than any reasonable person should, and responded by tantalizing him with counter-threats of preventive strikes. While I generally favor Israel's ability to defend itself, this dick-waving enables hawkish members of Iran's elite. Already, Netanyahou has expressed distaste for the deal, saying it expects Iran to cheat and cannot allow it to become nuclear or arm Hezbollah/Hamas w/ nukes.

The other is Saudi Arabia. I will leave a more in-depth analysis of this patchwork nation for another day. Suffice it so say that its regional economic influence is deteriorating with the fall of closely affiliated regimes in Yemen, Tunisia, and Egypt, and the US's opting for diplomacy over hard-line aggression with Syria and Iran is leaving it more isolated and vulnerable to buckling from its own festering internal rivalries. In a tantrum that no one thankfully took seriously, its government has already threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the US over recent developments.

The details of the magnitude and stage of Iran's nuclear program are fuzzy at best, and international inspector delegations are notoriously bad at discovering when so-called 'rogue' nations are cheating on agreements and deals. In light of this, while some components of Iran's nuclear program will invariably be destroyed, I find it VERY hard to believe that Iran will actually follow through on its commitments as written. Iranian elections are a joke and this is a common interest of its ruling elite, so they are quite prone to risk and belligerence. However, the 'sucker' governments on the other side of this deal - particularly the US and those from Western Europe - are highly vulnerable to voter discontent and will have to ease sanctions like they said they would; giving the Iranian elite an obvious net gain. The USSR engaged in this game of baiting agreements and then cheating on them for decades.

Possible Outcomes:

- One possibility is that inspectors genuinely come across something unacceptable and demand Iran address it or sanctions remain in place. Because of shaky unity within Iran's ruling elite, it is unlikely to agree to deliver on such a request, railroading the entire deal and returning the situation to previous sanctions and isolation. The deal is also threatened, to a lesser degree, by potential conflict between the countries on the other side of it (notably the US, Russia, and China) over what to consider a violation. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia can be expected to try to sabotage the situation and cause this outcome in any way it can, such as insisting the US and other countries stick to strict interpretations of the deal's requirements on Iran.

- On the other hand, it is quite likely that inspectors remain aloof and allow the deal to proceed. This possibility would improve Iran's economic situation and ease its internal tensions and unrest, which would invariably result in more posturing toward Israel by its more radical elements. This would enable Israel's already overzealous warhawk politicians, and likely result in crucial parts of Iran's nuclear program being destroyed in an "unexplained" fire or explosion. Israel's secret service agency, the Mossad, is immeasurably effective and I'm almost positive THEY know where Iran keeps this stuff. The Iranian government will then froth and scream, but if the bulk of its nuclear program is destroyed the other nations are unlikely to have much further consideration for it.

- Should the agreement advance into its next phase without either of these hitches, it will become infinitely more complicated as it involves larger objects of conflict, and also as other nation politicians involved face electoral pressures.


The anti-climactic takeaway is that little has actually changed. My personal opinion is that we would have been safer keeping the sanctions as they are and refusing to negotiate, letting Iran starve and encouraging its citizens to lynch the band of criminals in power. This strategy has proven to work, most notably against the USSR in the 1980s, and SOME elements of the ruling elite are actually quite in favor of a more open and democratic Iran because they would profit from such a change. Some militant proponents of diplomacy insist that Rouhani would have succeeded in uniting the Iranian people in blaming the West for continued economic failure if we refused to budge - I don't buy it. Such strategies have failed historically, and the internal divisions within Iran coupled with modern information technology would make this VERY difficult for Rouhani.

The deal is not some colossal guarantee of global destruction as Hannity or Netanyahou claim. But it nevertheless enables a brutal dictatorship while restricting us from effective means of dealing with it. Iran's government now runs a significant chance of enduring the modern global political shift, whereas with sanctions in place it was almost guaranteed to collapse. My hunch is that the other governments involved caved in the hopes that their own electorates would view this as a success in a sea of failures - a strategy that is also highly unlikely to work for Obama, Putin, and others.


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