The Great Satan, that’s what they call us. The Axis of Evil, that’s what we call them. We can’t forgive them for the 1979 kidnappings and takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. They can’t forgive us for overthrowing their elected leaders and installing the Shah in 1953. We see their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a religious fanatic who is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear technology and who is committed to the destruction of our regional ally, Israel. They see our president as a religious fanatic who is hell-bent on toppling muslim governments everywhere.
There really isn’t any middle ground here. The physical realities aren’t about to change. Our troops bracket Iran, on their eastern border with Afghanistan, on their western border with Iraq, and in the Persian Gulf to the south. We aren’t about to leave any time soon. Their leadership must feel threatened. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have Russian troops in Mexico and Canada during the Cold War—that must be how Iran feels now. Of course they are trying to acquire nuclear weapons. If they truly intended to develop nuclear technology simply for the production of energy, why not agree to light-water reactors that are able to produce energy but not weapons-grade uranium? They want a full nuclear fuel cycle because it allows for the production of nuclear weapons.
It is possible that Iran is simply moving along the course of acquiring nuclear weapons because they have learned from North Korea that the nuclear weapons card is a valuable bargaining chip that other countries will pay dearly to remove from play. In fact, this is probable. That said, Iran is not North Korea.
North Korea is almost completely dependent upon China for energy and food. South Koreans view the North Koreans as their unfortunate brothers and hope that the country will be peacefully reunified one day, much like Germany finally was. Kim Jong Il is fanatical about maintaining his hold on power, but so long as he doesn’t feel as though North Korea is about to be attacked, there really is no reason for him to start a war. Actually, given the realities of the million-man DPRK army, about the only way to win a war with North Korea is for them to start the war. North Korea is not surrounded by hostile forces and they have nothing of any value to the rest of the world. If they weren’t developing nuclear weapons, there would be no way they could get China, Russia, Japan and the United States even to listen to their complaints. The correct way of handling that situation is to do what we are doing and ignore them.
Iran sees itself as the vanguard of a dawning Shiite ascendancy. Their long time historical foe, not to mention regional counter-balance, Iraq, has been neutralized (how they used Ahmed Chalabi to enable us into doing this is another story). They have, by far, the strongest domestic military in the region. Without a militarily strong Iraq (or occupying US force in Iraq), there would be no one to stop them from forcefully subduing all of the Arabian Peninsula.
Moreover, they have used Hezbollah to attack Israel and survived the Israeli Defense Force retaliation, which makes them the victor of that confrontation in the minds of the people. This is something that Al Qaeda, a Sunni brand of radicalism, hasn’t been able to do. Iran has managed to grab the reigns of radical Islam.
Israel is unable to accept a nuclear Iran. When Iraq began construction on the Osirak nuclear plant in the late 70’s, Israel bombed it in 1981 before it went online. They will need to do the same in Iran, especially since they were unable to defeat Hezbollah during that most recent conflict.
The principle thing that has kept Israel safe is the idee fixe in the Islamic world that any attack on Israel will be met with crushing defeat. This has been true of every conflict in the past, from the 1948 War of Independence to the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War. Every time an Islamic force confronts Israel, it is not just defeated—it is decimated. Until now. If Hezbollah, a non-state actor, can attack Israel and not be completely destroyed, then perhaps it would be possible for some larger force to actually defeat Israel. At least this is what Israel must worry that it’s permanently hostile neighbors are now thinking.
All of these factors mean we are on a course for conflict with Iran—unless we sacrifice Israel and abandon the region to complete Iranian hegemony. Nobody wants to see this happen, nor should it happen. We should never sacrifice a true ally, and Israel needs us now more than ever. There is also no reason why Iraq should not be added to this list of sincere US allies like South Korea, Japan and Germany (notice the pattern?). Yes, there is a strategic natural resource in the Middle East, but that is the problem with the region and not the reason for our presence.
If some sort of conflict is unavoidable, then we should look to the options available and see what will yield the optimal outcome for our side. There are four obvious paths that may be taken. The first would be dialogue. The second would be military action. The third would be sanctions and cold-war. The last is the option of status-quo.
For dialogue to happen, there would have to be some understanding of areas of compromise and mutual understanding. As it is, it would be difficult for Iran to accept détente with the country that has been their measuring-stick for evil personified over the last 25 years. Iranian children are taught to chant ‘Death to America’ on their first day of school. That sort of indoctrination doesn’t change quickly. The Iranian Ayatollahs hold power in large part because they stand up to America and Israel. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that they cannot stay in power if they acquiesce to American demands. That belief is so strong that they cannot even enter into a situation that would permit them to appear to have acted in concert with America.
Sincere and profitable dialogue, therefore, cannot commence without a radical regime change on one side or the other. Regime change in America will not be radical. For all of the differences between the Democrats and Republicans, at the end of the day the American President is still the President of America. As such, the President must consider the needs of the United States to be more important that the needs of Iran. Liberal or Conservative, the United States is and must be committed to Israel, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This will not change, no matter who is in the White House.
Regime change in Iran is possible. Surely the Ayatollahs fear it. However, for our government to attempt a coup in Tehran would likely only drive the populace closer to the ruling party. After all, it was a reaction against an American-installed leader that allowed the current regime to gain the popular support to assume power. Regime change, therefore, must be allowed to happen in a more organic manner, which is not to say the possibility should not be fostered, like the ‘colored’ revolutions in much of the former Iron Curtain states.
Dialogue is a worthy pursuit in its own right and should be sincerely attempted simply on this basis. I don’t believe that the average Iranian actually longs for the death of America, no matter how much they chant it. However, it would be foolish to assume that the current environment will yield anything fruitful or even permit dialogue.
Militarily Iran may posses the strongest army in the Middle East, but they can’t hold a candle to the armed services of the United States. That is not to say that taking on Iran would be a walk in the park. Iran is a large (636,272 square miles), diverse country (68.5 million people) that would put up a strong defense of their homeland. They fought Iraq for the better part of a decade and lost over half a million men in the conflict without giving up. Their national hero is the prophet Hussein who lead a Persian army against Iraq. The fact that Hussein and every single member of his army was slaughtered makes him no less revered. On the contrary, they view anyone killed in a national battle as a martyr.
Defeating the armies, navies and air forces of foreign nations is what the US Armed services were designed to do. I have no doubt that they would be able to defeat the Iranian forces. The problem, much like in Iraq, will come once our troops must pacify the country. Attacking Iran would almost certainly galvanize the Iranian population to defend their homeland. The reality of subduing a proud nation that revers the underdog and martyrdom the way Iran does would require an army the likes of which hasn’t been seen since World War II. Iran has lists of thousands of men who have agreed to “martyrdom operations,” a.k.a. suicide operations, whenever the government calls upon them.
Some might argue that simply bombing the country would be enough, but I think that the lesson to be learned from the most recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is that a Doctrine of Total Air Warfare is an inadequate means to military victory. Of course, if we were to subscribe to a Clausiwitzian idea of total war, the military option is viable. However, a total war victory would be pyrrhic at best, especially since the occupation of Iran is not in the fundamental strategic interest of the United States. It is unlikely that the American public would be willing to condone such a war and protracted occupation.
Others have suggested that a limited military option would be successful if we just sank the Iranian navy, controlled the Persian Gulf completely, and captured the oil fields. This idea is technically possible. However, I don’t see how this would not make the Arab world view us as anything more than a nation of thieves. We would be doing exactly what they said we were doing in the region, stealing their wealth. Moreover, the Iranians have more influence in Iraq than we do. If we were to jeopardize their sole source of revenue (read: stability), then they would do everything in their power to retaliate, including attacking Israel and unleashing Hezbollah around the world (Hezbollah has attacked Israeli embassies as far away as South America). What would they have to lose? They wouldn’t be able to take their oil fields back by force, but they could make it more expensive to keep them than it would be to give them back.
There is the sanctions option. In black and white terms, this should work. There is some evidence that embargos against Iraq were at least partially successful. The problem is that the world is not black and white. Japan and China need Iranian oil. They would not be willing to suffer as a country just to uphold the principles of the United States. Furthermore, as China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it would be almost impossible to get a resolution with any real teeth passed against Iran. So if there cannot be a significant resolution passed and there is no real way to enforce any resolution that is passed, then sanctions simply will not work. We could attempt a full embargo of Iran, but that would bring us back to the same place as a limited military action against the Iranian oil industry with the same corresponding consequences.
The final option would be to maintain the status quo. The Iranians would inch towards a full nuclear fuel cycle that would yield nuclear weapons sometime in the next 5 – 7 years. Before they reach that point, the Israelis would bomb the nuclear facilities at Anarak, Bushehr, Esfahan and Natanz as hard as they could to attempt to remove the nuclear technology from Iranian possession. This would mean that Iran would either have to accept a humiliating thrashing from a country they consider to be illegitimate, or they would have to respond by attacking Israel proper (perhaps leading the rest of the muslim world with them).
There are several variations on how this might play out. In some cases, the US carries out the air strikes to shield Israel from a potential retaliation. Our two countries are so linked in the minds of average middle-easterner that we are almost interchangeable. However the subtleties play out, the facts are that we cannot simply allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons as we can with North Korea. Israel is our regional ally and we will not abandon her. Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire a nuclear payload, and so we cannot allow this to happen.
If we believed that North Korea would be aggressive towards South Korea or Japan, then things would be different in that part of the world as well. Iran has already attacked Israel—albeit via proxy—and has publicly called for the destruction of Israel. As crazy as Kim Jong Il seems to Americans, he has done neither of these things. Iran isn’t the same as North Korea. Iran will be attacked before they develop a nuclear weapon and there will be consequences.
So if there are no good options, what are we to do? Simply wait for the red line to be crossed, bomb the nuclear plants and hope that our intelligence was sufficiently perceptive to know whether the line had not been crossed? This seems like an uninspired course of action. Perhaps we can look at the problem from a different view. What would be the optimal outcome? For our side at least, the optimal outcome would be to return to something like when the American-installed Shah was in power. During most of the 60’s and 70’s, Iran was the bedrock of stability, at least from the Western vantage point. Every American president visited Tehran, and in fact there was a great interest in the west of building nuclear power plants all across Iran. How ironic.
If the optimal outcome is not directly achievable, we have to wonder if it is possible at all. Why don’t we revisit the calculus of the region? What is it that permits Iran to threaten Israel and the rest of the Persian Gulf states? They have a populist leader who has the love of the people. How do we change that? The people must want things to change. The reformers need to be back in power. However, we have already determined this has to come from the grass roots of Iran; external influence will not be tolerated.
So then things must become sufficiently painful for the people of Iran that they would rather see things change than maintain the status quo. Is this possible? Some would argue that sanctions would be sufficient to accomplish this. However, it has already been argued that sanctions will be ineffective so long as oil is needed outside of Iran. As long as Iran controls a dominant strategic resource, the leadership of Iran will be able to afford to maintain its hold on power.
Simply put, Iran’s only valuable commodity is oil. The only other thing they have to offer the world are rugs. America is addicted to oil: we are the worlds largest net importer and consumer of oil. We consume over 20 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Department of Energy. This is a strategic weakness of the United States. Our money is given to our enemies and this is what allows them to fight us. We literally subsidize the opposing side. I know what you’d say, that we don’t actually acquire oil from the Middle East; we get most of our oil from Venezuela. And you’d be right, though you’d have to be living under a rock to think that Hugo Chavez and Caracas were friends to our country. Moreover, the more demand that we put on the supply, the more valuable oil is on the open market.
We cannot simply take the oil reserves of Iran, nor should we even if it were simple. Therefore, the way to win the war is to make oil dirt cheap.
I’ll say it again: The fact that we are a net importer of oil is a strategic weakness of the United States and one that must be addressed. We subsidize farmers across the country to ensure that we never have to be net importers of food, even though it could be grown more cheaply elsewhere and shipped in. Why? Because it would be a strategic weakness of the United States if we were dependent upon other countries for our food supplies. If you can understand this, they you can see why it is important for us to kick the oil addiction.
Oil is a fixed commodity, with a (relatively) fixed supply. Therefore, in order to significantly affect the value of oil, we have to significantly reduce the demand. If we could significantly and in short order reduce our oil consumption, the oil market would collapse. Would Iran still be able to produce nuclear weapons if they can no longer charge $65 a barrel for oil? What if oil is $8 a barrel? It is possible. North Korea has done it and they don’t have anything of value to sell on the open market (except missile technology). However, North Korea has China as a patron. Iran doesn’t have a wealthy patron, nor is there one waiting in the wings.
Iran subsidizes everything in their country. Gas is 70 cents a gallon, which is less than it costs them to pull it out of the ground even without refining costs. Education and health care are all picked up by the government. What happens if the government can no longer pick up these tabs? How popular would a populist leader remain without regular government handouts?
How then do we kick the oil habit? Sure, everyone could go out and buy a hybrid car or fuel efficient light bulbs… and they should. But this is war. We need to think big to win this war and treat the problem like the strategic problem that it really is. What if we use some of the defense department budget (this is war!) to start upgrading every single-family home in the country? The Army Corps of Engineers is given their largest task ever: put a set of solar-panels on the roof every single-family home in the country. While we’re at it, think about the next war and make them all EMP-hardened. Can you imagine what a dramatic and immediate effect this would have? How about some numbers: 20% of the daily oil consumption (4.1 million barrels per day about the same amount that Iran produces daily) is used in distillate fuel oil consumption, a.k.a. heating the home.
Too scared of the military operating on american soil? How about the free market approach? We have a 5-year plan where everyone who pays taxes has an extra war tax of a few hundred dollars. That money goes into subsidizing the construction of solar panels on single family homes. All the money is going back into the economy that way—what a shot in the arm that would be. We would immediately become the world leader in solar power and battery technology. This would yield many other benefits for the tech sector and perhaps fuel a new economic boom like we haven’t really seen since the early dot.com days.
Yes, yes, I know that there are many people who work at Exxon/Moblie or a number of other fossil fuel plants around the country that might have to come up with a new job. This is the way of things. I don’t mean to sound hard-hearted, but we should never legislate a business model. This is simply too important for the long-term prospects of our country to limit ourselves because it will displace some small percentage of the workforce. Think of all of the new cottage industries that will spring up to build, maintain and improve solar technology.
Or perhaps these people could see the writing on the wall. Exxon/Mobil is the Fortune One company; they have made profits of roughly $1,600 per second the last couple of quarters. What if they decided to stop treating their customers as customers and start treating them as a resource to be developed? They could install and maintain the solar panels on the roofs of customers; they would own that equipment and charge the users a monthly access fee, interest on purchasing the equipment, or both. With the profits they make, they could put solar panels on nearly 10 million homes in three years without moving out of the black. Imagine the good will such a move would engender towards the Exxon/Mobile brand. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company like that?
I’m not suggesting that solar power is a panacea—I think we need to look to France as well. When Russia turned off the oil flowing to Ukraine and therefore also to Europe, most of Europe seized up. France, however, just shrugged, and why? Because they get most of their power from nuclear plants. I know that there is a lot of fear of nuclear technology. But if the North Koreans (and the French) can manage it without blowing themselves up, then surely we, the inventors of nuclear technology, have the requisite savvy as well.
That brings me to the other little side benefit of all this oil detoxification: global warming. When you compare a little nuclear waste to a global ice-age, nuclear power looks darn right green (and not in a glowing Cerenkov radiation kind of way, either).
There it is. Build some new nuclear reactors, build some new wind-farms and put solar panels on anything with enough roof space and structural integrity to accommodate it. This will, in turn, increase research and development of power technologies, in particular batteries. This will lead to better hybrid cars. Perhaps we’ll even be able to get the solar panels to be efficient enough to generate more power than the average household consumes.
Also, we need to hit the pumps. I know that there are hybrid options out there, but they still use refined oil. We need viable alternative fuel options. I’m sorry, E85 proponents, but ethanol isn’t viable, simply because there isn’t enough corn produced to use corn for all of the things the corn industry wants to do with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love an ear of corn. But why do we have to use it for everything? We use corn syrup to sweeten pretty much everything and feed corn meal to just about every form of livestock and we put corn meal as a filler in just about every processed food. There simply isn’t enough corn produced to do all of the things that corn does, and power all of the cars in the country too.
What we need is for DARPA (or some other government agency) to develop a new type of engine, something that will be able to power a country’s-worth of cars on clean, renewable energy. Then the technology needs to be given away to every car manufacturer. There are precedents for this seemingly altruistic behavior. The government already collects massive amounts of weather data and that is freely distributed. The internet and HTML were originally government inventions. The economy has flourished precisely because these types of technologies are given away for general use. We all benefit. It is all too clear that auto makers aren’t going to be able to shoulder the load themselves. This could potentially reduce the amount of oil consumed by nearly 20 million barrels per day.
If we reduce our oil consumption that drastically, the market for oil will collapse. Other countries will follow our example and likely buy into American technologies for solar power and batteries and next generation engines. Then we’ll be able to save the oil for important things like making plastics. It would really suck if we not only ran out of oil, but had to come up with another ubiquitous material to replace plastic. We stop the global warming trend. As a side benefit to all of this, the fanatical regime in Tehran implodes.
That is how we win the war with Iran, not with bombs or threats or sanctions but with hard work, ingenuity and the will to make the world a better place, the very things that make this country the last remaining super-power on the planet. If only we were truly as great a country as the rest of the world believes we should be.
Updated news: From the Department of Energy “A concentrator solar cell produced by Boeing-Spectrolab has recently achieved a world-record conversion efficiency of 40.7 percent, establishing a new milestone in sunlight-to-electricity performance. This breakthrough may lead to systems with an installation cost of only $3 per watt, producing electricity at a cost of 8-10 cents per kilowatt/hour, making solar electricity a more cost-competitive and integral part of our nation’s energy mix.”