Dealing with Iran
To the Editor:
In his article, “Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran—Yet” [May], Edward N. Luttwak looks at Iran not merely through the prism of the current crisis but also from a long-term perspective. He rightly argues that, in fashioning its policies, the U.S. should ask what kind of Iran it wishes to see in the future, and how this can be realized.
This issue is not new. The “Persian question” preoccupied Great Britain for a century-and-a-half. Indeed, the classic British attitude toward Iran is much closer to the American position today than is Mr. Luttwak’s romanticized vision of a “natural” U.S.-Iran alliance that supposedly once existed and can be reestablished if Iranians were only freed from the rule of the mullahs.
Britain wanted Iran to be a weak buffer state to prevent Russia’s advance into the Indian subcontinent. The U.S. has had the same basic attitude. Even at the height of U.S.-Iran relations, after the 1953 coup d’etat, the U.S. provided the Shah’s government with a paltry amount of aid as compared, say, with what it provided Nasser’s Egypt. The U.S. never signed a comprehensive security agreement with Iran, and valued the country only as an export market, a client, and a buffer, not as an ally like Turkey or Saudi Arabia. In the 1970’s, when the Shah demanded to be treated like an ally, America came to see him as a liability, a view that helped shape events in the time leading up to the Islamic revolution there.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran’s value as a buffer disappeared. Its position between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea and its natural and human resources made it more of a headache and potential rival than a potential ally. This would have been the case even if it had had a secular regime, since the real cause was the inherent tension in relations between a global power and a potential regional power. Moreover, threats to Iran now no longer emanated from Russia but from the irredentist claims of some of its neighbors.
Mr. Luttwak’s analysis of Iran’s ethnic and sectarian problems is also faulty. One major problem arises from his confusion, widely shared in the West, between “Iran” and “Persia.” Contrary to popular belief, Iran has always been called just that. Reza Shah did not change the country’s name but merely demanded that Western countries refer to it properly. By the same token, “Iranians” consist of various Indo–Iranian groups that settled in Iran. Many of the groups that Mr. Luttwak sees as minorities alienated from the regime in fact consider Iranian-ness their defining quality.
Thus, it is simply not true that Iranian Azerbaijanis see the Republic of Azerbaijan as their natural home; they have long been fully integrated within Iranian society and the polity, with only some linguistic demands that could be accommodated in a more democratic Iran. Also, Iran’s treatment of its Sunnis does not include denouncing them as infidels who should be killed, as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and their disciples in places like Pakistan say of Shiites. Indeed, this kind of false talk about Iran only consolidates internal support for the regime as the only barrier to Iran’s disintegration and weakens democratic forces.
There are many reasons why the U.S. should not bomb Iran—now or later—not least that all of its neighbors are vulnerable to the disruptive forces that an attack would unleash. An attack would also doom forever the U.S.-Iranian alliance that Mr. Luttwak hopes for, irrespective of the nature of the regime that came to power. The U.S. needs another approach to dealing with its “Persian question.” Talking with Iran would be a good start.
Center for Strategic and International Studies
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak has long been one of America’s premier counterstrategists, going where more timid analysts fear to tread and having no truck with groupthink. He correctly urges us to understand the folly of bombing Iran—at least now. What better way to rally Iranians around their quixotic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than to bomb their homeland?
Mr. Luttwak also argues correctly that a world in which Iran has a nuclear bomb would be a dangerous place. Indeed, the case can be made that even a “reformed” Iranian government with nuclear capability would present grave risks. He is also surely right in his analysis that Tehran is still far from getting the bomb. This raises the question why the Bush administration has rushed Iran policy to the front burner now, despite a potentially significant cost to American prestige and standing—and even to our alliances, if other countries will not follow our lead in trying to force Tehran immediately to alter course.
Is Mr. Luttwak’s hope that the regime will crumble before genuine peril emerges from its nuclear program reasonable? Perhaps. But already, in the Bush administration and among much of the American elite, the issue is solidly sunk in concrete: Iran is perforce up to no good, it is about to “pass the point of no return,” and the only matter left in doubt is the best means to stop it—sanctions or, if need be, bombing. Similar reasoning helped lead us into Iraq, but that experience has had no chastening effect on the debate over Iran.
We need to follow Mr. Luttwak’s strategic reasoning a step further. He says that the U.S. and Iran are once and future allies, but he stops short of endorsing the pursuit of a different relationship with Iran. He does not explore the issues, beyond prestige—and Iran is a prestige-sensitive culture—that provoke countries to acquire nuclear weapons. In contrast to our dealings with North Korea, we have been unwilling to pledge not to attack Iran were it to become squeaky clean on nuclear issues—an offer that almost all Iranians would want their narrow leadership to accept. We did not even acknowledge credible feelers from Tehran in 2003 for a “grand bargain” along these lines.
Let us take one final step. Unless we want to be mired in the Middle East indefinitely, the U.S. needs to start work on a new strategic framework for the region. It is imperative that we set priorities, make choices, and look for common interests—even if possible partners look like the devil. A generation ago, to help get us out of Vietnam, a U.S. President called up one devil (China) in order to deal with another (the Soviet Union). If he were President today, Richard Nixon would likely be “going to Tehran” to deal with the mess in Iraq.
Robert E. Hunter
To the Editor:
I have long been a reader of Edward N. Luttwak’s strategic writings, and have recommended them to many, including my students at West Point. But I find myself in disagreement with him on the subject of American strategy toward Iran and its nuclear program.
Early on in his article, Mr. Luttwak asserts that “smart weapons” could inflict enough damage so that in “a single night of bombing,” and with minimal collateral damage, Iran’s nuclear program would be “interrupted in lasting ways.” This reflects an unrealistic faith in the dependability and accuracy of the weapons. Their performance in recent wars does not support the claims of their manufacturers that they have revolutionized warfare. Chaos theory and Murphy’s postulate that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” remain applicable to warfare, a human endeavor involving countless variables and the interactions of people gripped by fear and uncertainty.
It is evident that the Iranian nuclear program could be set back for a considerable period by air attack, but it seems clear that the effort would involve a major campaign and at least 1,000 strike sorties by aircraft and missiles. In the nature of things, planes will fail to reach their targets, weapons will miss, re-strikes will be necessary, etc. Excessive cleverness in attempting to target any complex system inevitably leads to a reliance on too few resources to do the job well. Iraq should be a stark reminder of that.
Mr. Luttwak further asserts that Iran and the U.S. are “natural allies” because Iran needs protection from Russia and America needs to keep Iran’s coastline out of the reach of “troublemakers” who could threaten the “weak and corrupt desert dynasties” on the other side of the Persian Gulf. He believes it will not be much longer before the progressive, pro-American Iranians shake off the bonds of the “mullocracy” that has been in power since the revolution, and set the country on a path toward modernization. Having been “oppressed” for so long by theocracy, the Iranian “people” will reject traditional Islamic rule and embrace behaviors and institutions alien to their ancestral ways, and all will be well.
This sounds remarkably like the vision of Iraqi society that was embraced by the Bush administration before our intervention there. There, too, the expectation was that if the “nation” was released from the bonds of tyranny and Oriental obscurantism, the country would embrace Western-style government, the civil servants would show up for work (unless they were Baathists), and the tendency of many Iraqis to think of themselves primarily as members of ethno-religious communities would atrophy.
But as with Iraq, the evidence from Iran runs the other way. There are no discernible revolutionary movements there. The much-vaunted expectation of a youth revolution that was to be manifested in the last general election never materialized. Instead, a medieval fanatic, representative of the most extreme elements of the Islamic revolution, became president, and he does not appear to be concerned about the stability of his position.
There is nothing in present Iranian behavior that supports Mr. Luttwak’s contention that inside most Iranian breasts there are feelings of friendship toward America waiting to emerge. If there are Iranian voices opposed to the nuclear ambitions of their country, I have yet to hear them.
W. Patrick Lang
To the Editor:
I fully concur with Edward N. Luttwak’s position that the U.S. should not bomb Iran, but I find myself in disagreement with some of the premises of his thoughtful article.
First, a few minor points of history. Contrary to what Mr. Luttwak writes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the “first non-cleric to win Iran’s presidency.” That honor belongs to Iran’s first president, Bani-Sadr, who was duly impeached when he dared to challenge the rising power of the clergy.
Also, in his brief description of the Iranian nuclear program, Mr. Luttwak falls into the trap of accepting the self-serving narrative of the mullahs. They claim that the U.S. has a double standard when it comes to uranium enrichment and Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program. The U.S., it is said, encouraged and aided the Shah’s nuclear ambitions, but is now putting obstacles before the mullah’s program. In fact, as soon as it realized that the Shah had been coveting the full enrichment cycle, the U.S. discreetly but forcefully pressured him to cease and desist.
The mullahs have a single-minded obsession: to stay in power. For them, the nuclear program is not so much deterrence against outside forces (as Mr. Luttwak suggests) as it is insurance against Iran’s indigenous democratic movement. The bomb, the mullahs think, will make them impervious to internal pressure.
In stating the reasons why the U.S. should not yet attack Iran, Mr. Luttwak fails to point out two crucial facts about the domestic Iranian situation. First, there are now serious fissures emerging within the ruling elite about the wisdom of the nuclear program and of Ahamadinejad’s confrontational tactics. An attack would simply help unite the otherwise fractured leadership.
Second, and more important, there is in Iran a viable democratic movement. It is now more dormant than in the past, but recent massive demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities have shown that it could come to life at any moment. An American or Israeli attack on the country would sound the death knell of this movement. The nuclear threat, as well as the larger war on terror and radical Islam, can only be won if the silent, prudent, and moderate middle classes of the Muslim world rise up against these scourges. An attack on Iran today is sure to force these crucial forces of moderation into even more prolonged and dangerous silence.
Iran Democracy Project
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak argues that we should wait to take military action against Iran because the incompetent and unpopular fanatics running the country will eventually lose power. This misses the obvious counterexample of Castro’s Cuba, a country whose government is at least as incompetent and unpopular, but which has outlived so many predictions over the decades of its imminent collapse. Iran, with its vast energy reserves, has far more resources with which to fund its army and maintain its hold over the population.
Mr. Luttwak says that military action would only help the Iranian regime present itself as an underdog. But the fact is that most of Iran’s neighbors (not just Israel) are terrified of the prospect of an Iranian bomb. In any case, fear of angering the Muslim/Arab street is a tired argument, and should not be a barrier to acting on such a vital concern.
Finally, Mr. Luttwak is skeptical that Iran has the technical wherewithal to produce nuclear weapons. But one need only look at the example of North Korea to see that where there is a will there is a way, even in backward countries. Pakistan, India, and China all developed the bomb before achieving any general national level of scientific proficiency. We simply cannot know for sure what Iran has or has not achieved.
Princeton, New Jersey
Edward N. Luttwak writes:
I have only a few disagreements with Shireen Hunter’s interesting observations.
One is that, notwithstanding the absence of any security treaty—an absence she rightly notes—in the two cold-war periods when Iran did face an authentic strategic threat from the Soviet Union, the United States did not abandon it but on the contrary stood ready to defend it vigorously. In 1946, the U.S. did for Iran what, for example, it refused to do for Poland or Czechoslovakia, i.e., extrude an already implanted Russian presence. Then, in the 1970’s, as I know from my own personal participation, structural innovations were introduced into the U.S. Army—the 7th Light Infantry Division survives to this day—specifically to defend Iran, in the event of a Soviet invasion, by an innovative combination of mountain warfare and air power. So it is not right to dismiss the notion of a congruence of fundamental security interests as a “romantic vision”: there was politically risky diplomacy in 1946, and elaborate military preparation of the most concrete sort in the 1970’s.
Nor need Shireen Hunter worry about a confusion on my part between Persia and Iran, or for that matter among Persia, Parthia, and Iran. Actually, there has never been any confusion on the part of anyone with a passing interest in their history. While the Achaemenid empire, eventually defeated by Alexander the Great, was known as Persian to Greek-speakers, they knew full well that Persia (Persis to them) was only one of its many satrapies. Similarly the Romans who fought the Arsacid Parthian dynasty (ruled from Mesopotamia) knew that Parthia (Ashkanian) far to the northeast was only its original province.
It was the Sasanian (or, to Hellenize, Sassanid) rulers in their long battle with the Byzantine empire who first eschewed original associations to claim Iran (Eran, or Eranshahr, domain of the Eranians or Aryans) as their territory, in line with their assertion of a more ancient and more glorious imperial role than that proclaimed by their Arsacid predecessors. From then until now, “Iran” has defined the core of an often much larger imperial territory (the Iranian plateau), while the adjective “Persian” has continued to apply to the language and arts of the dominant metropolitan culture. In the West, without any real confusion, “Persia” has merely served as loose short-hand for the greater entity, in a manner analogous to the use of “England” to mean Great Britain, or even the United Kingdom.
Things become more serious when Shireen Hunter dismisses the different nationalisms that will sooner or later change the map, replacing today’s Iran with a distinctly smaller but more cohesive Persian-language state. Hers is a familiar metropolitan delusion. It was the same with the Germans of 1848 who simply would not believe that Czechs would ever want an inferior, provincial state of their own, and would even go so far as to claim German Prague for its capital. Again, in Moscow not very long ago, it was people of Ukrainian origin who were most emphatic in dismissing the possibility that Ukrainians would ever want to separate under their own flag, merely because of some minor linguistic differences that did not even apply to most inhabitants of eastern Ukraine.
However strongly felt, such sentiments are still delusions, while nationalist separatism is the reality abundantly manifest everywhere. Unconsciously echoing more or less the exact words of her predecessors in the same delusion, Shireen Hunter writes:
Many of the groups that Mr. Luttwak sees as minorities alienated from the regime in fact consider Iranian-ness their defining quality. Thus, it is simply not true that Iranian Azerbaijanis see the Republic of Azerbaijan as their natural home; they have long been fully integrated within Iranian society and the polity, with only some linguistic demands that could be accommodated in a more democratic Iran.
Since reading her words, I have seen the news reports of overwhelming mass demonstrations in the city of Tabriz, with its 1.2 million mostly Azeri inhabitants, as well as in many other localities. The slogans in Tabriz included: “Independence or Death” and “Tabriz, Capital of United Azerbaijan.” I have no doubt that among the twenty million and more Azeris in Iran, there are many who are thoroughly assimilated and have no interest in separatism; plenty of people of Ukrainian origin are content to remain Russians in Russia, just as Czech names are common in Vienna. But those who live in Azeri-majority areas in northwest Iran evidently think otherwise. And while they would not want to be ruled by the much smaller number of their compatriots in the Republic of Azerbaijan, they would be happy to rule them in a united Azerbaijan.
There are now many organizations active among the Azeris in Iran, with support groups throughout Europe and North America; I have at my fingertips a list of three dozen or more. Nor do the Iranian authorities, for their part, seem to share the metropolitan delusion: according to reports in the Turkish press, they have placed Azeri military officers under surveillance, and are implementing other (futile) security measures.
Among other ethno-linguistic groups in Iran, some do, as Shireen Hunter writes, identify themselves as fully Iranian, even if they speak a different tongue (defined by linguists as a language, not a dialect). These include the Gilakis and Mazandaranis. But this is emphatically not true of the Kurds, against whom the government must now use field artillery; of the Arabs, who place bombs in Ahwaz and have no further use for Iran now that next-door Iraq is no longer ruled by Sunnis; of the Baluch, who are fiercely fighting for their own state across Iran and Pakistan; or now of the Azeris, who—unlike Kurds, Arabs, and Baluch—are not peripheral and who amount to almost a third of Iran’s total population. It was indeed inevitable that exasperated religion would foment secularism in Iran, and that long-standing Persian supremacist tendencies, accentuated in recent decades, would energize the separatist forces that will reduce Iran to its Persian and “Iranic” core, peacefully or otherwise.
With regard to W. Patrick Lang’s two points, I would claim only that to fly 1,000 sorties against the mostly non-flying Iranian air force and obsolete missile defenses would be to flog dead horses egregiously, and that medium-altitude delivery of precision weapons of choice would negate anti-aircraft artillery (guns being simpler affairs than missiles, they are more likely to work and, if aimed manually, are proof against electronic countermeasures). As for the sentiments lurking in Iranian breasts, I can make no such confident assertion, but what I hear from visitors, unanimously, is that years of the regime’s anti-Americanism have induced an almost uncritical pro-Americanism, just as one would expect.
For the rest, I appreciate the points made by my other correspondents, but I still believe that we should neither attack Iran now nor allow it to attain nuclear weapons.