Iran’s Self-Destabilization

Ted Carpenter writes

to deliberately destabilize the Iranian state by encouraging Baluch, Kurdish, Azeri and other secessionist movements strikes me as even more reckless. Yes, we hate the current government in Tehran (for very good reasons), but we must be careful not to create another cauldron of chaos in the Persian Gulf region .

What is destabilizing the Iranian state is not anything that the United States is doing or could do, but its own nature as a multi-national state whose rulers reject pluralism. Everywhere multi-national states have been breaking up in one way or another. The Soviet Union was born truly multi-national under the rule of a muti-ethnic Politburo that repressed rather than expressed Russian chauvinism, and in its old age had become lax with local potentates. But its national republics nevertheless split off to form independent nation-states, some of which remain Russian lieges but are even so independent. Yugloslavia’s break-up continues still after five national republics emerged with one more republic soon to come. Slovakia would not remain in Czechoslovakia; in Catalonia a referendum recently affirmed a separate national identity; and in different ways, separatism is the wave of the present outside Europe too, from Bolivia to Indonesia.

Only policies rigorously pluralist can contain the phenomenon. But Iran’s regime rejects religious pluralism to impose a specific hyper-clerical version of Twelver Shiism in all spheres of life, thus afflicting Bahais and Christians, and antagonizing the 9-10 % of the population who are Muslims but do not belong to the ruling sect. Paradoxically, a regime that presents itself as religious first and foremost also perpetuates the exquisitely secular phenomenon of Persian cultural imperialism, which cannot irritate overmuch the sub-Persian Gilakis and Mazandaranis, but which is totally unacceptable to the Baluch, Kurds and Arabs, and an increasing proportion of the Azeris who make up at least one quarter of Iran’s population. The choice for the United States is not whether to destabilize Iran or not: it is being fragmented by the extremist regime, whether we like it or not. The United States only has a lesser choice to make: do we follow the normal practice of American foreign policy in generally supporting political self-expression, whenever possible and not inconvenient—or do we exempt the Iranian regime. And why on earth do that ?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that American and European diplomacy aimed at derailing the Iranian clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weapons is, for various reasons, bound to fail. Gerecht maintains that we are then left to with two unattractive alternatives. “Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities, or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons?” he asks. Arguing that the latter option “would empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness,” Gerecht advises the former: a policy of preemptively bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Response Essays

  • Cato vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter argues Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis.” “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” Carpenter writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, which, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

  • In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

  • Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor Edward N. Luttwak argues that if diplomatic efforts fail, “the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment.” This can be a single quick strike, and need not destroy all the many Iranian facilities, Luttwak argues, because “the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along.” The Iranians can get nukes no sooner than three years, though, so within that time the U.S. should concentrate on weakening the Iranian regime through non-military punitive measures. Furthemore, Luttwak maintains that Iran could fragment along national lines. “There are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality,” Luttwak say, and U.S. policy aimed at weakening Iran should support them.