Archive for July, 2007

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Serious commentators in America state unequivocally that the Bush administration will attack Iran and that this will happen without notice because of the president’s interpretation of his powers as commander in chief. It would almost have to be that way, because there are few American supporters of such an insane scheme.

Overseas, Israel is the only country that has been quite openly encouraging the U.S. to attack Iran. However, although it is extremely unlikely that it will ever become public, some Sunni Arab regimes might not see such an attack as wholly undesirable. There are the perennial Sunni-Shia tensions. In addition, the ancient struggle over hegemony in the gulf is still alive and well, and there is a fairly high level of anxiety in the Sunni Arab world that Iran, if it goes nuclear, will become the dominant power in the region at the expense of those Sunni Arab regimes.

That notwithstanding, there is zero support among what’s left of our allies around the World for a U.S. attack of any kind on Iran.

Support for such an attack here at home stems mainly from our most conservative political elements. In Iran, it seems likely that the only support for that policy would come from the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards.

The only two players who really matter are Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad, who sound like two gunslingers in the old West. Neither of them enjoys much support from their people.

Bush is in trouble over a multitude of issues from Iraq to Scooter Libby. His poll numbers are abysmally low and unlikely to rise. He has lost his majorities in the Congress. He is beginning to lose support from Republican congressmen who are coming up for re-election and who see further blind support of failed Bush policies as virtual political suicide.

In Iran, President Ahmadinejad enjoys roughly equal popularity. Nothing he has promised has worked. Inflation is rampant. Housing costs have risen steeply. Food prices are up, and just recently we have learned that the price of gasoline has been raised significantly. Instead of tending to the needs of the Iranians, he has spent massive amounts of money on Iran’s nuclear program and in support of foreign adventures. There are protests and rioting in the streets of Iran.

So we have two presidents with much in common. They are both in deep political trouble. They both shoot from the hip. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that they see the same salvation for themselves in a military confrontation.

President Bush has “promised” that he would attack Iran if they did not give up their nuclear program before he leaves office. In the absence of rational foreign policy guidance from his “team,” he may honestly believe that his best contribution to the welfare of the world would an unannounced, massive precision missile strike. Apparently we already have such a plan on the books in the Pentagon. Never mind that military experts agree that this would not eliminate the nuclear threat for more than a short period of time.

The only thing, it would appear, that has the potential to unite a now discontented and divided Iran behind Ahmadinejad would be just such a strike. Any U.S. military action against Iran would be likely to unify the country, despite its difficulties and differences, against us and cause us major problems around the world.

So both presidents would appear to believe they have something to gain from a military confrontation. The situation is ripe for provocation. We have a large chunk of our Navy sitting in the narrow confines of the gulf. We have our Army and Marines stretched out all over Iraq. The Army now says that Iran is providing materiel that is killing our soldiers. If that is true, Iran must know that it is taking a major risk of providing the rationale for an American attack against them.

The Iranian navy has recently run a provocation against the British navy in the Gulf. The Brits reacted calmly and rationally and that threat appears over. What will happen if they do the same to us? Will we find a casus belli in that or in some other Iranian provocation? Are we seeking that? Is that what Iran wants?

This is an extremely dangerous situation in which the leaders of both countries seem to have reason not to avoid military confrontation. It would only take one well-planned provocation for the whole thing to blow up. With the cowboys in charge, there’s no telling what will happen.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Iran and Lebanon and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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Iran is not the enemy

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

In Mid-June, the BBC reported that 57 Iranian economists, including many university economics professors, had strongly criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his “unscientific” economic policies, which have negatively impacted Iran. Implicit in their denunciation is the premise that the allocation of resources (read oil) to the nuclear program is having a major negative effect on Iranians, particularly those “of modest means.”

Americans may be surprised. In what they view as a tightly controlled country like Iran, would anyone be sufficiently foolhardy to speak up in this manner? Won’t such outspokenness against the country’s president end in disaster for the protesters?
Iran is a country with more than its share of thoughtful, pragmatic, independent, educated people. There is a strong intelligentsia with educational and philosophical ties to the West. Iran is not a democracy in our sense of the word, but is it freer than many think.

Additionally, there is room in their system for constructive dissent. When that dissent focuses on the currently deplorable condition of the Iranian economy, including inflation and the rising prices of food and housing, it is not only acceptable, it is powerful. It is powerful because the ayatollahs understand and are a bit anxious about Iran’s tradition of secular government. Iran still holds relatively free elections, and life there is not the model of religious orthodoxy that the ayatollahs would clearly like to see. Sure, they are in power, but there are always those masses out there, and if they are not happy, their power is in danger.

What should be clear from the economists’ tirade is that Iran is not the terrible threat it is often alleged to be. Internal discontent over mismanagement of income from its oil industry, the country’s premier natural resource, brings dissent. Even at its present level, this discontent produces the kind of instability that has to worry the ayatollahs.

If Iran were properly exploiting its oil resources, as well as the income from that sector of the economy, the country would be in far better economic (and political) shape that it now finds itself. With the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, there should be no problems. However, with only one refinery, Iran doesn’t even produce enough refined oil products for its own internal use. Those products are in short supply and far more expensive than they should be. Yet despite the oil income, there is no capital for a second refinery. Everyone in Iran knows this. These are not stupid people.

The current argument that Iran represents a threat to the United States does not appear to hold much water — probably not much more water than that Iran is an immediate threat to Israel. No, it would appear that, given the realities under which it is now functioning, Iran is vulnerable to just the kind of mischief of which President Bush so often fondly speaks. Our ability to manipulate world finances and deny capital input to Iran is pretty well established. In a world less full of American rhetoric, there should also be room for serious, highly effective sanctions from most of the rest of the world.

What America really should be doing is ratcheting down its hyperbole against Iran. President Bush’s proclivity to “confront the bad guys” does us only harm. His brand of puerile machismo is joyfully and thankfully replayed by the Ahmadinejad government to keep the faithful and not so faithful ginned up and in line. They need a common enemy. What would they do without Bush?

The one thing we don’t need to do is alienate regular Iranians. They are, after all, the ones who are our inadvertent allies in that their pressures on their own government will probably influence Iran to move in directions favorable to us. Anything we can do quietly and surreptitiously to exacerbate the tensions between regular Iranians and their government is in our favor. There is much potential there.

There is currently heavy pressure to take military action. It comes from Israel, some American conservatives, “Christian Zionists,” some neoconservatives (as if they haven’t already made enough of a contribution in getting us into Iraq), and even from Connecticut’s “independent Democratic” Sen. Lieberman (another Iraq hawk). On a more sinister note, al-Qaida through its Web sites and some Russians oligarchs through their Washington lobbyists are trying to influence us to bomb Iran. What we surely do not need is any kind of military action against Iran any time soon. If Iran had already tested an atomic weapon, it might be considered, but today it is absurd. The one immediate result of such action would be to unite regular Iranians (our inadvertent allies) against us, thus removing or at least mitigating whatever hope we might have for effective, internally instigated pressure for change in Iran.

We have time. We just need to use it wisely.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut, Tehran, Berlin and Prague and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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