Rewarding Iran’s bad behavior

Manufacturing superpowers.

A crisis hotline with Iran?  Are mutual assured destruction and arms-control negotiation next?

An essential point of understanding is this: the problem with MAD in the Cold War was that it didn’t work on the Russians nearly as well as it worked on us.  The Soviet Russians never wanted to shoot nuclear missiles at us.  They just wanted to be able to hold us at risk so that our behavior would be constrained, and theirs could proceed on schedule.  Most of the time, they achieved that goal (rare exceptions would include Nixon’s deterrence of Soviet intervention in the 1973 war).

The MAD regime inhibited the US, but did not inhibit the Soviets when it came to the things they really wanted to do:  hold the Warsaw Pact nations under their boot, foment revolution, and arm Marxist insurgencies in third-party nations abroad.  Indeed, MAD did the opposite:  it gave cover to Soviet revolutionary adventurism.

So it is a terrible idea to implement a de facto Cold War-like regime with Iran.  This is not solely because the Iranian leadership is uniquely committed to a lunatic policy of immanentizing the eschaton.  That matters, but it’s not the most important downside to a MAD regime with Iran.  The important weakness of the idea is something even likelier: that an institutionalized standoff with Iran would give Iran cover for an accelerated career of foreign troublemaking.

Iran doesn’t want to hunker down like a turtle within her borders.  Revolutionary Iran wants the latitude to push outward across the region through Islamist insurgencies and “cultural jihad.”  Tehran already sponsors Hezbollah, Hamas, the homicidal Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Iran arms the Taliban and other Islamists fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and has a close, arms-and-supplies-based relationship with Shia Islamists in southern Iraq.  Iran also backs elements of the Shia opposition in Bahrain (an especially problematic situation given that Shia Bahrainis have legitimate grievances against the minority Sunni ruling class).  Prior to the Arab Spring, Iran was using cultural centers in Arab nations across the Middle East and North Africa for jihadist recruitment.

But the Iranian threat isn’t just in the Eastern hemisphere.  Through the magic of foreign alliances, Tehran now has the prospect of using territory in Central America – Venezuela, perhaps eventually Nicaragua and Bolivia – for military purposes.  This is a late-coming option, of course; Hezbollah has been in the Americas for years.  But Iran has never been this close to being able to deploy medium-range ballistic missiles (in Venezuela) that can hit the Southeastern United States.

In such a situation, it would be exceptionally foolish for the US to institute a crisis hotline with Iran.  Yet this is one of the options reportedly under consideration for addressing a recent series of dangerous incidents at sea in the Persian Gulf.

The incidents primarily involve the speedboats operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); another set of incidents involves Iranian naval aircraft.  In both cases, the swift-moving nature of the encounters makes a hotline linking higher headquarters irrelevant to the developments on-scene.  A hotline in such cases would be used mainly to register complaints.  Whether Iran took advantage of the medium or not, the prospect of the US developing a standard operating procedure for complaining to Iran has farce written all over it.

This is undoubtedly well understood by the Defense Department chain of command and the experienced diplomats at State.  There is reason to hope that a hotline is not being seriously proposed to address fleeting incidents at sea.  On the other hand, the WSJ article mentions some form of an “incidents at sea” agreement with Iran, like the INCSEA agreement concluded with the Soviet Union under Nixon.  That is equally problematic, for one thing because the particulars of the US-USSR INCSEA agreement have little applicability to Iran and the Persian Gulf.

But the main reason it’s a bad idea to seek an INCSEA agreement is that a crucial element is missing in the situation with Iran:  acceptance of US legitimacy in the region.  Tehran would not approach negotiating an INCSEA as Soviet Moscow did, on the basis of two legitimate powers agreeing to a naval modus vivendi.  Iran’s negotiating objective, under her current leadership, would be at a minimum the departure of the US Navy from the Gulf.

Details aside, proposals like a hotline or an INCSEA do one especially inadvisable thing:  they open the door to legitimating and institutionalizing Iran’s posture of armed hostility.  In striking the tocsin of the Cold War, they suggest a fatalistic, temporizing mode of thinking in the White House.

They also violate the first principle of the carrot-and-stick method:  reward good behavior.

We can be glad that WSJ quotes an unnamed official as saying the question of setting up a hotline is “premature,” but it is disquietingly premature for anyone to even be thinking about one.  Iran is no Soviet Union; revolutionary Iran can only become a partner in hotlines and INCSEA negotiations – and presumably, down the road, MAD – if the US prematurely treats her as if she has us checkmated.

Only the US can boost Iran to the trappings of Cold War-style superpower status.  Iran can’t do it on her own. The last thing the US administration should be doing is talking about it.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

8 thoughts on “Rewarding Iran’s bad behavior”

  1. nice little essay. don’t really understand how you decided that we were about to implement a whole MAD regime with iran, rather than simple set up some sort of direct communication between ourselves and a nation with which we don’t have normal relations nor direct communication.

    there really can not be any sort of MAD regime simply because there’s no possibility of mutually assured destruction. We easily can destroy Iran, but Iran wasn’t anything remotely approaching the ability to destroy the US.
    not now, not any time soon.

    talking to them directly doesn’t raise them to “superpower status” and it doesn’t imply anything like that. talking to them doesn’t mean that we think that their regime is legitimate or worthy of more than the normal formal level of insincere respect.

    talking to them means that there’s some small avenue open for discussing things before it hits the fan before hitting the fan is intended.
    things will have to change or the fan is gonna be fully enfecalated and offering to talk without the usual fruitless fan dance where they send representatives to some formal setting who have no authority to do more than repeat a Iranian proposal meant not to be accepted and meant as propaganda to be consumed by the wide world offers a bit of privacy and invites a chance for some back and forth.

    this proposal is not likely to make it rain gumdrops and fill the sky with rainbows, but it can’t harm us at all. if they accept the proposal, fine. if they act the churls, and publicly reject it, that’s fine for us as well.

    your problem with talking to the Iranians is ill-considered and while I’m sure that you have the Soviet Union on your mind, the comparison is also ill-considered.

    you’re the one who seems to be fitting them with the trappings of super-power status when they don’t deserve it. caution and distrust and an underlying current of hostility is good policy when dealing with them and their intentions, but wildly inflating their abilities is bone stupid.

    they flat-out don’t belong in the USSR’s weight class and a better comparison would be with the pre-WWII Japanese. (if the Iranians get a bunch stronger)
    they threaten at the margins and could do some damage but, alone, could never prevail against us.
    before the war started we knew that a violent, direct and wide-scale clash with them was near to certain (another big difference from the USSR-US cold war) but our Secretary of State thought it important that he spend time EVERY DAY in talks with the Japanese.

    it didn’t raise the Japanese up. it showed them as bent on a war and us as willing to work to avoid one. good for us, bad for them.

  2. Iran can’t print enough money to fill the financial black hole that Latin America is for them. If I were an Arab in Paraguay, I’d claim to be Hezbollah, too, and walk down to the mailbox once a month for my Iranian stipend. Of course there has to be a little quid pro quo, an exploded synagogue once in awhile normally, to authenticate the deal but nothing on a daily basis. And let’s not forget the customary mordita that everyone has to pay. Foreigners will pay the most, having tenuous local connections and no seniority, all at the mercy of a super-corrupt legal and judicial system. Yes, to all parties involved, Iran is a cow to be milked and she’ll get a poor grade of alfalfa in return.

    1. Iran has been trading with Chavez and getting gasoline to make up their shortfall. The Iranians haven’t been able to refine enough to meet their domestic demand and the stuff they manage to produce is sub-standard, giving Tehran a

      Even the Iranians aren’t gonna fail to milk the crazy guy in Caracas. heck, the Cubans are getting free gas and oil from him and the Chinese are pulling huge amounts of oil from Venezuela for pennies per barrel in cash and a bunch of trinkets and promises.
      Between the idiotic deals, and the mismanagement and incompetence at the state oil company that’s resulted in production decreasing by about 30% since Chavez deposed the professionals, Iran’s key ally in Latin America will soon be going the way of it’s other ally, Syria.

  3. Actually, cm, Hezbollah in LatAm is largely self-sustaining. It makes money off drugs and money-laundering, as well as legitimate businesses run by Lebanese immigrants in Brazil and other countries. In the 2008-9 period, reports were even emerging that Hezbollah in LatAm was sending arms and cash to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    I saw a report earlier this year that Iran is cutting back on support to Hezbollah in Lebanon due to the Iranians’ own cash situation, but that Hezb-LatAm was making up some of the shortfall. Good news: American druggies are helping fund the destabilization of the Middle East.

    1. read same reports, but saw the emphasis a bit different. it wasn’t that Iran couldn’t fund them but that the preference was in finding folks who could find ways to fund their own ops. several advantages to that.
      I recall correct, Hez was partnered with the Syrians in growing and processing big old bunches of drugs in the Bakaa Valley in the early days.
      Lot of it went to Europe, and a fair bit was consumed by the Israelis.

  4. I think Fuster has more or less said all that needs to be said save for the following:

    MAD worked extremely well. After september 1949 (the date of first Soviet nuclear test) we were BOTH effectively constrained from any direct military action against the interests other which might have invited or escalated into nuclear retaliation. Only once did this system almost brake down – the Cuban crisis. However, both leaders faced down their respective crazies and came to a sensible compromise. Given the unacceptability of even “winning” a nuclear war against a power capable of nuclear retaliation (at any level), we and the Soviets confined our efforts to proxy wars. These proxy conventional wars killed and destroyed the lives of millions – mostly foreigners, and mostly civilians. So, who cares?

    There is nothing about Iran or her culture that suggests the Iranians are interested in inviting nuclear obliteration by attacking the Israelis. Since the overthrow of our best buddy, the torturer and despot, Reza Shah, the Iranians, have been constantly threatened with attack by us and the Israelis. They are, of course, developing a nuclear deterrent. They have logically deduced that the only way that they can ensure themselves against attack is by getting their own bomb. The only likely casualty of an Iranian nuke will be the Israeli deterrent, which will be unusable for the same reasons the Iranian deterrent will be unusable. No wonder the Israelis are in a rage. And, in answer to the question, we should of course enter into talks with the Iranians. The one possibility of obtaining a halt in the Iranian nuclear programme, and getting a proper inspection regime in place, is a credible assurance that we will not attack (or allow an attack on) Iran. The Israelis, and their American agents, are dead against any such assurance under any circumstances. They are trying to manufacture yet another war in which lots more American kids will die for Israel.

    1. Note to Iran from Paulite (sole representative of the United States of America):
      We will never defend our interests in the region.
      We will never use military force against you, no matter what the provocation by you, your proxys, or the 12th Iman.
      We will conduct talks with you as long as you wish to pull our chain.
      We understand what is yours is yours and what we claim is up for grabs.
      We will not interfere with the deep corruption and lucrative wealth redistribution from the Iranian people to the Revolutionary Guards, Religious Establishment, etc.
      We will overlook your support for terrorism around the world.
      We promise not to sink your little navy and drop a few things on your outdated refineries.
      Can we have ice cream? We will serve dead Jew Swirl Chip.

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