Iran: Smeagol or Sauron?

I originally wrote this almost two years ago. A lot has changed. I speculated on whether or not to pursue a deal with Iran. Now we’ve got one. It also appears that Iran is on the march across the Middle East. And they are. But…

As we read about Iranian troops massing in Syria, is this actually good for Iran? Are the mullahs pleased to expend blood and treasure to keep Assad afloat? My title question remains…

A few months ago The Washington Post ran an article about Iran’s efforts to recruit Latin Americans. The article focused on a young Mexican who met Iran’s ambassador at a reception and after limited interactions found himself a guest of the Iranian government. He didn’t care that much for it, got out and made his way home where he said Iranians at the Embassy were continuing to tail him. The obvious interpretation here is that Iran is rather aggressively attempting to recruit Latin Americans. There have been many reports regarding Iran’s efforts to obtain influence in that part of the world and there is a definite concern that Iran and its terrorist allies would like to launch terror attacks against the U.S. via Mexico. Hezbollah, working hand in glove with its Iranian sponsors, launched terrible attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s. More recently Iranians attempts to attack the Saudi Ambassador in Washington working with Mexican drug cartels. (However, the contact with the cartel turned out to be a DEA informant.) All of this is true. But… Recently I’ve had a penchant for looking at things and turning them upside down and seeing how things look. The young man at the center of the story approached the Iran’s Ambassador at a public forum. The Ambassador continued the contact, followed-up and pressed the young man to participate in a program that took him to Iran. The Ambassador was personally recruiting people to train in Iran. Now on the one hand it could be interpreted that this shows how Iran’s Foreign Ministry is one with the IRGC and MOIS. Maybe. Another way to see it is that the Embassy in Mexico was ordered to recruit X people. The recruitment didn’t go so well, so the Ambassador personally had to get involved. Does Iran’s Ambassador to Mexico have so little to do that he can spend his time recruiting possible agents from universities? I believe in most countries that job goes to a 2nd or 3rd Secretary at the Embassy. In most of the world, the US Embassy or Consulate could — relatively easily — spark a riot just by floating rumors that additional visas to work in the U.S. were available. Iran has to send its Ambassador out, personally, to try to get people to come to Iran. None of this is to say that there aren’t some extremely bad people in the Iranian leadership or that this somehow ameliorates Iran’s bad behavior on the world stage. If I’ve written on this once, I’ve written on it a hundred times. But this story reveals some profound weaknesses and power imbalances between the U.S. and Iran.

Too often we see our enemies as Sauron, with vast legions an all seeing Eye, and clear intention to dominate the world. But maybe Iran is Smeagol, weak and tormented. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t dangerous (Smeagol was dangerous and devious), but they were not all-powerful. Negotiating with Smeagol Since I’m writing about Iran and an interim deal was just signed, I should give my thoughts on this, incorporating my Smeagol/Sauron metaphor. In a nutshell, when faced with war one must really, really try for peace. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are that you might actually get peace. If Iran, as I say, is more like weak conflicted Smeagol negotiations have a chance for success. I am not qualified to get into all of the technical details, but it appears that there are constituencies that would very much like better relations with the West. To bring along enough other players in the Iranian system, they need to show that Iranian concessions will be reciprocated by Western concessions. This will be a long drawn-out process. The end result will not be ideal or pretty. Ultimately we’ll have to recognize a loathesome regime that will remain a challenge to other US interests in the region. But, if this prevents an Iranian nuke and does not result in war, that is an acceptable outcome. We can manage an unpleasant Iran in a difficult region — a nuclear armed Iran is many orders of magnitude more problematic (as though Smeagol got the ring.) Won’t Iran cheat and just keep going on the nukes anyway? Maybe, but we are far more likely to catch them cheating with tons of IAEA inspectors on the ground. And that brings up the second point, what if Iran is Sauron, inexorably seeking nukes and building its power until it can challenge Israel and the United States and boot them out of the Middle East? Then we especially need to try to make a deal. Not because it will work, but because if Iran is Sauron, there WILL BE WAR. If we are going to war with Iran (hot — bombing/cold — renewed sanctions) we will need to show the world, the American people, and the Iranian people that we really, really tried to avoid the war. Sanctions can be hard to maintain and require international support. Many of the participants get tired and frustrated enforcing them. If we do not make a serious good faith effort to come to an agreement and show an eventual end path to the sanctions the regime will eventually fall apart. If, even more seriously, we need to engage in military action against Iran we will need to tell the international community that this was not a war we wanted. War with Iran will not be pretty — it is not a matter of a few quick bomb strikes. There will be an endless bombing campaign, revenge attacks on Americans around the world, and probably proxy fights throughout the Middle East. Americans have gotten a good look at how war in the Middle East tends to go. They will not rush into it again, they will need to be persuaded that their government did not seek this conflict. This is a bit of an inversion of the Latin admonition, si vis pacem, para bellum. But if war is neccessary (and it very well may be), we must show that we tried for peace. And maybe, just maybe, we will get lucky and we will get peace.

Originally published at terrorwonk.blogspot.com on October 19, 2015.

AAAS Policy Fellow, formerly @UMIACS (specializing in international security), did a PhD on vice presidents, interested in a lot of stuff

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