IS AHMADINEJAD THE “NEW NIXON”?
Dr. Barnett posted one his more intriguing examples of strategic analysis with “Only Ahmadinejad can go to Washington“, where he gamed the complex and dangerous diplomatic minuet between Teheran and Washington. It’s a great post which should be read in full and Tom’s interpretation of events raised in my mind all kinds of questions and ideas. More on that in a bit.
The post also elicited some interesting comments from T.M. Lutas, Tangurena and Porphyrogenitus, the last of whom brought up the issue of Kremlinology, an example of a kind of scholarly discipline you must adopt if you choose to analyze secretive, hostile, dysfunctional, regimes that govern against their own society and are ridden by factions and conspiracies. Opacity makes analyzing these kinds of states more art than science. Iran as a whole is not as closed a society as the old U.S.S.R. but its upper reaches of government are probably far less well understood by American experts on Iran today than the politburo once was by CIA sovietologists.
I’m not certain if Dr. Barnett would consider himself an ex-kremlinologist or sovietologist, but as he was taught by some of the best who were, you can see Tom applying those skills here:
“Ahmadinejad is irrelevant on the nuclear issue. It began long before he took power and reflects a concerted ayatollah-led bid for both national prestige and protection from U.S. invasion. Ahmadinejad’s agenda overlaps on that issue only to the extent that he discovered, early in his administration, that it’s faltering stature could be instantly improved with a very impatient and demanding public, if he chose to align himself with that strategy. In this move, Ahmadinejad has proven himself to be a very clever politician and a superb propagandist who plays the Americans, and especially the American-Jewish community, like a banjo (he plucks, we sing).
Our myopic focus on that nuclear bid (still several years off, but no matter to the propagandists on their side or the Chicken-Littles on ours) has obscured what is truly powerful and useful about Ahmadinejad’s administration. As this article argues very well, the mullahs realize that having themselves represent the nation abroad isn’t working, thus the apparent compliance in letting Ahmadinejad move in the direction of creating a political party powerbase that is, despite his personal religion, basically secular and more traditional…
…Ahmadinejad is pursuing a revamp of both economics and politics in Iran that is of almost Gorbachevian-level ambitions. In effect, to save the theocratic regime, he believes a separate political party needs to be built outside of the mullahs for regime legitimacy: in effect, handing us, out of his sense of political desperation in the face of the “challenges buffeting Iran” (“economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring, and the new president has so far failed to deliver on his promise of economic relief for the poor”; “Ethnic tensions are rising around the country, with protests and terrorist strikes in the north and the souhhd, and students have been staging protests at universities around the country”), that which we seek–the marginalization of the mullahs or de-theocratification of the regime.
In short, we’re so much closer, due to Iran’s internal problems, in achieving that which we need most to achieve with Iran, a development that would make the achievement of nuclear capacity irrelevant (Iran having nukes isn’t the problem–we can deter; Iran giving nukes to terrorists is).
Many of Ahmadinejad’s critics inside Iran believe he will fail. This article gives us real pause for hoping for that outcome. He may well end up being our “Nixon” who can, on the basis of his unassailable rhetoric and staunch, anti-Israel reputation, the exact tool we need for our strategic purposes.”
I found Tom’s choice of Nixon as an analogy for Ahmadinejad fascinating yet also inexact. The subtle diplomatic signalling is reminiscient of 1969 -1972, as is the potential for secret realpolitik between ideological adveraries.
Obviously, there is some analogical traction in the two situations. “It takes a Nixon to go to China” is now a cliche, but at one time, the idea of Richard Nixon shaking hands with Chairman Mao in ” Red China” would have provoked gales of laughter. Moreso, than the idea of Ahmadinejad shaking hands with Bush would today – the two leaders are, for example, respectfully juxtaposed on Ahmadinejad’s own website. It is hard to imagine hyperideological Chinese Red Guards entertaining something similar in the advent of Nixon’s trip to Beijing.
Like Ahmadinejad’s reputation for Islamist militancy today, Richard Nixon’s anticommuninst credentials were more than secure in 1969. Having ” made his bones” with the Alger Hiss case, his hardline foreign policy positions as Vice-President, his role as Eisenhower’s emissary to the right wing and a record of redbaiting of Democratic opponents, Nixon did not feel a need to even emphasize the issue when running against Hubert Humphrey. The only elections Nixon ever lost, in fact, were the time an opponent outflanked him to the right ( JFK, 1960 ) and in the 1962 gubernatorial race, where anticommunism had less salience as an issue.
Nixon’s political confidence was such that he was always far more concerned about keeping the
” liberal” State Department in the dark about his China policy than he was about the inevitable reaction of the GOP far right, whom he had effectively isolated. With my albeit very limited insight into Iranian political affairs, there does not appear to be anyone in Iran today to ” the political right” of Ahmadinejad; he has the support of the Pasdaran commanders and the most extreme senior Ayatollahs. Supreme Guide Khameini is actually marginally more moderate, as is the powerful former president Rafsanjani.
On the other hand, there some very substantive differences between the two situations as well, strategically as well as in terms of politics or biography. First the strategic differences:
First, the hard ” triangular” relationship of the United States, Soviet Union and China positioned in rivalry to one another is lacking today with Iran. Nixon’s ” China Card ” was a geopolitical Ace of Spades coming up with two aces showing; it caused an earthquake in international relations.
While there is an ” EU card”, an “IAEA card” a “Russia card” and various China, UNSC, India and Iraq ” cards” today in the face-off with Iran, these cards are all more like pairs of threes or twos as far as both players are concerned. None of them help all that much. Like it or not, this issue will be decided bilaterally and the only “ace in the hole” is if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb sooner rather than later.
And most importantly, globalization, with the subsequent diffusion of power and the erosion of old international relations rule sets, have given Iran and the United States more options, fewer restraints and less downstream control over events than statesmen faced in Nixon’s day. Nor is Iran a power on par with China in 1972 or as isolated a state as China was under Mao. These factors probably make miscalculation far more likely with Iran even if the stakes, thankfully, are far lower than during the Cold War.
Now for the politics, Iran’s and Ahmadinejad’s. Dr. Barnett writes:
“Now, the idealists will say, “This is horrible. We trade the mullahs for a real strong man.”
But first things first. We have to kill the revolution and that will a trusted agent (not by us, but by the mullahs). To survive this process, Ahmadinejad needs to deliver. And since we know what he needs to deliver, we finally have some real influence and power over the situation, when we have neither now. Knowing what he needs to survive and knowing it is within our power to grant that, we begin a dialogue that can serve our purposes in Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Beirut, Damascus, Riyadh, Islamabad–all over the dial.
…And the fear-mongers on our side want to have you believe that Ahmadinejad is JUST a nutcase whose irrationality means we must pre-empt and pre-empt now.
We have consistently misread and underestimated the complexity of Iranian domestic politics.
In reality, we have Iran right where we want it and need it to be: needing help from us to survive. If we had any diplomats of Kissingerian brilliance, we’d seize this opportunity and dismantle the mullahs’ rule by 2010 (my prediction going back to PNM). Our biggest problem right now is the lack of strategic imagination and skill among the senior ranks of this administration.”
This is where Iranian ” kremlinology” gets exceedingly tricky.
Dr. Barnett has the call right that Iran’s leadership, for the first time since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, is speaking with one voice and is asking for negotiatons with the United States. Unfortunately, their mouthpiece also gives regular and frequent examples of disturbing nuttiness, including veiled threats of nuclear genocide and ethnic cleansing. Something that Israel at least finds difficult to disregard. Nukes are not Saddam’s Scuds.
So the question here is this Iranian rhetoric simply high octane ideological vapors like Mao’s regime was churning out in public even as Zhou Enlai hosted Henry Kissinger in private ? Or is Ahmadinejad sincere in his wackier beliefs but is bending to the will of the unified clerical establishment until he can make himself their master ? Both ? Neither ?
I can’t answer those questions but I think we have nothing to fear from negotiations so long as we keep our powder dry. One useful aspect about Iraq is that the world pretty much believes now that uncontrollable consequences won’t stop the Bush administration from making a major military move on Iran. The Iranian leadership seems to believe that.
And they should.