Saturday, October 05, 2013

Is Iran Really Changing National Security Strategy?

What is Iran’s national security strategy?  The election of Rouhani seems to offer an unparalleled opportunity for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and rapprochement with the U.S.  If looks are to be believed, Iranian national security strategy has shifted away from nuclear weapons attainment.  Yet there are many who see this new diplomacy as a gambit to gain enough time to finish producing a bomb.  Instead of a new national security strategy forgoing nuclear weapons, they see a different tactic to achieve the same goal.  As we discussed in class on Monday, inferring the strategy of another country can be far more difficult than it seems.

Yet it can’t be denied that the shift in Iranian diplomacy has been shocking.  Rouhani has tweeted his Rosh Hashanah felicitations.  Instead of Ahmedinejad's total Holocaust denial, Rouhani moved first from soft-core denial  (“I’m not a historian...”) to actually saying that what the Nazis did to the Jews was bad.  He says his government is ready to hold talks with the United States to seek an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and after John Kerry met with the Iranian foreign minister, Rouhani sought and accepted a telephone call from President Obama, the two countries highest political exchange in 34 years.

Most important to his credibility in these endeavors, Rouhani seems to have the support of the Supreme Leader.  During the election campaign he was written off as a candidate far too liberal for the conservative establishment to allow winning.  But he did, and since then the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons and is talking about “heroic leniency” in foreign relations. After Rouhani returned to Iran, the Iranian parliament officially expressed support for his diplomatic efforts.

If Rouhani and the Supreme Leader are sincere, the outcome would be a sea change in Iran’s national security strategy – instead of nuclear security they would have the security of international legitimacy.  Economic sanctions would be lifted and Iran would no longer be seen as a pariah state.  Talks begin on October 15 and we can only hope this comes to pass.   

However, there are those who look at Iran’s behavior and see a play for time in order to finish a weapon – instead of a new national security strategy they see a shrewd change in tactics from belligerency to diplomacy in order to achieve the same goal.  The view of these hardliners was represented this week at the UN by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who scorned the credulity of those that would accept Rouhani’s outreach.  He pointed out that Rouhani was head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2003 and went on to say, "Rouhani was also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. He masterminded the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric."

So who is right?  The answer is that neither side knows and no matter which course the U.S. takes it will be acting with imperfect knowledge.  The strategic culture of nations is often quite different from each other.  There may be limitations on the scope or dynamics of national strategic thinking in Iran that the U.S. is not aware of.  We assume other countries have a thought out grand strategy, yet our leaders sometimes find themselves representing undefined positions.   It could be that time will show that Rouhani is sincere…or maybe it won’t.  He could be too far off the ranch right now –if he is reined in by the hardliners whom he and the Supreme Leader work with then perhaps we will never know if this was a moment that could have been exploited to even further gain. 

Goldgeier’s “The Fall of the Wall and American Grand Strategy” discussed the difficulty American policy makers face developing coherent strategies in the post Cold War era because the international situation has become much more complex.  But other nations are faced with this more complex world as well.  My take is that Iran has always wanted prestige, power, and cultural distinction.  It has seen a security strategy of nuclear weapons as a way to attain this.  But after years of sanctions and pariah status it is muddling through to a new strategy where perhaps these goals can be achieved peacefully.  The Supreme Leader probably hasn’t drawn a policy memo outlining this strategy.  But he and Rouhani are trying it out.  If it sees dividends then perhaps he and the rest of the establishment will muddle through all the way to Iran’s return to the international community.

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