10 Questions: The Next War?

Barely a day goes by that we don't hear more ominous news about Iran -- whether it's reports about the country's nuclear program, or evidence of its involvement in the sectarian violence in Iraq. Some fear that Iran will be the United States' next front in the war on terror -- potentially, becoming the third war America has launched in six years.

(Brookings Institution)
With so many questions about Iran, and so many worries, we thought we'd turn to an expert for our "10 Questions" this week. He's Kenneth M. Pollack, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He served previously as an Iran-Iraq military analyst at the CIA, and as Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the Nationa Security Council. His most recent book is "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America," (Random House, 2004).

Here goes ...

1. What are the consequences for America if Iran successfully develops nuclear weapons? How close are the Iranians to doing so?

We really don't know just how close Iran is to acquiring the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and that is part of the alarm. They are certainly a lot closer than most people believed even five years ago. However, the latest information from the UN watchdog agency indicates that it is not an imminent development—at least three years and probably more like 5-10 seems to be the consensus estimate of most experts.

2. Our intelligence about the internal situation in Iraq was so deeply flawed. How can we be sure of anything we're told about the internal situation in Iran?

Iran is a much more open society than Iraq was under Saddam Husayn. Saddam's Iraq was a totalitarian police state where all information was controlled and most people feared for their lives for saying anything other than what they believed Saddam wanted to hear. Iran is very different. Iranians do live under some onerous restrictions and do have to be somewhat concerned that what they say doesn't cross the authorities, but these concerns are rather mild—at least by the standards of many other authoritarian regimes. As a result, Iran's press is more open, Iranians are more willing and able to criticize their government, and Westerners have much greater access to Iranian society and what Iranians are thinking. On the other hand, we do have to be careful: the regime tries to prevent public opinion polling by outsiders, and the Iranian government itself is extremely secretive. In addition, Iranian politics are maddeningly complex, which makes Tehran's behavior very hard to predict—even by Iranian officials themselves. So we can have greater confidence that we know more about what the Iranian people are thinking than was true for Iraq, but we should not assume that we have perfect knowledge about them. And when it comes to understanding the Iranian regime, we are all reading tea leaves.

3. President Bush has said repeatedly that our argument is not with the people of Iran—it is with the government of Iran. How did relations between our government and theirs become so strained?

This is a long and sordid story. Most Iranians date their estrangement from the U.S. back to 1953, when the CIA and British intelligence overthrew Iran's wildly popular prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq in a covert operation. As part of that, the U.S. re-installed the Shah to his throne and then became a primary backer of his regime. The Shah mismanaged Iranian affairs badly, creating a police state of his own, overheating the economy, destroying the livelihoods of many lower and middle class Iranians through bad policies badly implemented, and allowing a high degree of corruption in his regime. All of this alienated and then enraged his people, and because the United States grew ever closer to the Shah during this time, Iranians generally held the United States responsible for the Shah's many failings. When this widespread disaffection turned into a revolution against the Shah in 1978, many Iranians saw it as a revolt against both the Shah and the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini, who eventually came to lead the Iranian revolution, was also part of this disaffection. He saw the world in clear divisions of good and evil, and believed that the United States was the champion of evil in the world (that is where the term "the Great Satan" comes from) who Iran—the champion of good in the world—was destined to fight for the fate of mankind. Khomeini's hatred of America, general Iranian anger at America, and a fear that the United States would try to repeat its 1953 coup again to turn back the Iranian revolution, led a group of zealous Iranian students to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 52 American diplomats and Marine guards hostage in November 1979. This shocked the American people, who saw it as an unprovoked act of terrorism (if not war). The 444-day hostage crisis that followed embittered Americans against Iran just as badly as the 1953 CIA coup against Mossadeq had turned Iranians against America. That's nothing more than a thumbnail sketch, and those wanting more might take a look at my book "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America" (Random House, 2004) for a fuller account.

4.Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran was arguably our strongest ally in the region. Does the leadership there still blame us for supporting the Shah, whom they overthrew?

Certainly there are Iranians who still blame the United States for its former support of the Shah. Most Iranians seem reasonably well disposed toward the American people, if not necessarily our government. Their leadership is a more complicated matter. Iran's political leadership is deeply divided on almost every issue imaginable. There are clearly some within the political establishment, led by President Ahmedinejad, who continue to believe in the importance of Khomeini's revolutionary ideology as the guiding principles of Iranian policy. Because anti-Americanism was at the core of Khomeini's thinking, it looms large in that of Ahmedinejad and other radical hardliners. But there are many other factions—groups we call "reformists," "pragmatists," etc.—whose views are at least neutral, if not friendly toward the United States. This is why the U.S. and Iran have had a bizarre love-hate relationship during the 18 years since Khomeini's death—when a reformist like the former president, Muhammad Khatami, was in office he would try to reach out to the United States, only to then find himself under attack by the radical hardliners.

5.Who really runs the country? Is it the infamous and anti-Semitic President Ahmadinejad? The clerics? (And what is an ayatollah, anyway?)

Iran has one of the most complicated political systems in the world and there is no way to describe it in only a few sentences. President Ahmedinejad has some power and some authority, but this is mainly in domestic political affairs, and he is NOT the most powerful person in the Iranian government. That honor belongs to their Rahbar (Supreme Leader), 'Ali Khamene'i. Khamene'i, not Ahmedinejad, is Iran's ultimate decision-maker. The clerics remain a force because many of the leading figures in the regime, including Khamene'I, are clerics, but the government is no longer completely dominated by them—nor is it the case that the clerics are always the most radical members of the regime. Neither President Ahmedinejad nor the leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard corps, Yahya Safavi, are clerics, but they are two of the most radical members of the regime. (And an Ayatollah, which means "Sign of God," is a very high ranking Shi'i cleric. He is essentially a man learned enough in Shi'i theology to serve as a source of emulation to others and able to issue edicts regarding behavior.)

6.How popular are Iran's leaders inside their country?

This is very hard to tell. As I noted above, we have little good polling data on this from Iranians. About the most that we can say is that in every election in Iran that was to any degree fair and free since 1995, the Iranian people have consistently voted for those candidates they most closely identified with change—and that includes President Ahmedinejad, who himself ran on a program of economic reform and ending corruption. This suggests that the Iranian people really do want to see their country move in a very different direction and that while they may like some of their leaders, they would generally prefer a different leadership.

7.This week, we reported that Iran is, in effect, fighting a proxy war with America in Iraq. President Bush promised tough consequences if Iran continues supplying Iraqi militias with weapons. But what can he realistically do to stop them?

First, I would be careful about exaggerating Iran's nefarious activities in Iraq. There is no question that they are providing arms, money, and other supplies to many Iraqi Shi'ah militias. It also seems very likely that they are providing some of the advanced IEDs that are killing a small number of American soldiers. And there have been reports (which seem plausible) that the Iranians are providing military training for some Shi'ah miliitamen, particularly with their allies in Lebanese Hizballah. But this does not add up to a strong case for war with Iran in my mind. In particular, there is no evidence that Iran is actively encouraging, let alone directing, Shi'ah attacks on American forces. The overwhelming majority of American casualties in Iraq are still being caused by Sunni insurgents/terrorists/militiamen. (And there are reports that our allies the Jordanians and Saudis are providing the same kind of aid to the Sunni insurgents that Iran is providing to the Shi'ah. If we went by casualties alone, we ought to be more concerned about getting the Saudis and Jordanians to knock off their activities, and you certainly don't hear anyone talking about going to war with them.) The President seems to disagree with me, and that being the case he does have some options to go after Iranian activities in Iraq, although it is hard to imagine that he can shut them down entirely because of the high degree to which the two societies are intertwined. He can have American forces intercept Iranian personnel and arms moving across the border (which requires excellent intelligence), he can directly target Iranian intelligence officers and their agents in Iraq to try to deter Iranian operatives from operating in Iraq, and he can directly threaten Iran itself with punitive military operations (air strikes) to try to coerce the government to rein in its operations in Iraq.

8.Would holding direct talks with Iran—as the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended—make any difference? Could we separate the nuclear weapons issue from the Iraq issue?

This is really a matter of opinion, with different experts holding very different views. My own view is that the United States should hold talks with Iran, but we need to realistic about what they can achieve. Holding talks would be beneficial for several reasons. First, we are in dire straits in Iraq, where Iran definitely has some considerable influence and we should want them using that interest to help us stabilize the country, not using it to fight us. Personally, I think the Administration is exaggerating the amount of damage that Iran is doing in Iraq, just as they exaggerated Syria's role in 2004-2005. Iraq's problems are almost entirely the result of our mistakes and their inherent weaknesses, and if Iran did not exist, our problems in Iraq would be little different than they are today. But given that "beggars can't be choosers", we should be doing everything we can to secure their help for the President's plan, no matter whether you think it will succeed or fail. In addition, we need to convince the Iranian people that we mean them no harm and that we want good relations with them. Without going into too long a discussion, that will be one of the keys to getting them to give up their nuclear program. But, we need to be very realistic about what talks with Iran could achieve. It may be very hard to separate the nuclear issue from the Iraq issue, and the Iranians may demand concesions on the nuclear file in return for their help in Iraq. In addition, while Iran definitely has influence in Iraq and has been willing to use it to make things happen that were very beneficial to the U.S. (like urging those Iraqi Shi'ah militias allied to them to cooperate with the American reconstruction effort after we invaded in 2003), they are not omnipotent. Just as they are not the main source of our problems in Iraq, so too we should not expect them to be the answer to those problems.

9.America sides with the Sunni Muslim leadership in most of the Middle East—in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states. We're opposed to the Shia leadership in Iran. And yet, we're supporting a Shia dominated government in Iraq. Have we alienated both sides?

Not yet, but we're in danger of doing so. The biggest problem is that we badly mishandled the creation of a new political system in Iraq right from the start. The result is a terrible system that has produced a government dominated by the worst Shi'ah militias. It is one of the biggest challenges for President Bush's latest plan for Iraq: we have to find ways to take back the streets of the country from the militias, provide security and basic services (electricity, water, jobs, food, medical care) to the Iraqi people so that they do not have to rely on the militias for it, and in so doing create political space in which genuine Iraqi patriots (who do exist!) can emerge and slowly take over the running of the country. This is something that would have been hard but eminently do-able in 2003, 2004, or 2005. Today it is going to be a heck of a challenge.

10. Some policymakers believe that the Bush administration is preparing for an all-out war with Iran. How likely—and how realistic—is that option?

I wish I could tell you that it is impossible, but I don't think it is. I think a war with Iran would be very messy and would cost us a lot more than we would gain. While many members of the Administration agree with that, others do not, and some seem willing to risk it to accomplish other goals. I am very concerned both by the President's military moves toward Iran (like moving a second aircraft carrier and Patriot anti-missile batteries to the Persian Gulf, and ordering the U.S. military to use "all necessary means" to shut down Iranian activities in Iraq) and his unnecessarily threatening rhetoric toward them. Some degree of quiet pressure on Iran to stop their more damaging operations in Iraq could be useful, and the Iranians probably would back down under those circumstances; but the President's policy risks engaging Iran's nationalist pride, its strategic interests, and its real fear of the United States. It may look to the Iranians like we are trying to drive them out of Iraq altogether (which some in the Bush Administration may be trying to do), and that is something they are not going to take lying down. They have huge interests in Iran and will undoubtedly push back, and that could get us into the kind of escalatory spiral that leads to war. In addtion, you still have some members of the Administration who believe that Iran will never give up its nuclear program peacefully and so the U.S. will eventually have to go to war with it. They have mostly been in the minority, but their thinking seems to be part of the Administration's newly bellicose policy toward Iran. Again, I think some amount of pressure might be helpful in shutting down those Iranian activities in Iraq that are truly hurtful. But as Teddy Roosevelt once said, I would much prefer to see the U.S. speak softly and carry a big stick.