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Iranian Realities

Bret Stephens has a column (subscription only) on “seven myths about Iran,” which a quick read will reveal not to be myths at all. These are seven propositions with which Stephens disagrees, but in his responses he cannot produce even a minimally persuasive answer to any of them.

He starts with the effectiveness of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites. The myth is is that these would “accomplish nothing.” He then notes that Secretary Gates has said as much and stated that military attack would only “buy time” and “send the program deeper and more covert.” Stephens somehow thinks that buying time is sufficient justification for embarking on an unnecessary military action that would have calamitous consequences for the entire region.

Stephens tries to rebut the idea that military action would rally Iranians to the side of the regime. Even though this is what happens in every military confrontation, especially when the government in question is attacked by other states, Stephens uses what might be the weakest argument I have seen:

The case would be more persuasive if the regime had any remaining claims on Iranian patriotism. It no longer does, if it ever did.

Stephens has evidently acquired magical powers that allow him to know how all Iranians view their own patriotism and whether or not they believe the government has any ability to appeal to that patriotism. This is most impressive. What we have here is an example of a commentator who makes an unfounded assumption about the sentiments of an entire nation based on what he guesses must be their reaction to their government’s treatment of dissidents.

Stephens continues:

It also would be more persuasive if the nuclear program were as broadly popular as some of the regime’s apologists claim.

Well, I don’t know what any apologists claim, but people minimally informed about Iranian public opinion find time and again that a majority of Iranians consistently support a peaceful nuclear program and even more believe that Iran has a right to enrichment (which it does). Consider this passage from a 2006 WINEP report:

Perhaps most telling in this regard is the previously mentioned poll conducted by the ISPA in January 2006. The official Iranian News Agency (IRNA) highlighted only the general finding of 85.4 percent majority support for the resumption of the nuclear program. ISPA revealed, however, that the level of support drops to 74.3 percent in the case of referral to the UN Security Council, and drops further in other scenarios—to 64 percent in the case of economic sanctions and to 55.6 percent in the case of military actions against Iran.

So, it is true that Iranian support for the nuclear program drops as the program leads to increasingly difficult conditions for the country, but what is startling about this finding is that there was still a majority of respondents that supported resuming the nuclear program even if it meant suffering military attack. Obviously, that has some bearing on how the public would respond to military attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Admittedly, that was an older finding. Perhaps things have changed significantly in the last few years? According to WorldPublicOpinion.org, the change has not been all that great. Their September 2009 report states:

Only one-third would be ready to halt enrichment in exchange for lifting sanctions. However, another third, while insisting on continuing enrichment, would agree to grant international inspectors unrestricted access to nuclear facilities to ensure that that there are no bomb-making activities.

Meanwhile, the report states that 22% oppose both possible agreements, which means that a majority (55%)favors continuing enrichment. Is that broadly popular enough? 14% had no answer, so it may be that support is higher. Of course, these results can be misleading. The question takes for granted that there is actually the possibility of making such a deal, trading enrichment for the lifting of sanctions. If Iranian respondents were asked whether they would support giving up nuclear enrichment in exchange for nothing, the numbers would probably look a bit different. An important point to emphasize is that two-thirds of Iranians are willing to make a deal that would ensure that nuclear weapons are not developed, but nearly as many are just as supportive of a nuclear program that does not lead to a bomb.

The reality is that even if Iran made concessions on the nuclear program, this would likely have no effect on existing sanctions. Haass made that perfectly clear in his call for regime change:

Working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue. But if there is an unexpected breakthrough, Iran’s reward should be limited. Full normalization of relations should be linked to meaningful reform of Iran’s politics and an end to Tehran’s support of terrorism.

In other words, Iran must yield on every point before it receives anything significant. It seems unlikely that that most Iranians would accept such an arrangement.

Stephens continues:

Yet even if the nuclear program enjoyed widespread support, it isn’t clear how Iranians would react in the event of military strikes.

This doesn’t make any sense. If the program enjoyed widespread support, and Iran were attacked because of that program, the public is not going to blame the Iranian government for whatever results from those attacks. They will quite rationally blame the people attacking them. Even opponents of the nuclear program will find the attack on their country outrageous. We see this all the time. Serbs did not turn on Milosevic when NATO started bombing their country; Lebanese did not turn on Hizbullah regardless of sect; Gazans did not turn on Hamas because of last year’s conflict. Even if people are not motivated purely by national solidarity during wartime, wartime is the least likely time when dissidents can rise up and challenge the government. It is highly unusual for people to reject their own government’s authority when their country comes under attack from outside. Simply as a matter of self-preservation, dissidents will align themselves with their government against the attackers. If there is any example of a popular uprising against a government under attack, Stephens does not provide it. Call it tribal or nationalistic, but this is a natural impulse that people have when foreigners attack them for what seems to be no reason at all.

Stephens adds to his weak “myth”-busting by invoking the downfall of Galtieri after the latter lost the Falklands War, but the crucial point here is that Galtieri oversaw a failed war effort that he started. Of course a nation will turn against a government that starts and loses a war! If there are strikes on Iran, they will be part of a war that Iran did not start. Unless the U.S. could present genuine evidence of nuclear weapons proliferation, Iran would be coming under attack for nothing more than pursuing its legitimate rights under the NPT.

The “myth”-busting doesn’t end there. Stephens challenges the idea that sanctions are ineffective and tend to strengthen the regime. He acknowledges that the regime will find ways around sanctions over time, which basically concedes the main point, but then he says:

But in the critical short term, these sanctions might provoke the kind of mass unrest that could tip the scales against the regime.

This is also something that never happens. As Mousavizadeh made clear in his article, sanctions not only tighten a regime’s grip and destroy the economic and social foundations of any effective opposition, but they definitely do not trigger massive unrest that brings down the government. When a nation experiences the effects of sanctions, they do not associate the inconveniences, shortages and higher prices with what their government is doing. Instead, there is a ready-made target for blame for all their economic woes: the sanctions imposed by foreign governments. The blockade of Gaza has not made the people there rise up against Hamas. In the “critical short term,” Gazans have been terribly deprived and Hamas is as powerful as ever. Sanctions on Iraq did not cause mass unrest in the “critical short term.”

Next Stephens challenges the claim that we can live with a nuclear Iran. Granting the point for argument’s sake, he then holds out the specter of a nuclear-armed Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Obviously this is not ideal, but there is no more reason to fear an Egyptian, Saudi or Turkish bomb than there is reason to fear an Iranian bomb. Last anyone checked, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are our allies. As a rule, we are not very bothered when our allies acquire nuclear weapons. Furthermore, if our allies acquired their own nuclear deterrents that could conceivably reduce the need to extend a nuclear shield over the region and it would all but eliminate the need for large deployments of conventional forces in the Gulf.

There are three more “myths” in the column, but this post has already gone on long enough and you already get the picture. Not only does Stephens not have remotely persuasive answers to these “myths,” but his attempted refutations drive home that these “myths” are largely reasonable, well-supported observations about Iranian realities. He is reduced to calling them myths because he has no serious arguments to advance against them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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