The Iranian Quagmire: 5 Things to Look For in 2012

This year has been an interesting one in Iran. Amidst a slew of new sanctions, downed spy planes, and stormed embassies, one can only assume that tensions between Iran and its adversaries are getting more fragile. But as is always the case with Iran, it is incredibly hard to predict the future.

Will a new uprising by the Green Party oust the regime? Will Iran ramp up its nuclear program to the chagrin of Western powers? Will its adversaries take military action to bring about an attitude adjustment? How are tougher sanctions going to affect the country? And how will the U.S. and Israel approach Iran in the future?

In the spirit of the New Year and the likelihood of it being one of the most fragile international issues of 2012, a prediction of Iranian behavior is only appropriate.

In 2009, we saw the Green Movement storm the streets of Tehran in protest of their votes disappearing into thin air. After brutal crackdowns from the regime that came to a precipice with the death of now martyr, Neda Agha Soltan, the Green Movement has gone with a whimper. While Iran has a vibrant, college-age workforce who will be entering a waning job market, struggling with higher food and gas prices, and an increased level of suffering, their frustration will not be enough to bring about rapid change. The large proportion of Iranians happy with the status quo and a fiercely powerful military that backs the 1979 revolution will act as a deterrent to those who seek reforms. In the coming year, power will remain with the regime.

Here is something truly ironic about the threat of force against Iran: The threat is pushing the program underground and reinforcing the idea that Iran needs to be able to protect itself. While there are those on PolicyMic that argue how deep U.S. or Israeli ordnance can penetrate to destroy a subterranean nuclear facility, the real question is how to find them all even if you did attack. A more important question is what Iran is doing underground, since it inevitably makes it harder to spy on its progress. While Iran’s adversaries quibble over the best strategy, enrichment continues. Do not expect Iran to consider halting its nuclear program in the foreseeable future – it simply doesn’t have to.

Given this, the U.S., Israel, and Great Britain have all expressed unease and trigger fingers that are getting itchier. Despite rhetoric, nobody will attack Iran; certainly not before the 2012 U.S. election, and highly unlikely after. There is not a single positive outcome for doing so. No air war ends in an air war, and this would be no different. The world economy cannot deal with the fallout from this action. Astronomic gas prices would take a heavy toll, Israel would find itself in another war with Hezbollah, and the U.S. would find itself committed to costly and lengthy ground operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia that it cannot responsibly sustain.

In lieu of any better ideas, the U.S. has imposed tighter sanctions upon Iranian elites, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), and organizations that do business with them. These “smart” sanctions were intended to hurt the regime, not the people. However, sanctions always trickle down regardless of how they are named. When you sanction the IRGC, the businesses they own close their doors. This creates a smaller market for private and small businesses to sell supplies, services, and other goods. Additionally, when a “rogue” regime is forced to decide between social programs and maintaining power due to a slimmer wallet, it usually chooses the latter. While we have yet to see the true effects of these sanctions, a stronger regime and weaker population is a probable outcome.

It seems that those in charge of the Iran issue on the Obama administration’s staff are totally clueless as to how to move forward. It is rather clear that sanctions are not bringing about the attitude adjustment they were meant to, that force is out of the question, and that Iran is growing increasingly hostile. The most obvious solution seems fleeting: more carrots, no sticks. But no administration has had the political moxie to try this approach, and some in the think tank community seem to only be poisoning the well by offering outlandish prescriptions for an extremely delicate issue. Additionally, if the GOP takes hold of the executive branch in 2012, things may move backward instead of forward. In the coming year, it saddens me to say that a progressive approach to this 32-year quagmire is not in the cards.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons