Argument

Supreme Loser

Why Iran's ayatollah-in-chief always gets it wrong.

The United States and Iran are once again set on a collision course -- this time over the world's narrowest choke point, the Strait of Hormuz. With the specter of more draconian sanctions hovering over its oil exports, the Iranian regime threatened in late December to seal off the strait through which 30 percent of the world's oil supply travels. Iran's menacing rhetoric was matched by a bellicose rebuff from the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in neighboring Bahrain, warning that any disruption of the strait "will not be tolerated."

The exchange was of a piece with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's new foreign-policy doctrine: Iran will "respond to threats with threats." The regime's inflammatory language certainly got the world's attention, reminding the West and its local allies that the Persian Gulf is a tinderbox where a single miscalculation could trigger a catastrophic war.

But was threatening to set off a global recession such a smart move? In fact, Khamenei -- the ultimate arbiter of Iran's internal politics and international relations -- has proved himself a poor analyst of the West's red lines toward his country, and this confrontation is just the latest incident to bring the supreme leader's strategic calculus into question. Although Tehran might benefit from the threat by jacking up oil prices, a blockade of the strait would deprive the Iranian government of half its revenue, sour relations with China and Japan, alienate Oman and Iraq as its remaining regional allies, and escalate conflict with Washington to a level that could easily spiral out of control. It would be an own goal of epic proportions.

Whether these threats are serious or not, Iran is playing a dangerous game of chicken. Just this week, the regime conducted a military drill in the Persian Gulf and announced a new breakthrough in its nuclear program, raising concern in Washington and feeding into hawkish critiques of U.S. President Barack Obama's sanctions strategy. But is bluster a winning strategy for Iran? The Islamic Republic has a history of boneheaded foreign-policy blunders, and no single case illustrates Khamenei's strategic ineptitude better than his handling of Iran's nuclear crisis.

At its onset, nearly a decade ago, the firestorm over Iran's atomic ambitions was a blessing in disguise for the supreme leader. For the first time since the Iran-Iraq War, the regime had an issue that could potentially revitalize its exhausted esprit de corps, rally the nation around the flag, bolster Iran's clout across the Islamic world, and fracture the hostile international coalition.

At first, the shock and awe of Saddam Hussein's 2003 overthrow in Iraq compelled the conservative ayatollah to opt for compromise over conflict. When negotiations with the Europeans failed to win U.S. support, however, Khamenei concluded that "nuclear diplomacy" was little more than regime change in disguise.

The turbaned helmsman laid out his nuclear calculus in a meeting of Iran's Supreme National Security Council in 2004. Contending that the United States and its allies were unwilling to find a modus vivendi with the Iranian theocracy, Khamenei maintained that nuclear capitulation would only invite more pressure on human rights issues, sponsorship of terrorism, and regional subversion.

The nuclear nonproliferation regime also appeared innately unjust, particularly given Israel's atomic ambiguity. The regime's ideological foundations, based on warmed-over Third Worldism and Islamic universalism, also called for resistance. Thus, strategic considerations were melded with ideology to transform the nuclear program into the apotheosis of Iran's revolutionary defiance.

Initially, Khamenei's nuclear brinkmanship seemed to have worked. But even a successful policy requires constant recalibration -- a skill that the stubborn, geriatric leader lacks.

In 2005, Iranian pragmatists such as Hassan Rowhani, then Iran's national security advisor, advocated appeasement and forewarned of the perils should Iran be ambushed at the U.N. Security Council. Khamenei rebuffed their proposal, reprimanding them for succumbing to Western intimidation. He believed that divisions in the international community would prevent such a referral. A year later, he got his comeuppance when Iran's case was indeed referred to the Security Council.

Faced with the threat of international sanctions, Khamenei prescribed his usual steadfastness, counting on Russia and China to stonewall further action. Once again, he miscalculated. The sanctions resolution passed unanimously. The reclusive ayatollah's misjudgments -- compounded with the diplomatic mediocrity of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidential administration -- brought Iran three more rounds of draconian sanctions in the ensuing years.

Flash forward to 2009, when Obama's tepid overtures received a cold shoulder from Tehran. Once again Khamenei's intransigence boomeranged back against him: The White House used his "clenched fist" to make the case that the Iranian regime was unwilling to negotiate, turning global public opinion against Iran and paving the way for further coercive measures. U.N. Resolution 1929 passed in June 2010, imposing the toughest international sanctions on Iran to date.

Over the past several months, the U.S. strategy has culminated in several condemnations of Iran on the international stage: the publication by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of staggering details concerning the possible military dimension of Iran's nuclear activities, allegations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, and denunciation of the clerical regime's dreadful human rights record, which yielded three U.N. resolutions in a matter of a few days.

Khamenei's nuclear gamble has been painful for the Iranian people. Corralled by sanctions and plagued with mismanagement, the country's economy is ruined, its financial sector is paralyzed, and its energy sector is in shambles. This month, an ill-considered threat to halt trade with the United Arab Emirates caused the Iranian rial to go into a free-fall, hitting its lowest-ever mark against the U.S. dollar.

International developments have also not been kind to Tehran's ruling cabal. After marginalizing the reformists, the conservative factions of the Islamic regime are now engaged in a political fratricide. In the wake of uprisings in the Arab world, Iran's popularity in the region has plummeted. The Syrian regime, Tehran's sole regional ally, increasingly appears unable to resist the calls for change shaking the entire region. Even Iran's former allies in the Non-Aligned Movement have repeatedly voted against Iran at the IAEA and the Security Council, perceiving Tehran's nuclear quest as too controversial for the country to serve as the developing world's standard-bearer. Nearly a decade since the advent of the nuclear crisis, Iran is internally divided, regionally diminished, and internationally isolated.

Not only have Khamenei's strategic goals proved elusive, but his atomic dreams remain unfulfilled. Despite Iran's bragging that it will eventually install 50,000 centrifuges, the number of machines that it can keep spinning still hovers around 8,000, and their output continues to wane. Development and mass production of the more sophisticated machines has also stagnated.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, Khamenei remains steadfast. Preserving the ideological order of the Islamic Republic is more important for the supreme leader than crossing the nuclear Rubicon. For a leader who, in the words of John Milton, prefers "to reign in hell than serve in heaven," surrender is political suicide. In the eyes of this custodian of political Islam, surrounded by a culture of complacency and mendacity, a Pyrrhic victory is divine providence.

Against this backdrop, Washington's belief in the ability of sanctions to curtail Tehran's atomic ambitions proves credulous. Iran's nuclear defiance is ideological and thus cannot be resolved by coercion. Rather than repeating the failed policy of pushing the supreme leader into a corner, the Obama administration should aim for piecemeal solutions that would allow for a face-saving compromise. The goal should be to decelerate Iran's perilous nuclear activities and put it under rigorous international monitoring until cooler heads prevail in Tehran.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Price of 'Victory'

The war in Iraq is over … just not for the Iraqis.

I am an Iraqi. I live in the United States, where, if all goes well, I will soon become a citizen. So it is with decidedly mixed emotions that I've followed the U.S. troop withdrawal from my home country, and the media coverage of what is described here as "the end of the war in Iraq." The war might be ending for the Americans, but for the Iraqis it continues. I worry that it may get worse.

When I look back on the past nine years, I can't help but think of the dozens of friends and relatives who have been killed or wounded in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion in the spring of 2003. The one that stands out most vividly is my nephew Iyad. Five years my junior, Iyad grew up in our home. He was as close to me as one of my own brothers. But then, one day in the spring of 2006, he was just about to leave his job in a warehouse in southwest Baghdad when a mortar shell came crashing through the roof and exploded inside, killing him and several of his co-workers.

We found what was left of him the next day. His skull had been crushed, his body shredded to pieces. He was 25 years old. We never learned who fired the shell, or why. It probably came from one of the rampaging sectarian militias that were tearing Iraq apart at the time. The only thing that could be established with certainty was that the warehouse was not the intended target. Like so many of the deaths in Iraq over the past nine years, Iyad's was entirely random. It was just part of the chaos that has reigned in the country for years and shows little sign of stopping.

After all these years, there's still this one thing that I can't quite understand. How could the same people who put the first man on the moon -- people who are so intelligent, so good at politics, so important in international affairs -- have made the mistake of invading Iraq? I can imagine two third-world countries deciding to go to war with each other and failing to plan ahead. But the Americans? Americans are good at business, aren't they? Normally, people in business would do a feasibility study. You'd think that you'd do that too before invading an entire country. You should make sure you have the right tools, alternative courses of action, back-up plans. But that didn't happen. There was no plan at all, as far as we could see. They should have been able to see, in a country with so many sectarian and ethnic divides, what would happen. But they didn't. They didn't understand anything.

I once had a physiology professor who told us something I've never forgotten: "Never change what is functionally acceptable." His saying has come back to me so many times over the years. Don't get me wrong: There were a lot of bad things under Saddam. There were massacres, there were abuses. But it was more complicated than that. Iraq had an education system that was the envy of the Middle East; people came from other Arab countries, like Jordan, to study there. Iraq had high literacy and good health care. There was a campaign that stamped out polio. Today, almost nine years after the invasion, my parents in Baghdad still don't have regular electricity. The hospitals and the schools have fallen apart. The infrastructure is crumbling.

I'm not excusing Saddam's rule. I'm saying that, if you're going to replace a system like that, you should at least make sure that the new one works at least that well. As a doctor in the old days I earned only $3 per month. Can you imagine? People in my specialty make much higher salaries now -- as much as $1000. But back then, I didn't have to worry about a suicide bomber attacking me on my way home from work.

And we didn't have to worry about our children getting caught in a crossfire on their way to school, or being harassed for their backgrounds once they got there. My brother, Mohamed, has a son named Omar, a name popular among Sunnis and not so popular among Shiites. Omar's teacher, who was a Shiite, began picking on him at school, making fun of his name in front of the class. Another boy named Omar wanted to leave the room to get a drink of water, but the teacher wouldn't let him, saying that "Omars didn't deserve to drink." No one would have dared to do that in the old days.

My mother is a Shiite. Five of my brothers married Shiites. This is true of many Iraqis. You can't divide this country along sectarian lines without causing new disasters. Were some Shiites persecuted under Saddam? To be sure. But what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is doing right now looks like he is getting set to outdo Saddam when it comes to sectarian politics. Everyone knows that Maliki is behind the Shiite death squads that have been kidnapping people. Everyone knows that he is now determined to show the Sunnis their place. But aren't they part of the country too? Do two wrongs make a right? That also applies to the Americans, who first put these people in leadership positions. For 30 years, one of the main concerns of American policy was to isolate the regime in Iran -- yet the invasion of Iraq gave the mullahs in Tehran the biggest gift they could have ever hoped for.

I'm actually not that convinced that Maliki and his friends really represent Iraqi Shiites in the first place. Maliki and the others like him spent most of their lives in Iran; they have the mindset of the dictatorship in Iran. The problem is not just whether our politicians are Shiites or Sunnis. The problem is whether they actually care about the country they're supposed to be representing. I don't see any sign that they do. They are all incredibly, brazenly corrupt. In this respect, Hashemi, the Sunni politician that Maliki is now trying to arrest, and Talabani, the Kurd leader, are just the same as Maliki and his kind. When I worked with Americans during the war, I spent a lot of time in the government quarter in the Green Zone, and I saw all of our leaders at work. They all tried to spend as little time in Iraq as possible. They often missed sessions of parliament. They all had homes outside the country where they preferred to spend their time.

No one holds them accountable. The only ones who did that were the Americans, and now the Americans have left. And the people who are in power -- who are only in power because the Americans put them there -- are crowing about how they have triumphed by ending the "occupation." But as much as I didn't like the occupation I can't help but feel that the Americans' departure will make things worse. I can't help but feel that stability is now farther away than ever. If only we still had someone to act as the referee -- a U.N. peacekeeping force, perhaps. But that's not going to happen.

My lifelong dream was to get my degrees and travel abroad. And now that has happened. I can't tell you how grateful I am to have the chance to come here, to find a new life for my wife and my daughters. We've been very lucky. In our case things have turned out well.

But even these small victories, like ours, have come at a huge price. We've all seen so many people die, so many people worn away from psychological and emotional stress. You just can't live a normal life when you drive to work every day without knowing whether a car bomb is going to get you on the way. And that's the life that most Iraqis are leading now.

Everyone in Iraq wanted a better life. I don't think there are many of us who wanted it the way it turned out. Now I don't think you'll find many supporters of the invasion even among people who were against Saddam. I have many friends who are Iraqi Christians. For them, especially, the past nine years have been a disaster. I wonder whether any of them will be able to stay in the country. A lot of them have left. Many people have left.

Now I live in the States. People ask me where I'm from, and when I say "Iraq," they often answer, "Iran? You're from Iran?" One of my American friends told me to answer by saying, "Iraq -- the place where the war is." I feel like I have a lot in common with the American soldiers who are coming back. The other day I was listening to NPR, and they interviewed one sergeant who said, "I thought everybody would ask me about my experiences in the war. But nobody does. Nobody seems to care." I understand him. I know where he's coming from. Just because everyone tells you that the war is over doesn't mean it is.

Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images