First We Got The Bomb, And That Was Good

Tom Friedman yesterday:

I’d prefer that Iran never get a bomb. The world would be much safer without more nukes, especially in the Middle East. But if Iran does go nuclear, it makes a huge difference whether a democratic Iran has its finger on the trigger or this current murderous clerical dictatorship. Anyone working to delay that and to foster real democracy in Iran is on the side of the angels. Anyone who enables this tyrannical regime and gives cover for its nuclear mischief will one day have to answer to the Iranian people.

As I read that, Friedman is prioritizing among his policy goals. If actions that helped promote democracy in Iran always also helped reduce the likelihood that Iran goes nuclear, and vice versa, then there’d be no need for a paragraph like this. If, however, the goals sometimes conflict, then you need to ask questions like: which is more achievable? and which is more important?

While there’s not universal agreement on this point, I think the weight of evidence suggests that there’s a real and substantial conflict between these goals. For one thing, while it’s not at all clear that the current Iranian regime is eager to build a nuclear bomb (as opposed to developing the capacity to do so, as a number of non-nuclear countries – most prominently Japan – have done), it is clear that the nuclear program is broadly popular in Iran, including among the opposition, which suggests that a liberalization of the regime in and of itself is no path to renunciation of said program.

Meanwhile, there’s precious little evidence that a confrontational policy – granting for the sake of argument that such a policy could be successful in delaying or even ending the Iranian nuclear program – does anything to bolster the opposition or to improve the prospects for liberalization. The leadership of the opposition opposes harsh sanctions and emphatically opposes any military action by the West against Iran. and history is littered with examples of regimes that were strengthened by vehement opposition by a stronger opponent (Iraq? Cuba?) while the two main counter-examples – the Soviet empire and South Africa – make poor comparisons to Iran (the Soviet Union was despised as a foreign power exerting unwanted control over nations like Poland and Hungary, so it was hardly likely Poles or Hungarians would rally to the side of their Soviet masters against the Americans, and in the post-Soviet period identification with America has tainted rather than helped the liberal cause within Russia proper; the South African case is even more obviously distinct for broadly similar reasons). And the vast majority of instances of a successful transition to democracy – Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, etc. – involved no such confrontational policy, generally quite the opposite.

The burden of proof, therefore, should very much be on the advocates of confrontation to demonstrate that such a policy would be constructive rather than counterproductive – assuming the goal actually is liberalization and democratization. The presumption should be that it is not.

That being the case, the real choice comes into view. If Friedman believes that a liberalization in Iran is (a) ultimately more important than stopping the nuclear program, and (b) realistically achievable, then he should favor the exact opposite of what he does favor – he should favor a policy of dramatic opening to Iran, rather than a policy of confrontation.

If, on the other hand, he disbelieves either (a) or (b) – stopping the nuclear program is more important and/or democratization is not realistically achievable – and also believes © that a confrontational policy will be effective either in pressuring the regime to change course or in preventing it from achieving its nuclear goals even if it doesn’t change course, then a policy of confrontation is defensible.

But then, he would have to tally on the side of confrontation the collateral damage done to relations with, for example, Brazil and Turkey, who have no interest in supporting such a policy – either because they either have no interest in anything about Iran, either its internal affairs or its foreign policy, but are interested in enhancing their own position internationally (likely, in Brazil’s case) or because good relations with Iran are hoped to give them influence in the conduct of Iranian foreign policy, and they do not particularly share America’s goal of stopping nuclearization (likely, in Turkey’s case). Brazil is a rising economic power and the most important country in Latin America, our own back yard. Turkey is America’s most important Muslim ally and, really, the only country that can plausibly serve as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. The costs of lousy relations with them are not enormous, but they are certainly not zero.

Myself, I question both (a) and (b), but actively disbelieve ©. I don’t think a policy of confrontation plausibly can be effective, both because there’s no way we’re going to get China, Russia and India on board (none of them support either American goals or America’s preferred means to those goals) and because I think the regime is strong enough not to have to bend, and will only get stronger if confronted directly.

And I think we have a real carrot to offer. Iran, like Turkey, Brazil, Vietnam and a handful of other rising nations, is entering a crucial period of demographic transition. Fertility rates have fallen quickly and substantially shortly after a population boom, such that a demographic “bulge” is created. That bulge is about to push into the key productive years (20s and 30s). When an exceptionally large percentage of the population is productively engaged, countries have a one-time opportunity to make significant economic strides forward. After this period, as the bulge ages, new strains begin to develop from the need to support a large, less-productive elderly population. The point being: Iran badly needs to integrate into the world economy, right now, to take advantage of this transition period. If they miss the boat, they will not have a second chance to board.

That’s a huge carrot. We need to be figuring out how to use it most effectively in order to achieve our realistically-achievable objectives with respect to Iran.

Strangely, this is the sort of analysis that you would think Friedman would be all over – the opportunities from globalization, unique periods of economic transition, etc. – if we were talking about, say, Vietnam, a country with arguably a worse human rights record and a clearer history of belligerence against its neighbors. But not if we’re talking about Iran.