Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Iran Displays its Weakness

Even dictators are politicians, who must win the support of key constituencies to remain in power; how else to explain the hold on power by such madmen as Kim Jong Il. Bret Stephens explained this best in this 2009 WSJ article.
Tyranny is a demanding and quintessentially human art, requiring, among its better practitioners, a discriminating nose for the weaknesses of others and a keen mind for how to exploit them to the fullest. The weaknesses of your own people—the sublimated terror of the masses; the petty ambitions of the cadres; the cravenness of your inner circle—you know only too well.

But a tyrant’s training is no less useful for the manipulation of free men. What keeps an abused and subjugated people in line is the constant fear that things could suddenly get dramatically worse, along with the sporadic hope that things might also get marginally better. So long as most people feel they have much to lose and something to gain, you will have them in your power.

Which brings me to Iran's recent threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping if sanctions were imposed on its crude oil exports. While this may seem a replay of the sort of moves that Kim made famous, I think this is clearly a signal that the Iranian leaders are in a weak position. Kim's threats were aimed at parties who lacked the desire or the means to fully call his bluff, specifically China and South Korea. The Iranian threat directly impacts Obama's re-election prospects and he has the means, in the form of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to do something about it.

Consider the bearded ones' positions. Despite years of work, they still seem a ways off from achieving their goal of building a nuclear warhead that can be delivered at a distance. Clearly the U.S. and/or Israeli campaign of sabotage and assassination has been successful in slowing their nuclear progress. It seems that the mullahs are in a race against time; they feel the need to fulfill their nuclear ambition to secure their base and to increase their popularity before popular discontent with their failing socialist economy causes the government's collapse. This is why the threat to close the Straits of Hormuz is so telling. It is an almost credible threat, but reveals that they are nervous about the impact of economic sanctions. From the CIA factbook on Iran:
Iran's economy is marked by an inefficient state sector, reliance on the oil sector, which provides the majority of government revenues, and statist policies, which create major distortions throughout the system. Private sector activity is typically limited to small-scale workshops, farming, and services. Price controls, subsidies, and other rigidities weigh down the economy, undermining the potential for private-sector-led growth. Significant informal market activity flourishes. The legislature in late 2009 passed President Mahmud AHMADI-NEJAD's bill to reduce subsidies, particularly on food and energy. The bill would phase out subsidies - which benefit Iran's upper and middle classes the most - over three to five years and replace them with cash payments to Iran's lower classes. However, the start of the program was delayed repeatedly throughout 2010 over fears of public reaction to higher prices.
The dependency on oil revenue to buy domestic peace is clearly their weakness. Another significant weakness, not mentioned in the factbook, is that the Iranians import significant amounts of their gasoline, despite their oil production.

With regards to policy towards, Iran, it seems that the current one is probably the best plan. Use covert means to sabotage the program and delay its progress, and build a consensus on sanctions. We are in no position to threaten full scale war with Iran, nor would we want to do so if sanctions and sabotage can achieve our goals. The ayatollahs are deeply unpopular, starving them of the means to buy domestic support will bring them down.
For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

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