Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Weapons of Mass Distraction

You know those nuclear weapons that Iran is trying to get? The ones that will immediately cause Armageddon 2.0 if they're realized? Well, apparently, they're about as real as those Iraqi ones from a few years back. There is some ambiguity in the report - it suggests that Tehran continues to enrich uranium, and could start a weapons program if it really wanted to - but it's clear that the "evidence" of a nuclear program was overblown. Furthermore, even if Iran started reconsituting its program tomorrow, it couldn't get nukes before the A-Train leaves the station.

Regardless of what our president is saying, this constitues a significant development in our relationship with Iran. You know the environment has changed when even right-winger Robert Kagan thinks we should start talking. And David Ignatius points out that the NIE's most significant finding is that Iran doesn't act irrationally. We just have to understand what's driving their decision-making.

But I do think there is something telling in the responses of the two leaders here. First, President Bush is saying that Iran has to tell the world what the hell's going on. It's not Iran's nukes that are cause for consternation - it's their secrecy. The reasons behind this response are obvious - for the past year or so, we've been beating a bellicose drum on a premise that just turned to vapor. Bush is now forced to climb down, and he wants to do so carefully, thinking that the slower he relieves pressure, the less face he loses. To me, this is like pulling the Band-Aid off slowly. Seems to me that if he just admits that we were operating on a faulty premise and that there are new ground rules to the debate, he'll take an immediate hit and recover more quickly.

Second, Ahmadinejad is claiming victory. It's been my experience that leaders claim victory for two reasons. First, if there was an actual victory. Second, if an event occurs that could potentially weaken their country's standing in the world. This is clearly not the first scenario - Iran did nothing here. Certainly A-Train isn't above knife-twisting on Bush, but there's something deeper to this declaration of "victory." Iran definitely sees itself as having had something to lose.

Picture, if you will, two children on a playground. (Almost any diplomatic incident can be explained by an analogy starting with that sentence.) For simplicity's sake, we'll call the children Iran and America. Iran is holding his hand behind his back. America thinks that Iran might have a Super-Soaker back there. America doesn't know - he can't see behind Iran's back. So he starts saying things like "give me your Super-Soaker, kid, or I'll beat the crap out of you, I'm serious." Now imagine some other kid comes along and says to Iran, "dude, why are you holding your sippy-cup behind your back like that?" Doesn't that kind of deflate Iran? I mean, the entire basis of Iran's power trip was that there might be a Super-Soaker hidden back there. Certainty of the Soaker's existence would have caused a beatdown of epic proportions, but if America is sure that he could beat up on Iran without really getting wet, it kind of turns Iran into just another freak.

My point is this: expect some negotiations soon. But don't expect Iran to get everything it wants, or even a good portion of what it wants - it's clearly not negotiating from strength here. The only good bargaining chip Iran had was its nuclear program, and that just got revealed for the vapor that it is.

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