If you were Vladimir Putin, what would you think of Iran? You’d worry a lot about it, that’s what. Your own Russia is losing Russians, due to the usual grim demography that characterizes most of Europe. And, like the others, you’ve got a Muslim problem, with surging birthrates both within Russia and all along its borders, from Chechnya to the ‘stans. Lots of those Muslims are under Iranian sway. You know that well, having been trained in, and elevated by, the KGB, which was horrified to see radical mullahs and imams receiving money, Korans, and even weapons from the Islamic Republic. When Osama bin Laden claims that the defeat of the Soviet Empire was an Islamic victory, there’s a certain element of truth to his words, and you know that the Iranians want to build on that foundation to extend their power deeper into your domain.
You therefore want to see this regime destroyed. The last thing in the world that you want is a gigantic Chechnya, armed with nuclear weapons, launching waves of fanatical terrorists against infidels like you.
But you don’t have much of an army any more, and anyway you don’t want a war with the mullahs. Direct attack is not your way; you prefer cunning. You’d rather have someone else do your dirty work for you. Someone like Israel, or better yet, the United States. And best of all would be to get the Americans to do it in such a way that the whole world condemns them for it.
The first step is to convince the Iranians that you’re their most reliable ally and their smartest friend. So you stand up for them in the big assemblies of global public opinion, you decry the sanctions aimed against them, and you — whose country after all has provided the Iranians with nuclear technology ever since Clinton and Gore approved it — swear up and down that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran. You organize regional conferences to flatter the mullahs, you even fly to Tehran to meet with the Supreme Leader, thereby elevating his status. And all the while, you whisper to them that they are strong while the Americans are weak, that they can do anything they wish to the West, for the West has no stomach for further confrontation. You famously sell them an advanced air defense system with which they can protect their nuclear facilities in the event the Israelis or the Americans lash out.
You assure them of your unqualified support, and urge them on to intensify their war against the Americans. This is not just a matter of diplomatic tactics. Unlike the Americans, your people have long operated inside Persian borders. Some of those bearded and beturbaned fanatics depend on you for money and opium, and for the blonde haired women in your embassy and consulates. You have real influence, and you use it to advance the careers of the most fanatical zealots, people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, people who do not want to charm the Americans, but antagonize them. Ali Larijani was too charming, and you managed to move him out to be replaced by the monotonous Jalili, renowned for his lack of elegance and his aggressive strategy of enlisting Latin American leftists to encircle the Americans.
Since you want the mullahs destroyed, you take care to sell them defensive systems that will not really defend them against either the greater or the lesser Satan. Since you do not want them to have a workable atomic weapon, you manage to have your Tehran-based nuclear physicists repeatedly find new problems. You know that the Iranians will eventually build the accursed thing, but there, too, you have a stratagem. You will find a way to provide your great admirer, Condoleezza Rice, with the hard evidence so that she and her president will do your dirty work for you before they head back to California and Texas, leaving you with new challenges in Washington.
To be sure, life being what it is, there are problems. The Persians are clever; they have been practicing deceit far longer than your people, and their long memories include centuries of Russian exploitation and trickery. They do not trust you, and they are constantly alert to signs of your treachery. The Israeli attack on Syria in September was therefore a serious blow to you, because it exposed the hollowness of your vaunted anti-aircraft defense system, the same one deployed across Iran. The mullahs were alarmed, and not entirely assuaged by your assurances that their system was far better than the outmoded stuff you dumped on the Arabs. Your remonstrance to the supreme leader — “if you’d only told us about this secret plan of yours, we’d of course have made sure it was invulnerable to the Israelis” — had good effect, but many of the ruthless men around Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may suspect the truth. Not that they have anywhere to go, as you happily chuckle to yourself.
Your complicated stratagem can easily derail. You want the sanctions to fail, because you want the Americans to face the choice so elegantly stated by Sarkozy and Kouchner: Iran with the bomb, or bomb Iran. Sanctions deflect the momentum driving Washington and Paris toward that fateful choice, thus delaying the day of reckoning. But many good things may well happen en route to decision day. The mullahs are licking their wounds from the turnaround in Iraq, and may try something melodramatic to show that their vaunted “insurgency” is still a potent force. On the other hand, even if that happens they may well have preserved credible deniability, in keeping with their mastery of deception. Perhaps they will instead strike in Afghanistan, but there too they would have to show themselves, and even so the Americans have shown amazing restraint. What does it take to galvanize the Americans? A nuke in Las Vegas?
At such times, you wryly remind yourself of something a KGB station chief once told you: “We’re supposed to tell the Kremlin what the Americans are going to do next. But it’s impossible to know that, since the Americans don’t know themselves.”
It’s not easy to manipulate the world. All in all it was easier when there was a Red Army.