The Middle East is where generalizations go to die, but suffer a few: The Whac-A-Mole approach to jihadist franchises more or less closely affiliated with al-Qaeda will necessarily continue for the foreseeable future, and those organizations, though they pose a real threat, will be a relatively small problem except where they enjoy state sponsorship and the resources and safe haven that go along with it. Sunni–Shiite cooperation in jihadist projects, uneasy though it may be, will continue to present dangers beyond the expectations of many American analysts. Potential allies in and around Iraq, having been burnt more than once by a seemingly fickle United States that is unsure of itself and its interests, will seek out regional allies and hedge their positions vis-à-vis American power. All of which serves to underline a point repeated by a half-dozen military and foreign-affairs scholars during National Review’s floating policy salon aboard the Allure of the Seas last week: The short-term problem in the Middle East may be the Islamic State or some other du jour gang of stateless beheaders, but the long-term problem is Iran.
Iran is, in a sense, the sort of problem we want to have in the Middle East. It is not an amorphous, slithering coalition of non-state organizations and ad hoc militias; rather, it is a nation-state with infrastructure, institutions, and interests — i.e., a target-rich environment with a great many vulnerabilities. Its young people are restive, and recent sanctions showed Tehran — and the world — exactly what sort of sandy foundation its economy rests upon: Iranian exports fell by half, and the rial lost some 80 percent of its value. And by “Iranian exports” we mean petroleum and minerals, after which dates and figs loom large in the Iranian economy.
It is unknown whether or how or when military action might be undertaken to prevent Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would be a truly catastrophic development. Some of Israel’s most sincere and well-informed admirers believe that Benjamin Netanyahu, recently denounced as a “chickens***” by one of Barack Obama’s suavity-dripping diplomatic lieutenants, does not in fact have the military capacity to undo Iran’s nuclear program, a mission that would be quite a bit more complex and challenging than the bombing of an Iraqi reactor in Operation Opera a generation ago. It is also unknown whether the United States would stand alongside its only reliable ally in the Middle East during the inevitably bloodthirsty retaliation from such an action. Likewise, the timing and conditions of any future U.S. military engagements in the area are impossible to forecast.
But some long-term developments are foreseeable, and the United States should make the most of these in its confrontation with Iran, forcing the Tehran regime to fight a war — economic, diplomatic, cultural, and, if it comes to it, military — on two fronts.
On the Western front, Iran faces an assault in the form of a North American energy renaissance that poses an existential threat to the one-horse economy of Iran as well as a serious challenge to every tin-pot petro-dictator and oil oligarchy around the world. Without its commanding position in the world energy markets, Iran is no longer a pretender to the legacy of Cyrus and Xerxes — it’s a slightly poorer Belarus without the manufacturing sector.
Our national impression of Iran is a distorted one. We overestimate the country, perhaps because it is one of the few countries that has managed to give us fits for decades, perhaps because we are misled by our domestic experience with the remarkably cultivated and entrepreneurial population of Iranian Americans, many of whom call themselves “Persian” as a way of distancing themselves from the regime in Tehran. In any case, we fail to appreciate the reality: Iran is a fundamentally backward country, with a centrally planned economy and a stultifying social order that sends its best and brightest fleeing abroad, often into the belly of the Great Satan itself, in search of better opportunities and basic human decency.
Iran possesses a tenth of the world’s proved oil reserves but cannot manage to refine enough gasoline even to satisfy its own feeble domestic demand. Iran is, for all of its pretensions to Persian splendor, a relatively poor country: In the world economic rankings, it is between below Bulgaria but (barely) above Botswana, and even with its vast petroleum resources, it is a generation of intense economic development away from being as wealthy as Mexico or Panama. Inflation runs nearly 20 percent, unemployment above 15 percent, and nearly one in five of its people lives on less than $11 per day. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, one part praetorian guard and one part crime syndicate, controls a third of the economy or more.
Not only does oil provide the money that keeps the Tehran regime in guns and torture implements, but shared interest in maintaining Middle Eastern petro-hegemony has long provided a framework, albeit a rickety one, for implicit and explicit cooperation among the region’s strongmen and their sundry ideologies and factions. But it is easily within the realm of possibility that Iran and Saudi Arabia — to say nothing of Russia and Venezuela — could a decade hence find themselves just one more sorry entry on the list of oil-power has-beens struggling to hold onto what little they have left in an energy market dominated by North America. Canada, the United States, and Mexico have their differences, to be sure, but nobody is beheading anybody over border barriers or Burger King’s taking over Tim Hortons.
The United States, in the No. 3 spot among world oil producers, already is a bigger player than is No. 4 Iran. But with the increased deployment of high-tech drilling techniques, construction of pipelines and other infrastructure, liberalization of export rules, and building ports and depots to facilitate the export of coal to power-hungry east Asia, the United States and our neighboring allies have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to denature the biggest snake in the garden: not simply defanging it, but digging out its venom glands entirely. Jihadists already know that they cannot stand on an actual field of battle against U.S. forces: The battle of Jihad Inc. vs. the gentlemen from Fort Riley, Kan., would last about six minutes plus whatever time the paperwork took. That battle does not come, because oil money buys them a lot of holes to hide in. But jihad is, in the end, a luxury good. Semtex and bullets may be cheap, but they are not free.
As the memory of Middle Eastern dominance of the oil industry begins to fade, Western eyes still will be looking east, even farther east, to India and to China and the rest of the nations of east Asia, with which both our economic interests and our national-security concerns are complexly intertwined. And this provides us with the opportunity for opening up the second front against Tehran. To the immediate east of Iran are Afghanistan and Pakistan, which converge to form a dangerous no-man’s-land that is, in the long run, as much of a problem for Tehran as it is for Washington. Going east from Iran, you do not hit a normal country with a functioning democracy until you reach India. India is a strange case: a poor country with a very large economy, a credible military, a robust democracy, dirt roads alongside a thriving high-tech sector. It is a country that along with Israel is almost uniquely positioned to appreciate the dangers and difficulties of Islamic extremism, a problem for India that is far older than the polity of India itself. Narendra Modi, the country’s new reform-minded prime minister, is, shall we say, somewhat limited in his sympathy for the complaints of the Islamic world and is very much interested in transforming his country into a unique new economic and military power. The distance between the Indian and Iranian borders is less than the distance between Denver and Los Angeles, and the rising power in Iran’s neighborhood is neither Shiite nor Sunni.
The United States and India are natural allies, with interests in trade and economic opportunity, worries about Islamic extremism and Chinese expansionism, a shared democratic ethos, and a great deal of affinity between our very different cultures. If Western economic domination is the long-term hammer, then democratic and liberal India is the anvil.
Likewise, China and east Asia, already highly integrated with our own economy, have relatively little to interest them economically in Iran and its environs except oil and gas. China already has a small Muslim-separatist problem (and, given the character of the regime in Beijing, who could blame the Uyghurs?) and has little or nothing to gain in the long run from an unpredictable, nuclear Iran. Beijing’s vision of the future has a lot of Buicks in it and not much sharia. The ayatollahs’ vision, on the other hand, is rooted in the past: not only in an imaginary golden age of Islamic supremacy, but also in 1970s-style Third World radicalism with its roots in backward Soviet practice. The planned economy is not, after all, a Persian idea, but a German one.
Bearing in mind Henry Kissinger’s maxim that countries do not have permanent friends or enemies, only interests, the fact is that we have Iran surrounded. But the example of North Korea shows what wonders one or two nuclear weapons can perform. The balance of power is entirely on our side at the moment, and the balance of power would be on our side if Iran had a nuclear weapon, too — but it would be a very different balance, and a very different calculation. The Obama administration is making only the most halfhearted of efforts to foreclose that possibility. Somebody, eventually, is going to have to make a more credible effort. Until then, we are all shickenchits.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.