Iran Sanctions; Bolton on Regime Change

(Politico) Bolton says US not seeking Iranian regime change. Quoting,

“Our policy is not regime change,” he said during an interview on Fox News. “We want to put unprecedented pressure on the government of Iran to change its behavior. And so far they’ve shown no indication they’re prepared to do that.”

A reasonable goal is always good. But Iran’s government is a case of multiple personality disorder.   How do you influence a psychiatric case?

Iran’s various Freudian parts are:

  • The religious establishment, who exercise control through the pulpit and via the bonyads, immense private “charities.”
  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who control a large slice of the economy, both military and non-military. It has at times been speculated that the IRG has more power than the religious establishment.  The comparison is problematic, comparing unquestioned legitimacy to hands-on-levers. The conventional military establishment has little public voice.
  • The “bazaar”, formerly the principal economic system, and which was a key player in previous revolutions, is no longer a principal actor, but important nonetheless.
  • The aggravated jobless rural youth, despite spontaneous demonstrations,  is not so far politicized.
  • A secular elite, who live a concealed Western lifestyle, tolerated for their necessary expertise.
  • A civil government that has some of the elements of representative democracy, but is basically subordinate to the religious establishment. Why does it exist at all? It probably has roots in something like the Pashtun jirgas, a chaperoned system to blow off steam, be heard, and provide input to the national consensus.

The Freudian parts fracture along these lines:

  • Religious intensity, obligatory jihad  versus secular culture.
  • Old versus young.
  • Economics: bazaar, IRG, and bonyads.

Nearby Pakistan is not totally dissimilar. Although Iran is not a failed state, and Pakistan perpetually teeters on the category edge, Pakistan  is also fractured, with something resembling jihad in   perpetual war with India. The economic damage is entirely self-inflicted. The common diagnosis: In contrast to progressive societies,  Iran and Pakistan are trapped into servicing the equivalents of grudges.

Pakistan, trapped by internally generated misery, is a nearby example of stasis typical of the region. Will U.S. sanctions force change, or result in a similarly unpleasant stasis for Iran? Let’s count the ways:

  • The IRG stokes war to keep their reason-to-exist. Closing of the Straits of Hormuz, though temporary, results in a U.S. counter strike which is interpreted as aggression. This would be very useful to the hardliners.
  • The spontaneous eruptions of rural youth acquire a political tinge. This results in repression with mass executions. This has precedent.
  • In the civil government, the hard liners grab power from the moderates, replacing Rouhani.
  • In fact, they could go further, with the goal of returning to the revolutionary fervor of 1979. To forge a new monopoly on power, the hard liners reinstate heavy indoctrination of the masses, focusing on “the Great Satan.”
  • Because it’s so traditional, they  grab some hostages.
  • The moderates hang on. Avoiding provocation, Iran initiates back channel negotiations.
  • Iran cheats so badly as to make the above worthless..

You may be more creative, adding to the above. Here I offer a heuristic I’ve found useful for prediction:

For a list of enumerated events of unknown probability, assign equal probability to each.

This gives the a priori probabilities:

  • chance of negotiations = 28%
  • chance of positive outcome to sanctions = 14%

Here a priori means without any special knowledge of the situation. It is the best we can do without a gambler’s edge, or some kind of special knowledge of Iranian society.  If the sanctions are informed by clandestine means, they may have better chances. But the above numbers are the best we can do with open source.

With such dismal odds for the success of sanctions, this is another opportunity to suggest B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, referenced in Russia, proposed Syria cooperation with United States; Is Russia a Rational Actor? and related articles.

If you’ve read about the Skinner Box, your reaction may have been that it is too hard to implement in practice, requiring major revisions of U.S. administrative law. With Iran, it’s much easier, because the primary export is oil. Simply take charge of Iran oil sales.

The  Iraq  Oil-for-Food Programme precedes. Marred by corruption, it had a different purpose, and hence a different structure, than the current purpose demands. This requirement is for a finely modulated tool that offers Iran specific sales in return for individually minor concessions. For example: the such-and-such Martyrs Brigade to be withdrawn from Syria in return for the sale of X barrels. Pick any feasible metric: foreign militia deployments, missile inventories, subversion, provocations,  and develop a trade for each.

As with Russia, the ultimate goal is not the particular trade, but to influence the internal conversation, causing rational self-interest to squeeze out the irrational grudge-mantra that underpins Iran’s aggressive aspirations.

Think blue sky. Everything has a price.

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