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Can Iran Afford to Ignore America's Third Option

By Nader Habibi


Political analysts who speculate about the United States' options for stopping Iran's nuclear program often point to two alternatives: economic sanctions and surgical military strike against Iran's nuclear cites. Iran has been well aware of these alternatives and has tried to discourage them by a series of diplomatic moves and military posturing. To reduce America's chance of obtaining the United Nations' support for a worldwide international economic sanction, Iran has offered economic incentives to European Union, Russia and China through attractive trade and investment opportunities. These incentives include a $75 billion long-term oil and gas development package for China, an attractive contract for Russia to develop the Bushehr nuclear reactor (and purchase of weapons systems). Yet the largest economic incentives have been offered to European Union, which is Iran's largest trade and investment partner.


In order to deter a possible U.S. or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities Iran has threatened to retaliate against U.S. interests in the region. It has also developed long-range missiles capable of reaching Israel. In addition to these steps Iran is likely disrupt oil shipments from the Persian Gulf if it comes under military attack. The combination of these threats and the U.S. difficulties in Iraq has so far discouraged the U.S. from using its military option. The U.S. efforts to gain international support for economic sanctions against Iran have also been frustrated by the opposition of Russia, China and to a lesser extent Europe. The U.S. now finds itself in a situation that the economic sanction option seems unattainable and the military option appears very costly and uncertain. The Iranian government, however, is making a big mistake if it assumes that these are the only options available to the U.S.


Several recent developments suggest that a third option is available to the U.S. and some initial stages of this option might already be underway. The oil-rich province of Khuzestan suffered several explosions and ethnic unrest in June 2005. These events were followed by more explosions in October 2005. There was also some ethnic unrest in Kurdish areas of Iran earlier this year. Iran has accused the U.S. and the U.K. of supporting separatist movements among Iran's various ethnic groups. Both countries have denied these accusations but creating large-scale ethnic unrest could very well be America's third option that so far no one has paid much attention to.  The logic behind this option is that by creating ethnic unrest and pushing it forward to the point of civil war, the U.S. can force the Iranian government to divert its resources away from its nuclear program. A more ambitious goal of such an initiative might even be to bring about the total disintegration of Iran into several small and ineffective states.


It is in the context of this option that we might understand why suddenly out of nowhere Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative American intellectual and a close supporter of Israel, has expressed concern for Iran's ethnic groups and has called on Iran to adopt a federalist form of government. (He organized a conference titled "The Unknown Iran: Another Case For Federalism" in late October in American Enterprise Institute.) Ledeen has been an advocate of regime change in Iran for several years, but this is the first time that he has focused on Iran's ethnic minorities. This conference and the growing media attention to this issue will further provoke ethnic nationalism among Iran's diverse ethnic groups that by some accounts make up close to 49% of the country's total population.


In the past few years Iran has devoted its attention to deterring and countering America's first two options but perhaps it is now time to think very seriously about America's third option, which could pose a far more dangerous threat to Iran than either economic sanctions or surgical military strikes. These two conventional options could impose heavy economic and even human costs on Iran but they do not necessarily threaten Iran's unity and territorial integrity. The ethnic option, however, could lead to the break up of the country.


The third option is not only more dangerous for Iran but it is less costly and easier to implement for the United States.  The U.S. needs international support for economic sanctions but China and Russia are likely to oppose it. The military option is very risky and Iran could retaliate by helping the insurgents in Iraq and attacking U.S. interests throughout Middle East. Providing assistance to separatist ethnic groups on the other hand could be done covertly and at a much lower cost. It does not even have to be a major group with a large number of supporters. The U.S. could arm a small group of separatists with advanced small-scale weapons such as shoulder-based anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and provide them with logistic support. Such small groups proved very effective against the revolutionary government of Nicaragua in 1980s. The fact that U.S. now has military presence in most of Iran's neighbors allows it to easily transfer material and human support to such groups.


Iran must conduct its foreign policy and its nuclear program, which has angered the U.S. with an eye to the potential threats and risks. While developing nuclear technology and supporting the Palestinian struggle are worthwhile objectives, both must be conducted in such a manner that does not provoke a destructive response and threaten the country's territorial integrity.


About the author:

Nader Habibi is economist with the Middle East and North Africa Service of the consulting firm Global Insight.

... Payvand News - 11/1/05 ... --

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