I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
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When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
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On several occasions I've commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world.
Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we've been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.
It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol' Fidel to his knees, didn't it?
But you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:
"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council -- for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.
But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.
Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.
Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."
And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it's not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:
"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."
Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don't really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.
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How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.
Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.
Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.
What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.
No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.
This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.
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Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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Here's a little fantasy for you to ponder: what if one of our senior foreign policy officials accidentally swallowed some sodium pentothal (aka "truth serum") before some public hearing or press conference, and started speaking the truth about one of those issues where prevarication, political correctness, and obfuscation normally prevail? You know: what if they started saying in public all those things that they probably believe in private? What sorts of "inconvenient truths" might suddenly get revealed?
In that spirit, here's my Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit.
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons." U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we're formally committed to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel's involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.
But let's get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn't going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights." Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn't care when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we'd be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I'm saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you're not going to hear many American politicians admit it.
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution." For official Washington insiders, the politically-correct answer to any question about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we favor a two-state solution based on negotiations between the two parties, preferably done under U.S. auspices. Never mind that there's not much support for creating a viable Palestinian state in Israel (surveys in Israel sometimes show slim majorities in favor of a 2SS, but support drops sharply when you spell out the details of what a viable state would mean). Never mind that the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate properly, and the failure of the long Oslo process has diminished Fatah's legitimacy and strengthened the more hardline Hamas. Never mind that the latest Israeli election, while it weakened Netanyahu, did not strengthen the peace camp at all. And never mind that the United States has had twenty-plus years to pull of the deal and has blown it every time, mostly because it never acted like a genuine mediator. But nobody in official-dom is going to say this out loud, because they have no idea what U.S. policy would be once the 2SS was kaput.
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can." Most U.S. leaders like to talk about global partnerships and the need to work with allies, and they try not to speak too glowingly about American dominance. But make no mistake: U.S. leaders have long recognized that being stronger than everyone else was desirable, and nobody ever runs for president vowing to "make America #2." That's why U.S. leaders have always been ambivalent about European unity: they want Europe to be sufficiently unified so that it doesn't become a source of trouble, but they don't want it to cohere into a super-state that might be powerful enough to stand up to Washington.
The problem, of course, is that openly proclaiming global primacy irritates other governments and makes them look for ways to keep Washington in check. That's why the first Bush administration had to disavow an early draft of the 1992 Defense Guidance; it was way too explicit in laying out these familiar aims. But dropping that draft didn't alter the ambition, and despite what you might think, neither Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama has abandoned the basic goal of keeping the United States #1. Whether their policies advanced that goal is another question.
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it." Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s -- that's half a century, folks -- but it never changes because the stakes don't seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the "war on drugs" has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn't hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won't hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn't be ... well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we're going to pretend it's a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It's obvious that our basic approach to Iran's nuclear program has been misguided, and that we've spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don't expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.
Like I said, this is just an idle fantasy. I don't really want to see what Kerry or Hagel or McDonough or Lew or others would be like on truth serum (though I sometimes wonder if somebody is slipping a smidge to Biden every now and then). But it is kinda fun to imagine what they might blurt out in an idle moment, especially if the normal inhibitions and constraints were removed. What would you expect them to say?
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If you'd like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America's global role. It's also worth noting that there are realists on both sides of this particular exchange, which reminds us that agreement on fundamental principles doesn't necessarily yield agreement on policy conclusions.
The first piece is Barry Posen's "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy," and the second is Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth's "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." (A longer version of the B, I & W argument can be found in the latest issue of International Security; Posen's argument is outlined at length in a forthcoming book.)
Dedicated readers of this blog know that I am largely in agreement with Posen's position, so I'm going to focus today on what I find lacking in B, I & W. Like all of their work, it's vigorously argued and the longer version is richly documented. But all those footnotes cannot save it from some serious weaknesses.
First, B, I, & W straw-man their target by lumping together a group of strategic thinkers whose differences are at least as significant as their points of agreement. The "proponents of retrenchment" that they criticize range from libertarian isolationists who want to bring virtually all US forces home to "offshore balancers" like Posen who support a robust but less extravagant defense budget and favor not isolationism but merely more limited forms of international engagement. Needless to say, there is a world of difference in these views (even if both are broadly in favor of doing less), and so many of B, I & W's broad-brush charges miss their mark.
Second, there is something deeply puzzling about B, I & W's devotion to what Ikenberry used to called "liberal hegemony," and what he and his co-authors now prefer to call "deep engagement." B, I & W argue that deep engagement has been America's grand strategy since World War II and they believe it was the optimal strategy for the bipolar Cold War, when the United States faced a global threat from a major great-power rival. Not only was the USSR a formidable military power, but it was also an ideological rival whose Marxist-Leninist principles once commanded millions of loyal followers around the world.
Here's the puzzle: the Soviet Union disappeared in 1992, and no rival of equal capacity has yet emerged. Yet somehow "deep engagement" is still the optimal strategy in these radically different geopolitical circumstances. It's possible that U.S. leaders in the late 1940s hit on the ideal grand strategy for any and all structural conditions, but it is surely odd that an event as significant as the Soviet collapse can have so few implications for how America deals with the other 190-plus countries around the globe.
Third, B, I, & W give "deep engagement" full credit for nearly all the good things that have occurred internationally since 1945 (great power peace, globalization, non-proliferation, expansion of trade, etc.), even though the direct connection between the strategy and these developments remains contested. More importantly, they absolve the strategy from most if not all of the negative developments that also took place during this period. They recognize the events like the Indochina War and the 2003 war in Iraq were costly blunders, but they regard them as deviations from "deep engagement" rather than as a likely consequence of a strategy that sees the entire world as of critical importance and the remaking of other societies along liberal lines as highly desirable if not strategically essential.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders can only sell deep engagement by convincing Americans that the nation's security will be fatally compromised if they do not get busy managing the entire globe. Because the United States is in fact quite secure from direct attack and/or conquest, the only way to do that is by ceaseless threat-mongering, as has been done in the United States ever since the Truman Doctrine, the first Committee on the Present Danger and the alarmist rhetoric of NSC-68. Unfortunately, threat-mongering requires people in the national security establishment to exaggerate U.S. interests more-or-less constantly and to conjure up half-baked ideas like the domino theory to keep people nervous. And once a country has talked itself into a properly paranoid frame of mind, it inevitably stumbles into various quagmires, as the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, such debacles are not deviations from "deep engagement"; they are a nearly inevitable consequence of it.
Fourth, B, I, & W largely ignore the issue of opportunity cost. Advocates of restraint like Posen (and myself) are not saying that the United States cannot afford to intervene in lots of overseas venues, they are saying that the United States would be better off with a smaller set of commitments and a more equitable division of labor between itself and its principal allies. If the United States were not spending more than more of the world combined on "deep engagement," it could invest more in infrastructure here at home, lower taxes, balance budgets more easily, provide more generous health or welfare benefits, or do whatever combination of the above the public embraced.
Fifth, B, I, & W argue that deep engagement works because hardly anybody is actively trying to balance American power. In their view, most of the world likes this strategy, and is eager for Washington to continue along the same path. On the one hand, this isn't that surprising: why shouldn't NATO countries or Japan prefer a world where they can spend 1-2% of GDP on defense while Uncle Sucker shoulders the main burden? More importantly, advocates of restraint believe doing somewhat less would encourage present allies to bear a fairer share of the burden, and also discourage some of them from adventurist behavior encouraged by excessive confidence in U.S. protection (which Posen terms "reckless driving"). If the U.S. played hard-to-get on occasion, it would discover that some of its allies would do more both to secure their own interests and to remain eligible for future U.S. help. Instead of bending over backwards to convince the rest of the world that the United States is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should be encouraging other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they are worth supporting.
Moreover, even if most of the world isn't balancing U.S. power, the parts that are remain troublesome. For instance, "deep engagement" in the Middle East has produced some pretty vigorous balancing behavior, in the form of Iraq and Iran's nuclear programs, Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah, and the virulent anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda. Indeed, the more deeply engaged we became in the region (especially with the onset of "dual containment" following the first Gulf War), the more local resistance we faced. Ditto our "deep engagement" in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given that those two wars may have cost upwards of $3 trillion, it seems clear that at least a few people have "balanced" against the United States with a certain amount of success.
Sixth, reading B, I, & W, one would hardly know that the nuclear revolution had even occurred. Nuclear weapons are not very useful as instruments of coercion, but they do make their possessors largely unconquerable and thus reduce overall security requirements considerably. Because the United States has a second-strike capability sufficient to devastate any country foolish enough to attack us, the core security of the United States is not in serious question. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of eight other countries also makes a conventional great power war like World War I or World War II exceedingly unlikely. Yet despite this fundamental shift in the global strategic environment, B, I & W believe the United States must remain "deeply engaged" in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in order to prevent a replay of the first half of the 20th century.
To repeat: most of the strategists who reject "deep engagement/liberal hegemony" do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.
"Deep engagement" might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn't it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?
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The debate on Iran and its nuclear program does little credit to the U.S. foreign policy community, because much of it rests on dubious assumptions that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Lots of ink, pixels, and air-time has been devoted to discussing whether Iran truly wants a bomb, how close it might be to getting one, how well sanctions are working, whether the mullahs in charge are "rational," and whether a new diplomatic initiative is advisable. Similarly, journalists, politicians and policy wonks spend endless hours asking if and when Israel might attack and whether the United States should help. But we hardly ever ask ourselves if this issue is being blown wildly out of proportion.
At bottom, the whole debate on Iran rests on the assumption that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be an event of shattering geopolitical significance: On a par with Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, the fall of France in 1940, the Sino-Soviet split, or the breakup of the former Soviet Union. In this spirit, Henry Kissinger recently argued that a latent Iranian capability (that is, the capacity to obtain a bomb fairly quickly) would have fearsome consequences all by itself. Even if Iran stopped short of some red line, Kissinger claims this would: 1) cause "uncontrollable military nuclear proliferation throughout [the] region," 2) "lead many of Iran's neighbors to reorient their political alignment toward Tehran" 3) "submerge the reformist tendencies in the Arab Spring," and 4) deliver a "potentially fatal blow" to hopes for reducing global nuclear arsenals. Wow. And that's just if Iran has nuclear potential and not even an actual weapon! It follows that the United States must either persuade them to give up most of their enrichment capacity or go to war to destroy it.
Yet this "mother of all assumptions" is simply asserted and rarely examined. The obvious question to ask is this: did prior acts of nuclear proliferation have the same fearsome consequences that Iran hawks now forecast? The answer is no. In fact, the spread of nuclear weapons has had remarkably little impact on the basic nature of world politics and the ranking of major powers. The main effect of the nuclear revolution has been to induce greater caution in the behavior of both those who possessed the bomb and anyone who had to deal with a nuclear-armed adversary. Proliferation has not transformed weak states into influential global actors, has not given nuclear-armed states the ability to blackmail their neighbors or force them to kowtow, and it has not triggered far-reaching regional arms races. In short, fears that an Iranian bomb would transform regional or global politics have been greatly exaggerated; one might even say that they are just a lot of hooey.
Consider the historical record.
Did the world turn on its axis when the mighty Soviet Union tested its first bomb in 1949? Although alarmist documents like NSC-68 warned of a vast increase in Soviet influence and aggressiveness, Soviet nuclear development simply reinforced the caution that both superpowers were already displaying towards each other. The United States already saw the USSR as an enemy, and the basic principles of containment were already in place. NATO was being formed before the Soviet test and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe was already a fait accompli. Having sole possession of the bomb hadn't enabled Truman to simply dictate to Stalin, and getting the bomb didn't enable Stalin or his successors to blackmail any of their neighbors or key U.S. allies. It certainly didn't lead any countries to "reorient their political alignment toward Moscow." Nikita Khrushchev's subsequent missile rattling merely strengthened the cohesion of NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and we now know that much of his bluster was intended to conceal Soviet strategic inferiority. Having a large nuclear arsenal didn't stop the anti-commnist uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, and didn't allow the Soviet Union to win in Afghanistan. Nor did it prevent the USSR from eventually collapsing entirely.
Did British and French acquisition of nuclear weapons slow their decline as great powers? Not in the slightest. Having the force de frappe may have made De Gaulle feel better about French prestige and having their own deterrent made both states less dependent on America's security umbrella, but it didn't give either state a louder voice in world affairs or win them new influence anywhere. And you might recall that Britain couldn't get Argentina to give back the Falklands by issuing nuclear threats -- even though Argentina had no bomb of its own and no nuclear guarantee -- they had to go retake the islands with conventional forces.
Did China's detonation of a bomb in 1964 suddenly make them a superpower? Hardly. China remained a minor actor on the world stage until it adopted market principles, and its rising global influence is due to three decades of economic growth, not a pile of nukes. And by the way, did getting a bomb enable Mao Zedong--a cruel megalomaniac who launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1957 and the destructive Cultural Revolution in the 1960s -- to start threatening and blackmailing his neighbors? Nope. In fact, China's foreign policy behavior after 1964 was generally quite restrained.
What about Israel? Does Israel's nuclear arsenal allow it to coerce its neighbors or impose its will on Hezbollah or the Palestinians? No. Israel uses its conventional military superiority to try to do these things, not its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Israel's bomb didn't even prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking it in October 1973, although it did help convince them to limit their aims to regaining the territory they had lost in 1967. It is also worth noting that Israel's nuclear program did not trigger a rapid arms race either. Although states like Iraq and Libya did establish their own WMD programs after Israel got the bomb, none of their nuclear efforts moved very rapidly or made it across the finish line.
But wait, there's more. The white government in South Africa eventually produced a handful of bombs, but nobody noticed and apartheid ended anyway. Then the new government gave up its nuclear arsenal to much acclaim. If anything, South Africa was more secure without an arsenal than it was before.
What about India and Pakistan? India's "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974 didn't turn it into a global superpower, and its only real effect was to spur Pakistan -- which was already an avowed rival -- to get one too. And it's worth noting that there hasn't been a large-scale war between the two countries since, despite considerable grievances on both sides and occasional skirmishes and other provocations.
Finally, North Korea is as annoying and weird as it has always been, but getting nuclear weapons didn't transform it from an economic basket case into a mighty regional power and didn't make it more inclined to misbehave. In fact, what is most remarkable about North Korea's nuclear program is how little impact it has had on its neighbors. States like Japan and South Korea could go nuclear very quickly if they wanted to, but neither has done so in the six years since North Korea's first nuclear test.
In short, both theory and history teach us that getting a nuclear weapon has less impact on a country's power and influence than many believe, and the slow spread of nuclear weapons has only modest effects on global and regional politics. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring direct attacks on one's homeland, and they induce greater caution in the minds of national leaders of all kinds. What they don't do is turn weak states into great powers, they are useless as tools of blackmail, and they cost a lot of money. They also lead other states to worry more about one's intentions and to band together for self-protection. For these reasons, most potential nuclear states have concluded that getting the bomb isn't worth it.
But a few states-and usually those who are worried about being attacked-decide to go ahead. The good news is that when they do, it has remarkably little impact on world affairs.
For some strange reason, however, the U.S. national security community seems to think that both logic and all this prior history does not apply to Iran. They forget that similarly dire warnings were uttered before many of these others states got the bomb, yet none of these fearsome forecasts took place. Ironically, by repeatedly offering doom-and-gloom scenarios about the vast geopolitical consequences of an Iranian bomb, they may be strengthening the hands of Iranian hardliners who might be interested in actually obtaining a working weapon. After all, if getting a bomb would give Iran all the influence that Kissinger and others fear, why wouldn't Tehran want one?
In fact, the smart way to discourage Iran from going nuclear is both to take the threat of force off the table (thereby reducing Iran's perceived need for a deterrent) and to make it clear that getting a bomb won't bring Iran big strategic benefits and won't affect global or regional politics very much if at all. And in this case, the smart strategy has the additional merit of being true.
What if our current policy towards Iran actually works, and Tehran gives in to every one of our demands? You'd think that would be a crowning diplomatic success, wouldn't you? Think again. In fact, a one-sided triumph over Iran might solve little, because a deal dictated by Washington probably wouldn't last.
Given where U.S. policy is today, there are two paths to a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. Both are inherently coercive. The first path is the one we are currently on: The United States and its allies keep ratcheting up economic sanctions until the Iranian economy collapses, accompanied by a fair amount of human suffering and untold deaths due to economic hardship. At that point, the clerical regime either says "uncle" or gets overthrown. In either case, whoever is in charge in Iran subsequently agrees to abandon all nuclear enrichment, get rid of all their current stockpile of enriched uranium, and dismantle all their centrifuges, with compliance to be verified by the United States and the IAEA.
In this scenario, a tightening vise of economic pressure will convince Iran to do what the late Muammar Qaddafi did in Libya in 2003 and abandon any interest in a nuclear capability. Unfortunately for us, Tehran has probably noticed what happened to him, which makes it less likely that they'd ever surrender in quite the same way.
The second path is the military option: The United States attacks Iran and destroys as much of its nuclear infrastructure as it can find. We also manage to convince Iran that we'll keep coming back to repeat the job if they try to rebuild. In response, the clerical regime ignores the popular outrage that our attack would provoke and agrees to remain a non-nuclear power in perpetuity.
Let's ignore for the moment the fact that U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran is not actively seeking nuclear weapons at all, a view that our allies in Great Britain apparently share. Let's also leave aside the question of whether either of these two paths is likely to succeed. Instead, let's suppose one of them did, and Iran capitulated to our current demands. Would that be a good thing? I'm not so sure.
The problem with these two paths to a non-nuclear Iran is that each will leave a lot of Iranians really pissed off and resentful. Even if they were forced to grant all our demands, they will have done so under extreme duress, either because the U.S.-led coalition had twisted their arms out of their sockets with "crippling sanctions" or because the Great Satan had launched an unprovoked military attack. In the unlikely event that either policy convinced Iran's leaders to completely abandon nuclear enrichment -- a goal that the government, key opposition figures, and much of the Iranian public have long supported -- that concession will have been screwed out of them.
The obvious danger, of course, is that this outcome will provide ammunition for Iranian nationalists and hardliners, and strengthen the hands of those who favor Iran have an overt nuclear weapons capability. They will ask why India and Pakistan can have nuclear weapons but Iran cannot. They will point out that other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories are permitted to have enrichment capabilities but Iran is barred. They will remind the world and their fellow citizens that Japan has vast quantities of plutonium and is probably only a few months from a bomb if it ever wanted one, while Iran is treated as an international leper. And they will surely wonder why Israel gets U.S. protection and unconditional aid even though it is not signed the NPT and has a large nuclear weapons arsenal of its own.
As a result, there will be plenty of Iranians eager to abandon any agreement they might reach with us, just as soon as they thought they could get away with it. In other words, an agreement that is reached solely through coercion will only endure as long as the same level of coercive pressure remains credible. At best, such an agreement would last only as long as the balance of power and resolve continued to favor us. The more one-sided the deal, in short, the more likely Iran is to renege and the more the U.S. and Israel will have to watch it like hawks for any sign of slippage. What better way to ensure that relations never improve?
By contrast, a nuclear deal that gave something to both sides and promised both sides a significant stream of future benefits would give both actors an incentive to stick to the terms. It would also tend to silence the hawks in both camps who push for hardline solutions (i.e., those Americans who favor military force and those Iranians who might favor actually getting a bomb). The problem here, as my colleague Matt Bunn reminded me yesterday, is that the current level of mistrust makes it hard for either side to convince the other that it will actually deliver the stream of benefits that will have to be part of the deal.
The late negotiation expert Roger Fisher famously recommended giving opponents "yes-sable" propositions: If you want a deal, you have to offer something that the opponent might actually want to accept. In the same vein, Chinese strategic sage Sun Tzu advised "building a golden bridge" for your enemies to retreat across.
Translation: If we want a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, it can't be completely one-sided. Paradoxically, we don't want to strong-arm Iran into accepting a deal they hate, but which they are taking because we've left them no choice. A completely one-sided deal might be easier to sell here at home, but that sort of deal is also less likely to endure. In order to last, there has to be something in it for them, both in terms of tangible benefits but also in terms of acknowledging Iranian interests and national pride. Otherwise, the deal won't stick and we'll be back to the current situation of threat-mongering, suspicion, and strategic distraction. That might be an outcome that a few neo-cons want, but hardly anyone else.
We are often warned about the dangers of appeasement and the "lessons" of Munich. But we often forget the equally important lesson of Versailles: when victors impose a harsh and one-sided settlement on a country -- even if it deserves it -- it sometimes backfires. Assuming we eventually get serious about negotiating with Tehran, we will need to look for a deal that satisfies our core interests. But we won't get everything we might want, and if we want it to stick, Iran will have to believe that it got something out of it too.
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If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
If you were focusing on Hurricane Isaac or the continued violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation about China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was "increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems." The online journal Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: the headline announced a "big story"--that "China's missiles could thwart U.S."--and the text offered the alarming forecast that "the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology."
What is really going on here? Not much. China presently has a modest strategic nuclear force. It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can presently reach the United States. By way of comparison, the United States has over 2000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs, SLBMs, and cruise missiles, all of them capable of reaching China. And if that were not enough, the U.S. has nearly 3000 nuclear warheads in reserve.
Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts. Why? Chinese officials worry about the scenario where the United States uses its larger and much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on ballistic missile defenses to deal with whatever small and ragged second-strike the Chinese managed to muster. (Missile defenses can't handle large or sophisticated attacks, but in theory they might be able to deal with a small and poorly coordinated reply).
This discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios. In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warhead missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China's nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation. As the U.S. Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, "China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications, and its leaders have expressed concern that such defenses might negate China's strategic deterrent."
Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising revisionist threat, but such claims do not follow logically from the evidence presented. To repeat: what China is doing is a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns for deterrent stability that led the United States to create a "strategic triad" back in the 1950s.
Second, if you wanted to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization, the smart way to do it would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the same negotiating framework that capped and eventually reduced the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their respective arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying its major population centers, it simply doesn't matter if one side has twice as many warheads before the war. Or ten times as many. Or a hundred times....
Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country by building missile defenses is a fool's errand. It is always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly in order to prevent massive damage. If you fired a hundred warheads and 95% were intercepted -- an astonishingly high level of performance -- that would still let five warheads through and that means losing five cities. And if an opponent were convinced that your defenses would work perfectly -- a highly unlikely proposition -- there are plenty of other ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Ballistic missile defense never made much sense either strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.
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My colleague Nicholas Burns has a smart column in today's Boston Globe, where he makes the obvious but important point that "the United States should do all it can to avoid war" with Iran. His central theme is that war is not in the U.S. national interest, and that Washington should seize the diplomatic initiative and not allow itself to get buffaloed into a war by Israel. In his words: "The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give use more independence and to protect Israel's core interests at the same time." To do this, he calls for the United States to open a direct bilateral negotiating channel with Iran and to offer "imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon."
This position makes so much sense that you can be sure it will be rejected by AIPAC and the other hardliners who believe that Iran cannot be permitted even the theoretical capacity to produce a weapon at some unspecified time down the road. Together with the Netyanyahu government, these groups want to keep ramping up the war talk in order to slowly paint the United States into a corner. The reason is simple: Israel does not have a strategically meaningful military option of its own, because the IAF cannot do enough damage to Iran's nuclear facilities to end its program once and for all. To prevent any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity, therefore, requires the United States to take the lead in enforcing sanctions and if necessary, to fight another war.
And as Jodi Rudoren reveals in an important New York Times piece today, Israel's leaders understand that fact perfectly well. Based on interviews with a former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, she reports that PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak "had not yet decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and could be dissuaded from a strike if President Obama approved stricter sanctions and publicly confirmed his willingness to use military force" (my emphasis). She continues: "Mr. Dayan's assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike."
In short, as I noted last week, the recurring talk of "closing windows," "red lines," "zones of immunity," and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting.
In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It's our fault we keep falling for it.
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You may have noticed that there is an active campaign underway to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In fact, the real goal is to prevent Iran from having even the latent capacity to build a weapon if at some point it decided it wanted one. This is why the United States and other countries have imposed increasingly draconian economic sanctions on Iran, launched covert actions such as the Stuxnet virus, and made repeated threats to use military force.
One of the background elements in this campaign has been repeated warnings that Israel's leaders believed "time was running out" and that they were getting ready to launch a preventive strike on their own. This recurring theme has depended heavily on cooperation from sympathetic journalists and compliant media organizations, who have provided a platform to disseminate these various dark prophecies.
In September 2010, for example, The Atlantic published a cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg ("The Point of No Return") based on interviews with dozens of Israeli officials. Goldberg concluded that the odds of an Israeli attack by July 2011 were greater than 50 percent. Fortunately, this forecast proved to be as accurate as most of Goldberg's other writings about the Middle East.
Then, in January of this year, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman entitled "Will Israel Attack Iran?" The piece essentially replicated Goldberg's earlier article: once again, various Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Iran's nuclear program was nearing a critical stage and that Israel was going to take action if Iran did not agree to end all enrichment. Despite a few caveats about the risks of an attack and the possibility that it wouldn't halt Iran's progress for very long, the overall tenor of the piece made it clear that Bergman thought war was very likely.
Even Foreign Policy has gotten into the act, publishing a similar report from former Cheney aide John Hannah a few days ago. According to Hannah, his recent conversations with Israeli officials convinced him that "Israel's resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster." His conclusion: "an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than I had believed before."
Then yesterday Ha'aretz published an article by Barak Ravid -- based on interviews with an unnamed Israeli official -- claiming that U.S. intelligence had now concluded that Iran was making rapid progress toward a bomb. The information in the article was subsequently "confirmed" by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (who for all we know was the source of the original leak), but quickly denied by American officials. (Side note: shouldn't someone ask Ravid and his editors if they now want to retract the story?) And as Noam Sheizaf describes here, newspapers in Israel are now filled with stories suggesting that the danger is growing and that Netanyahu and Barak are determined to hit Iran sometime this fall.
Last but not least, yesterday's New York Times featured a one-sided story on the "shadow war" between Israel and Iran that placed virtually all the blame for the trouble on Tehran. On the front page, it described a "continuing offensive" by Iran, without mentioning that there has been a long cycle of tit-for-tat between these two countries. Only after the jump came any mention of the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists (almost certainly by the Mossad), or any acknowledgement that Iran might be acting defensively rather than conducting a totally unprovoked campaign of aggression. I'm not defending what Iran is doing, by the way, only suggesting that it's deeply misleading to portray what the U.S. and Israel are doing as purely defensive and to suggest that it is Iran that has launched some sort of ambitious "offensive.")
As I noted a few months back, it's virtually impossible to know how much credence to place in the repeated predictions that Israel is about to attack. It does prove that there is no shortage of journalists or pundits who are willing to serve as sympathetic stenographers for government officials, but it doesn't tell you very much about what is going to happen or what these officials really believe. Why? Because the various officials whose alarming testimony forms the basis for these articles have lots of different reasons for stirring the pot in this fashion.
In this case, those prophesying war may be trying to reinforce the global sanctions effort and keep Iran isolated. They know that the U.S. and the EU see sanctions as preferable to war, so constantly threatening to slip the leash is a good way to stiffen others' resolve and get them to ramp up demands and pressure. It's also a good way to blackmail the United States into providing additional military assistance, and it helps distract everyone from annoying issues like settlement expansion and the nearly-dead-and-buried "peace process." Given these various motivations, one should take all these forecasts of an imminent Israeli attack with many grains of salt.
Although I believe war with Iran would be folly, one cannot rule it out. All countries commit blunders, and neither the United States nor Israel is immune to this sort of miscalculation (see under: Iraq, Lebanon, etc.). But I am remain skeptical that Israel will attack, for the simple reason that it does not have the military capability to inflict strategically significant damage on Iran's nuclear facilities. As the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year, "Israeli officials and analysts generally agree that a strike would not completely destroy the [Iranian nuclear] program." The CRS report also suggested that an Israeli strike could not delay the program for long, and that long-term success would depend either on repeated follow-up strikes or on subsequent diplomatic activity (e.g., more sanctions).
All of which suggests that all this talk of Israeli "red lines" and some sort of imminent attack (including the possibility of an "October surprise") is just talk. Indeed, those prophesying war are starting to sound like those wacky cult leaders who keep predicting the End of the World, and then keep moving the date when the world doesn't end on schedule. At what point are we going to stop paying attention?
Like I said, I can't be completely sure that reason will prevail and that a war won't happen, although there do seem to be a lot of sensible voices inside the Israeli security establishment who are counseling against it. What worries me most is that the people who have been sounding all these alarmist warnings will start to worry that their credibility is evaporating, and they will feel compelled to go to war because they've talked about it for so long. That's just about the dumbest reason I can think of, but sometimes even pretty smart people do dumb things.
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Imagine my surprise. I went to my office mailbox last Friday, and there was the new issue of Foreign Affairs. I was expecting the usual distillations of conventional wisdom, but there on the front cover was the name "Kenneth Waltz," along with the eye-grabbing title "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb."
For those of you who don't know, Waltz is arguably the preeminent IR theorist of the post-World War II generation, and certainly the preeminent postwar realist. (Full disclosure, he was also the chair of my dissertation committee back in graduate school). In addition to landmark works such as Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics, he is also well-known for a controversial Adelphi Paper arguing that the slow spread of nuclear weapons might not be so bad, and might even be desirable.
Waltz's brief article on Iran echoes this logic. He argues that nuclear asymmetry is inherently destabilizing, because it makes the unarmed side (Iran) feel weak and vulnerable and thus encourages it to look for ways to make itself more secure. At the same time, rival states who already have the bomb (in this case, Israel and the United States), will spend a lot of time contemplating preventive war (as indeed we have). If Iran gets the bomb, however, then the logic of deterrence will kick in and relations between these countries will be more stable, not less.
Waltz maintains that this pattern has generally applied in other nuclear contexts, whether one looks at U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, China's acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s, or the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, which fought major wars before each got the bomb but have fought only relatively minor skirmishes since. He also reminds his readers that there is no evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational (and certainly no more irrational than ours), and no good reason to think they would ever use a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes or give one away to terrorists. (This latter possibility is especially absurd: Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?)
You should definitely read this important and well-argued article, which makes a lot more sense than the so-called "analysis" that others have dreamed up to make the case for war. I happen to think Waltz is too sanguine about the pacifying effects of nuclear weapons in this context, and that he discounts the other risks associated with nuclear spread (including questions of custody and authority). For these reasons, I think it would be better for us and for the region if Iran did not get the bomb. After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Waltz's argument implies that the United States ought to simply give Iran a few nuclear weapons (along with appropriate safeguards against unauthorized use), as a way of making the region more stable. Pretty hard to imagine that happening.
My other concern is that Waltz's article might convince more Iranians to restart an active weapons program, a step that might easily provoke trigger-happy Americans or Israelis into military action. The logic of nuclear deterrence may work well once both sides have reliably survivable forces, but the transition period where one side has them and another is getting close almost inevitably invites consideration of preventive war, with all the attendant costs and risks.
But Waltz's central point -- that we vastly overstate the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran -- is surely right. And remember: At this point the United States is trying to prevent not an Iran that is actually armed with nuclear weapons, but an Iran that would in theory be physically capable of building a nuclear weapon at some point down the road. This latter objective is a fool's errand, because Iran already has the knowledge and the technology to become "nuclear capable" if its leaders decide they want to be, and there's no way for us to prevent that without occupying the country. If we want to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, our best course is to try to convince them to forego that objective by taking the threat of force off the table and diminishing their perceived need for a deterrent, and by offering up a diplomatic deal that preserves their right to enrich. Unfortunately, that's not the position that we have taken so far, which is why the slow-motion standoff continues.
Back in 2002, a group of influential neoconservatives convinced President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that it was a really smart idea to invade Iraq. With help from AIPAC and other groups in the Israel lobby, and an assist from Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the neocons and the Bush administration then persuaded the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Most of the top figures in the Obama administration (including then-Senators Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton) supported the war.
Given how that foolish adventure turned out (4,500 dead Americans, $1-2 trillion down the drain, etc.), you'd think the last thing the United States would be contemplating is another preventive war in the Middle East. You'd think that the architects of that earlier debacle would have been as badly discredited as George Custer, Neville Chamberlain, or Charles Lindberg, and that only certifiable war-mongers would be paying attention to their strategic advice. And you'd certainly think that Congress would have learned its lesson, and would be subjecting calls for a new war to careful scrutiny and wide-ranging debate.
How wrong you'd be. Case in point: the recent letter that a bipartisan group of 44 senators recently sent President Obama, declaring that, "Iran must come into full cooperation with the IAEA and full compliance with all relevant United National Security Council resolutions, including verifiable suspension of nuclear enrichment." The senators also insist that the "absolute minimum steps that Iran must take immediately are shutting down of the Fordow facility, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. And if Iran does not capitulate to our demands, the senators urge Obama "to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists" (my emphasis).
If you ever wondered why so few Americans have any respect for Congress, here's part of your answer. (To be sure, disrespect for Congress is by now over-determined, given our representatives' dysfunctional behavior on a wide range of issues. But still ... ) As Glenn Greenwald notes, in this case those beating the drums of war include a number of prominent "liberal" Senators, including progressives like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And as I pointed out earlier this week, the terms the senators are insisting upon are almost certainly a deal-breaker from Iran's point of view. I'm still convinced that the Obama administration understands war is foolish -- you can go here if you'd like to watch a fuller presentation of my views on this topic -- but as Robert Wright noted a few days ago, he is being boxed in by the pro-war faction -- the usual alliance of Israel, AIPAC, the neocons, and a few Christian Zionists -- and he isn't getting any cover from the supine members of Congress. The result: Negotiations that go nowhere as a "drift" toward war continues.
So what can you do? As it happens, there is an online petition at the Credo/Working Assets website opposing war with Iran. It has garnered over 100,000 signatures so far, including mine. You can sign it yourself by clicking on this link and following the instructions. I'm not saying your signature will stop another foolish war all by itself, but it can't hurt.
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I'm back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime's behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."
Russia continues to be Assad's primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I've written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia's amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn't be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia's only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies -- i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions -- and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn't all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn't happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn't happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
On Egypt: I'm not that surprised that Egypt's military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president's powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt's debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren't going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.
Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF's efforts to reverse or retard Egypt's move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don't like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don't hold your breath.
On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don't expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won't give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.
Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren't willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we're not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.
The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That's not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can't go to war, but they can't make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.
Will the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 manage to turn a potential diplomatic breakthrough with Iran into another counterproductive failure? It's too soon to tell, but betting on failure has been the smart wager in the past.
The Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 apparently got a lot of serious issues on the table, but didn't achieve a breakthrough, let alone an agreement. The main reason is the hardline position adopted by the United States and its partners, and especially our refusal to grant any sort of sanctions relief. The parties will resume discussions in Moscow in June.
From a purely strategic point of view, this situation is pretty simple. Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium. Period. If the West insists on a full suspension, there won't be a deal. It's that simple. At the same time, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 would like to maximize the amount of time it would take Iran to "break out" and assemble a weapon. The best way to do that is to limit Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium to concentrations of less than 5 percent. If Iran insists on keeping a large supply of 20 percent enriched uranium on hand, we'll walk too.
So there you have the outline of the deal--we accept low-level enrichment and lift sanctions, and Iran gives up the 20% stuff--although there are other details what will have to be worked out too. Frankly, given where we are today, it's surprising the U.S. isn't grabbing that deal with both hands. Why? Because unless the U.S. is willing to invade and occupy Iran (and we aren't) or unless we are willing to bomb its facilities over and over (i.e., every time Iran rebuilds them), there is no way to prevent Iran from having the potential to obtain nuclear weapons if it decides it wants to. They know how to build centrifuges, folks, and the rest of the technology isn't that hard to master. So the potential is there, and there's no realistic way to eliminate it.
The smart strategy, therefore, is to keep them as far away from the bomb as possible, and to reduce Iran's incentive to go all the way to an actual weapon. And the best way to do that -- duh! -- is to take the threat of military force off the table and to stop babbling about the need for regime change. Also bear in mind that Iran's leaders have repeatedly said they don't want to build a bomb, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has repeatedly declared nuclear weapons to be "haram" -- forbidden by Islam. Maybe that's just empty or deceitful talk, but violating a statement like that is a tricky move for a theocratic regime. And maybe he's saying exactly what he really thinks.
While we're being realistic, let's keep a few other bedrock realities in mind.
Right now, the United States has thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Israel has a couple of hundred. Four other members of the P5+1 have nuclear weapons as well, and the fifth member -- Germany -- has had access to nuclear weapons through "dual key" arrangements with the United States.
Right now, the United States is far and away the world's greatest military power, with no enemies nearby. Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. We spend close to a trillion dollars on various national security programs each year; Iran spends maybe $15 billion, tops. Iran is a minor military threat at best.
Right now, the United States and Israel are actively engaged in a variety of covert actions directed against Iran, and the United States still have military forces and bases all around that country. Top U.S. officials, Senators and Congressmen have openly called for "regime change" in Iran. And then we wonder why, oh why, Iran might be wary of us, and why some Iranians might think that having an effective deterrent to counter our vast military superiority might be a good idea.
Right now, the United States and its allies have imposed increasingly punishing economic sanctions against Iran. Iran has no way to retaliate in kind, no matter how its leaders may bluster about oil and gas embargoes.
Since World War II, the United States has fought at least eight wars (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gulf War II), and we've intervened in other countries countless times. Israel has fought at least six wars since independence (the 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six Day War, 1969-70 War of Attrition, 1973 October War, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and 2006 war in Lebanon), and it started the wars in 1956, 1967, 1982, and 2006. It has also conducted innumerable cross-border raids and covert actions. Iran has fought one war during that same period -- against Iraq -- and only because Saddam Hussein attacked. It has also provided material support to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but its overseas activities are paltry compared with ours.
Yet it is these two comparatively powerful and nuclear-armed nations are insisting that Iran cannot under any circumstances have its own nuclear weapons -- which Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek -- and Israel's leaders are declaring that Iran must give up even the potential to acquire them. I have no trouble understanding why the P5+1 and Israel might prefer such a world, but what I don't understand is why they think Iran will ever agree to it. I mean, I'd like to live in a world where anyone making more than a $1 million per year had to send me ten percent of their income, but it would be foolish for me to plan my life on that basis.
For the past decade, the US and its allies have been insisting that Iran suspend enrichment. Back when we started making that demand (in 2001 or so), Iran had no centrifuges in operation. We've continued to issue these ultimatums for more than a decade, and Iran now has thousands of centrifuges in operation and a stockpile of enriched uranium that we're now trying to get them to give up. In short, our take-it-or-leave-it approach to this problem has been a complete failure, and you'd think those in charge of U.S. policy would have recognized this by now.
As I noted awhile back, the current impasse reflects a significant shift in our approach to arms control. In the past, we understood that arms control was a diplomatic process of mutual compromise, designed to produce a situation that was ultimately better for both sides. Arms control agreements didn't get the participants everything they might want, but they worked if each side understood that they'd be better off striking a reasonable deal. Today, "arms control" consists of our making unilateral demands, and insisting that other side give us what we want before we'll seriously consider what they want. It reflects what late Senator J. William Fulbright called the "arrogance of power," the tendency for powerful states to think they can dictate to others with near-impunity. This approach hasn't worked yet with Iran, and it's not likely to work in the future.
So why do we persist in such a dubious course of action? Gareth Porter has a pretty good idea.
One of the more pernicious obstacles to rational policy-making is the "ratchet effect": the tendency for policies, once adopted, to acquire a life of their own and to become resistant to change, even when they have ceased to be useful. For example, you can be confident that we will all be wasting time in airport security lines decades from now, long after Osama bin Laden's death. Existing security measures may not pass a simple cost-benefit test, but what political leader would dare relax them?
I thought of this problem as I read a new article by Tom Sauer and Bob van der Zwaan, on the curious persistence of the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe. (The title of the article is "U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe after NATO's Lisbon Summit: Why Their Withdrawal is Desirable and Feasible," and it's in the latest issue of the academic journal International Relations.) Sauer and van der Zwaan examine the various arguments for and against keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. They conclude -- convincingly, in my view -- that there is no good reason to keep them there and plenty of good reasons to remove them.
I have to confess that I hadn't realized the United States still had any tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe. (Sorry about that; I can't keep track of everything). But it turns out we still have a couple of hundred or so weapons stationed there (down from about 500 a decade ago). These are mostly gravity bombs deployed under "dual-key" arrangements: The U.S. has custody of the weapons in peacetime, but custody could in theory be transferred to the various host nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey) in the event of war.
But isn't this a rather ludicrous situation, two decades after the Cold War ended? There is no threat of a conventional invasion of Western Europe, and thus no need to "link" the U.S. strategic deterrent to Europe's defense via tactical weapons physically deployed on the continent. (The theories that justified these deployments during the Cold War never made much sense to me either, but that's another story.) It's hard to imagine that these weapons are helping Dutch, German, or Turkish elites sleep soundly at night, or helping reassure their respective populations. If anything, local populations should worry about having these devices on their soil, which is why governments tend not to talk about them. Democracy in action!
In short, these weapons serve no legitimate strategic purpose (which is why the numbers have been declining), but bureaucratic inertia and/or political timidity explain why the United States and NATO haven't bitten the bullet and removed them completely.
As Sauer and van der Zwaan make clear, the benefits of doing so would be considerable. It would reinforce the basic logic of nuclear disarmament, and further "de-legitimize" nuclear weapons as status symbols, thereby contributing to broader nuclear security objectives. It would be consistent with the pledges that the United States made when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would reduce the threat of nuclear theft and/or nuclear terrorism, a danger intensified by the fact that U.S. nuclear-storage sites in Europe apparently do not meet our own security standards. If it were linked to further reductions of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, it would increase overall nuclear security even more. It would also save money, which is supposedly a priority these days. And if this step had any impact on the credibility of the U.S. commitment to NATO (which is highly doubtful) it might encourage the Europeans to do more for their own defense, instead of continuing to rely on Uncle Sucker.
In short, there's an overwhelming case for removing these archaic and unnecessary weapons from the European continent. Ideally, we would do this as part of a bilateral deal with Russia, but we ought to do it even if Russia isn't interested. It's an election year, which normally encourages a certain degree of chest-thumping on national security matters, so you shouldn't expect any progress until 2013. But getting rid of these useless devices would be a very smart thing to do, no matter who the next president turns out to be.
And then we should rethink airport security....
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For the life of me, I can't figure out what the Obama administration is thinking about Iran. And I can't tell if the administration is more confused than I am. Let me explain.
The first part of the puzzle was a column by the Washington Post's David Ignatius last week, which reported that "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claims that his nation 'will never pursue nuclear weapons.'" Ignatius' story was obviously based on testimony from administration insiders, and the leaks were probably intended to send the message that diplomacy was working and that military force wasn't needed. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on April 3 that "it's our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone's interest for them to take unilateral action. It is in everyone's interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path" (my emphasis).
So far, so good. But then came Sunday's New York Times story supposedly laying out the P5+1 negotiating position. Like the Ignatius story, it was based on leaks (that is, on conversations with unnamed "senior U.S. officials"). It reported that the U.S. and its allies will insist that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, as part of supposed deal intended to keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible. The story quotes an unnamed official saying that the "urgent priority" is to get Iran to give up its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium, because it could be further enriched to weapons grade (>90 percent) relatively quickly. But they also quote NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor saying "Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions."
But here's why I'm confused. I can see why the P5 +1 would like Iran to agree to these demands, just as I'd like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to each write me billion dollar checks. But I don't expect either of them to do this, yet the U.S and its allies seem to think this deal-breaking demand is a reasonable opening bid. In fact, their position sounds like a complete non-starter to me, and seems more likely to derail negotiations than advance them.
Remember: Iran has invested millions to build a protected underground enrichment facility, which is what any sensible government might do it it were constantly being threatened with a preventive strike. It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for them to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it. Have you seen much evidence that the highly nationalistic Iranians would accept this sort of humiliation? Moreover, if Iran's main goal is not to have a nuclear weapon, but rather to have the capacity to get one quickly if it ever needed it, then it is unlikely to accede to our demands about its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in the absence of some very big inducements.
The Times' story quotes a U.S. official saying "We have no idea how the Iranians will react... We probably won't know after the first meeting." In fact, the initial response from Tehran was both prompt and predictable. Guess what? They rejected it.
So here's why I'm puzzled. If you're the Obama administration, the last thing you want is a war. Certainly not before November, and maybe not ever. (It's bad enough that sanctions on Iran are adding about 25 cents to the price of gallon of gas.) But if that's the case, then the obvious course of action is to get the diplomatic track rolling and make a genuine effort to see if an acceptable deal can be had. So why start with an opening demand that Iran was virtually certain to reject? All that does is confirm Iranian suspicions that the United States and its allies aren't really interested in a negotiated settlement and give war hawks another reason to demand the use of force. If the U.S. and its allies soften their position on Fordow, however, the GOP will accuse Obama of appeasement and the war hawks at home and abroad will clamor that time is running out and that force is the only option.
It is possible, I suppose, that there's something more subtle going on here. Maybe the real P5+1 position will be a bit more reasonable, and these news stories will be forgotten. Maybe Iran's leaders are feeling the heat, and will be more forthcoming than I suspect. Maybe there's a tacit U.S.-Israeli deal reflected here, where they've agree not to launch a war and we've agreed to put forward a very tough line that leaves options open for the future. Maybe the demand to close Fordow is just a bargaining chip, and we will in fact get a deal on the 20 percent enriched uranium.
A lot of maybes. But from where I sit today, our approach looks like a good way to sabotage the negotiations before they start. What good does that do anyone?
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There's been a lot of needless hoopla over Obama's "open mic" comment at the Nuclear Security Summit, including an almost certainly ghost-written piece by Mitt Romney here at FP. Obama was overheard telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he "would have more flexibility" to negotiate a deal on missile defense after the election, which is both correct and hardly a state secret. The flap illustrates the main point I was trying to make a few days ago, when I wrote about how the absurdly long U.S. election cycle was a major impediment to a more effective foreign policy. (It may also be an impediment to Romney's chances, because the longer the campaign goes on, the more opportunities he has for foot-in-mouth moments that expose his ignorance about foreign policy, including his silly comment about Russia being our major geopolitical rival).
In any case, the incident got me thinking about how much the arms control agenda has changed since the heyday of the Cold War. Back then, there was a serious constituency in the United States pushing nuclear arms control, which saw it as key to reducing the risk of nuclear war, managing the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and dampening the danger of international conflict more generally. Arms control was intended to save some money, preserve each side's second-strike deterrent capabilities, and help stabilize the political relationship between Moscow and Washington. It was thus a key ingredient in the basic agenda of détente, which sought to keep U.S.-Soviet competition within bounds. (One can argue about how effective it was, but it is worth noting that nuclear war didn't occur, and the U.S. and its allies triumphed over the Soviet Union without fighting a war with them.)
Accordingly, the main items on the arms control agenda involved direct negotiations with our Soviet adversaries (the SALT and START treaties, the INF treaty on intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, etc.). These efforts involved tough and protracted negotiations between more-or-less equals (even though the U.S. and its allies were a lot stronger than the Soviet Union and its various clients), and there was no possibility of either side issuing ultimatums or imposing a one-sided deal on the other. The other main arms control item was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and this arrangement resulted from tacit collusion between the two superpowers to preserve their own nuclear superiority. After all, the basic NPT deal allowed nuclear powers keep their own arsenals (in exchange for pledges to share nuclear technology and make some sort of long-term effort disarmament), while putting in place a regime that made it much harder for other states to join the nuclear club.
But what about now? Since the end of the Cold War, the "arms control" agenda has become decidedly one-sided. Yes, there's been a not-very-significant "New Start" treaty with Russia, which didn't alter the basic strategic relationship at all and which hardly anybody (including Governor Romney) has paid much attention to. The real action in arms control has been a series of U.S.-led efforts to get states to give up their existing arsenals or abandon existing nuclear programs. In the 1990s, we put tremendous pressure on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up the arsenals they inherited from the former Soviet Union, and we eventually succeeded. Then the United States nearly launched a preventive war against North Korea in 1994, and did various deals (e.g., the "Agreed Framework") to try to head off their development of nuclear weapons. We invaded Iraq in 2003 to stop Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" programs (which turned out to be fictitious -- our bad), and have been ratcheting up economic sanctions and waging a covert war against Iran to try to keep Tehran from getting too close to the nuclear weapons threshold. And we keep saying "all options are on the table," which is a threat to use force.
In short, instead of "arms control" being the product of mutual negotiation, as it was in the Cold War, it now consists of the United States making demands and ramping up pressure to get weak states to comply. Instead of being primarily a diplomatic process aimed at eliciting mutually beneficial cooperation (which might also help ameliorate mutual suspicions with current adversaries), arms control has become a coercive process designed to produce capitulation. This approach may have worked in a few cases (e.g., Libya, although even there the Bush administration made certain concessions to secure a final deal), but its overall track record is paltry. After all, North Korea eventually went ahead and tested a nuclear device, and escalating pressure on Iran has yet to convince its leaders to abandon their enrichment program. And as I've noted before, using military force would not eliminate Iran's ability to develop weapons if it wishes, and could easily convince them that they had not choice but to go ahead and weaponize.
Because material power is still the central currency in world politics, this tendency doesn't surprise me all that much. When the United States has to deal with near-equals, it understands that bargaining is necessary and that a successful outcome requires patience and compromise. But today, we think we can impose our will on almost anybody, so any sort of compromise is regarded as some sort of craven appeasement. But even a country as powerful as the United States cannot simply dictate to others -- as we should have learned by now from our experiences with Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few others -- and a disdain for genuine diplomacy (as opposed to merely issuing ultimatums and imposing sanctions) is getting in the way of potential deals that could reduce the risk of proliferation, dampen the danger of war, and enable U.S. leaders to turn their attention to other priorities. Being the world's #1 power confers many advantages, but it can also be a potent source of blind and counterproductive arrogance.
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I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.
The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again. Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing. Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.
#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article in The Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.
#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both the Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.
#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini -- who does make the key decisions -- has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.
#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.
#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.
#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.
#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.
#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:
"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program - that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."
Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.
In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:
Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."
Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."
Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.
Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).
9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.
10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.
I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.
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One important thing to remember about the Annual Festival of Hyperbole (aka the AIPAC Policy Conference) is that the views of the attendees aren't representative of most Americans, let alone American Jewry, and that a lot of the speakers who are there to pay homage don't mean most of what they are saying. At least I hope not. President Obama walked a wobbly tightrope as well as one could have expected; the depressing feature is that he had to perform these sort of acrobatics at all. That's politics, folks.
Next up: Obama and Netanyahu meet at the White House. My basic take is that Netanyahu's view and Obama's view are essentially mirror-images of each other. Netanyahu says Iran is an "existential" threat to Israel, while he sees the Palestinians as just a problem to be managed. So he wants Iran's nuclear program ended, and by force if necessary, while the peace process drags on interminably. By contrast, Obama sees Iran as a problem to be managed through patient diplomacy, but he thinks the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel's future (and a continued liability for U.S. strategic interests). He'd like to put that one to rest ASAP, except that he's been forced to back down every time he's tried and he knows he can't say much about it between now and November.
Those interested in further reflections on this matter can take a look at this op-ed in the Financial Times, co-authored with John Mearsheimer.
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You know a case for war is weak when its advocates have to marshal blatant untruths in order to convince people that their advice should be followed. Exhibit A is today's alarmist op-ed in the New York Times, in which former IDF general Amos Yadlin argues for a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
He recites the by-now familiar arguments for an attack, and makes it clear that he thinks Obama should make an "ironclad" pledge to do it if Iran doesn't cease its nuclear activities. But the big historical howler comes in the middle of the piece, where he attempts to deal with the counter-argument that an attack would only delay an Iranian program, and probably not for all that long. He writes:
"After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed."
This claim is at best deeply misleading and at worst simply false. It's technically true that there hasn't been a resumption of either the Iraqi or Syrian programs since 2007, but what about there the twenty-six year gap between the Osirak raid in 1981 and the raid on Syria? What happened during those intervening years? As Malfrid Hegghammer, Daniel Reiter, and Richard Betts have all shown, the destruction of Osirak led to an elite consensus that Iraq needed its own deterrent, and led Saddam Hussein to order a redoubling of Iraq's nuclear program in a more clandestine fashion. This effort was so successful that the UN inspectors who entered Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War were surprised by how extensive the program was and how close it had come to producing a bomb. Indeed, if Saddam had been smart enough to wait a few more years, he might have crossed the nuclear finish line.
Thus, the true history teaches the opposite lesson from the one Yadlin is proposing. In the Iraqi case, a preventive strike reinforced Iraq's interest in acquiring a deterrent, and led Iraq to pursue it in ways that were more difficult to detect or prevent. That is what Iran is likely to do as well if Israel or the United States were foolish enough to strike them. U.S. intelligence still believes Iran has not made a final decision to weaponize; ironically, an Israeli or U.S. attack is the step that is most likely to push them over the edge.
It's hardly surprising that some Israelis would like the United States to shoulder the burden of bombing Iran. It's also not surprising that they would make up specious arguments or distort history to do this; the Bush administration got us into the Iraq war in the same way. But the Times' editors ought to insist that op-eds, whatever their positions, meet at least minimum standards for historical accuracy. And they don't even need to scour the academic literature; all they had to do was keep track of what they had already published.
In any case, if Americans fall for this sort of contorted historical analysis, we'll have only ourselves to blame. Instead of giving "ironclad" guarantees that we will launch preventive war, we'd be better served if Obama merely reminded Netanyahu that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak doesn't think Iran is an existential threat, and that the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called an attack on Iran the "the stupidest thing I ever heard."
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I'm pleased to present the following guest post from Nina Tannenwald of Brown University. Alert readers will note that she is writing from a constructivist rather than realist perspective, but when you're trying to avoid a foolish war, paradigmatic loyalty is a decidedly secondary consideration.
Nina Tannenwald writes:
At a time when anti-Iran hawks are beating the drums of war, the international community needs to pursue all possible routes to a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear challenge. One route that has not been tried is harnessing moral and religious norms as a source of nuclear restraint. Incongruous as it may seem, Iran's leaders have repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic." Why not hold them to it?
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, a religious decree, in 2004, describing the use of nuclear weapons as "immoral." In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in August 2005, the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, Sirus Naseri, read a statement reiterating Khameini's fatwa that "the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Many regime figures have repeated the prohibition, including Khamanei himself, who said in 2010 that Islam considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "to be symbols of genocide and are, therefore, forbidden and considered to be haraam [forbidden in Islam]."
No other national leader anywhere has ever asserted that nuclear weapons are, say, "un-Christian" or "un-Jewish" (although Western religious leaders and scholars have expressed such views).
Iran's leaders could be dissembling, of course, as part of their effort to mislead the international community. But no one forced them to say this -- let alone to repeat it publicly -- and Khameini has not repudiated this fatwa even as Iran's nuclear program has advanced. It would be strange for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its adherence to Islam to keep asserting this point if it were really totally insincere.
We don't need to take the Iranians at face value, but why not take advantage of the opening their own words provide? The international community should capitalize on this element of restraint. We should hold them to it.
How might this work? Diplomats should refer to the statements approvingly and frequently. President Obama should use his rhetorical gifts to publicly acknowledge the Iranian prohibition and state that, as a person of faith himself, he respects and welcomes the testament. The goal would be to invoke Islamic moral values as a positive contribution to both Iranian and global nuclear restraint.
A second approach would involve "Track II" diplomacy. This would entail holding conferences that bring together religious scholars and ethicists from different religions, along with government officials and nuclear strategists from key countries to discuss ethical constraints on nuclear weapons. This would be a good project for foundations to support.
This strategy -- a normative one -- would not replace sanctions. Rather, by invoking Islam's moral contribution in a positive way, and by connecting it to longer term efforts toward global nuclear disarmament, it could help provide Iranian leaders with the political cover and respect to engage in negotiations over their nuclear program.
International relations scholars have a term for this kind of normative strategy: "rhetorical entrapment." Developed especially in constructivist analyses of human rights, it refers to how NGOs especially, but also states and international organizations, seek to hold leaders accountable to their publically-stated commitments to moral values or norms. Leaders can become "entrapped" in a public debate over their adherence. The act of holding the debate increases the salience and legitimacy of the norms at issue and thereby raises the legitimacy, or normative, costs to the regime of violating its own commitments.
Thus, in contrast to a realist strategy for dealing with a recalcitrant state, which emphasizes imposing material costs (sanctions, military threats), a constructivist strategy emphasizes raising the normative (legitimacy) costs of a violation. This approach assumes that leaders care about certain kinds of legitimacy (in this case, fidelity to Islam), just as the realist strategy assumes that states will be vulnerable to material sanctions and threats.
Is this normative approach to Iran pie-in-the-sky? Realists may snicker, but, historically, religious and moral norms have played an important role in shaping our thinking about nuclear weapons. Christian churches and other religious groups played a key role in the anti-nuclear weapons movements of the 1950s and 1980s. Their moral critique of nuclear weapons made it impossible to think of such a weapon as "just another weapon." Perhaps most prominent was the American Catholic bishops' influential 1982 pastoral letter criticizing nuclear deterrence as "morally flawed." This powerful statement provoked a widespread debate about the ethics of the nuclear arms race and helped undermine public support for aggressive nuclear strategies.
Iran has good reason to harbor a special revulsion toward weapons of mass destruction. It is the second largest victim of WMD attacks after Japan. Iran suffered over 100,000 casualties, both military and civilian, from Iraqi chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran did not retaliate in kind partly because it was unprepared but also because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believed that chemical weapons were prohibited by Islam.
This experience deeply affected the national psyche of a generation of Iranians. Adding to the bitterness is the Iranian perception that the West was mostly indifferent to this suffering. Western countries quietly sided with Saddam Hussein in the war and failed to strongly condemn the chemical weapons attacks. Thus Iran surely has something to contribute to the global moral discourse on weapons of mass destruction.
The repressive Iranian regime is distasteful for reasons that go well beyond nuclear weapons, and no one who cares about the fate of the Middle East should want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet significant evidence suggests that Iranian leaders, while clearly determined to acquire a nuclear capability, have not yet made a decision to actually build a nuclear warhead. Invoking the value and worth of the Iranian regime's own publically-stated moral norms may help to reinforce more realist reasons for restraint, such as economic sanctions, military threats, or fears of provoking a nuclear arms race in the region.
Like anything else, this moral appeal may not work. But there is little to lose. To date, the key international players have shown a striking lack of diplomatic imagination in dealing with the Iranian challenge. Harnessing cultural and religious resources might facilitate a peaceful solution to this looming crisis and contribute to restraint on all sides. Of course, there is also the "boomerang" effect: engaging Iran in this conversation might require us to confront the status of our own moral values with respect to nuclear weapons.
Nina Tannenwald teaches international relations at Brown University. Her book, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Nonuse of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, received the 2009 Joseph Lepgold Prize.
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Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.
If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.
Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.
In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.
Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.
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The drumbeats for war with Iran keep pounding, as you can read about here and here. There are some features of the campaign that are scarily (or maybe comically) reminiscent of 2002-2003 (as Glenn Greenwald documents here), but for now there's one key difference. Back in 2002, the neocon-heavy Bush administration led the charge to sell the invasion of Iraq. Today, by contrast, the case for war is being made primarily by other countries (i.e., Israel), or by assorted think tanks, lobbying groups, and national security commentators in the United States. The Obama administration isn't leading the campaign, having correctly concluded that a war is neither necessary nor wise. In particular, they do not seem to have bought into the rampant threat inflation that forms the core of the hawks' case for war.
But today I want to focus on another remarkable feature of this situation: the absence of any sort of meaningful diplomacy between the United States and the country whose citizens we would be attacking and killing if we were to launch a strike. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1933 on, including the period when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions. We never broke relations with Moscow during the Cold War, even though the United States and USSR had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other and were waging bloody proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. and Soviet leaders met repeatedly at summit meetings (some of them contentious), and U.S. and Soviet diplomats interacted more-or-less constantly on matters of mutual concern. The purpose of these various exchanges wasn't appeasement or even accommodation; we talked to them so that we could figure out what they thought, and so that we could explain our positions to them. It was important that each side know what the consequences of different courses of action might be, and sometimes that involved spelling it out for each other.
And what was the result? Not only were the two superpowers occasionally able to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways (i.e., managing crises, reducing nuclear risks, ending wars, etc.) but the United States eventually won the Cold War and presided over the Soviet Union's demise without triggering a direct U.S.-Soviet clash. Indeed, U.S. diplomats did a good job of picking Mikhail Gorbachev's pocket as the USSR imploded, in part because they had established a good working relationship with him. Furthermore, contacts between Russians and Americans seem to have helped thaw communist society, in part by teaching younger Soviet elites that the West was doing better and was not irrevocably hostile.
By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. That is a longer hiatus than occurred after either the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the communist seizure of power in China in 1949. Only a tiny handful of U.S. officials have direct experience with their Iranian counterparts. Few Americans have extensive dealings with Iranians, save for Iranian exiles who often have their own agendas. We don't have a good sense of where the different Iranian factions are, what they think, or how they might respond to different U.S. policies. Yet we blindly assume that there is no recourse but to sanction and maybe bomb them.
The Obama administration likes to portray itself as having "extended a hand of friendship" to Iran, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Even now, we seem unable to offer Iran a "yessable" proposition, and we merely repeat our long-standing position it simply comply with our demands. The administration has done a good job of rounding up international support for its position, but isn't it ironic that we've devoted far more time and energy to that task, instead of exploring whether there might be a mutually acceptable solution to the current impasse itself.
The bottom line: I find it bizarre that anyone is seriously contemplating waging war on a country about whom we know so little and with whom we barely engage. And why do we know so little? Because we are too scared, or proud, or politically paralyzed to even talk to them. This is not the behavior one expects of a confident, mature great power: it is the behavior of a government that is either afraid it will get tricked by devious Persians, or that is more worried about domestic criticism than foreign consequences.
Winston Churchill has become something of an iconic figure among U.S. hardliners, including many in the vanguard of the war party. But it was Churchill who famously remarked that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Rather than unleashing the U.S. Air Force, in short, how about unleashing our diplomats instead?
Oh, wait. It's an election year. Never mind.
Background: Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran's nuclear facilities. I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response. Here is my rejoinder.
Matthew Kroenig's defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive war against Iran does little to strengthen his case. He provides no additional evidence to explain why war is necessary; nor does he remedy the gaps and inconsistencies in his original analysis. Given that he's now had two swings at the same pitch, one may safely conclude that there is no good case for attacking Iran.
It is clear from the beginning of Kroenig's response that he misunderstood the central point of my critique. I accused him of employing the "classic blueprint" for justifying a preventive war, whereby one exaggerates the dangers of inaction, overstates the benefits of war, and understates the costs and risks of employing force. Kroenig responds by pointing out that "any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force," and he seems to think that this was the feature of his analysis to which I objected. Not so: my objection was to the one-sided way in which he conducted his assessment.
As I noted in my original post, Kroenig assumes that Iran's leaders are firmly committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon (as opposed to a latent capability), even though U.S. intelligence agencies still reject this conclusion. He provides no hard evidence demonstrating that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates on Iran are wrong. Furthermore, he assumes that a nuclear-armed Iran would unleash a series of fearsome consequences, even though we have no theory that explains how Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes, and no examples of other nuclear-armed states doing so successfully in the past. He also assumes that rejecting the war option will force the United States to maintain a costly and dangerous "containment and deterrence regime" for decades. In short, when considering the "no-war" scenario, he consistently employs worst-case analysis.
When making the case for how a war against Iran will succeed, however, he switches to "best-case" assumptions about the short-term consequences, the dangers of escalation, and the long-term benefits, even though each of his forecasts is wide open to challenge. My point was not that Kroenig failed to discuss the costs and benefits of using or not using force; it was that if he had adopted a similar standard on both sides of the equation, his conclusion that war was the "least bad" option would fall apart.
Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled "Time to Attack Iran." However, he says in his response to me that he doesn't think "Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack." Indeed, he now appears to concede that Iran might not be developing nuclear weapons and that we should wait to see if it takes certain measures (expels inspectors, enriches uranium to weapons grade levels, installs advanced centrifuges, etc.) before unleashing the dogs of war. But these arguments contradict both his title and his original argument, which is that preventive war is the least bad option and now is the time to do it. We are thus left wondering: is Iran developing nuclear weapons or not ? And if Kroenig isn't sure, is it really "Time to Attack?"
Kroenig tells us that "in the coming months, it is possible, even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice" between containment or military action (my emphasis), and he recommends we "begin building global support for (military action) in advance." As I've noted before, the danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually. In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don't attack, you can be confident that people like Kroenig will then arguethat U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.
As in his original article, Kroenig's image of Iran is simplistic and contradictory. He portrays it as a highly capable and dangerously ambitious power, whose support for terrorism and proxy groups is supposedly restrained only by "fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation." But he never describes Iran's actual capabilities (which are quite modest) or explains why the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests is grave enough to warrant rolling the iron dice of war. Nor does he discuss Iranian threat perceptions, internal politics, or foreign policy strategy (including how its policies have evolved over time), or consider the possibility that some of its activities (including its support for some extremist groups) are an asymmetric response to past U.S. efforts to isolate and marginalize it. Instead, his portrait of Iran is conveniently contradictory: as Paul Pillar puts it, for Kroenig "the same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things . . . turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S. ‘redlines' once the United States starts waging war against it." If "knowing one's enemy" is a prerequisite for going to war, Kroenig has a lot of work to do.
Kroenig also misunderstands my comment about the possibility that an Iranian bomb might prompt others countries in the region to go nuclear. Contrary to what he writes, I did not say "we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons." Rather, my point was that if there were proliferation beyond Iran, it would give other states in the neighborhood the ability to deter Iran and make it impossible for Tehran to wield the coercive leverage that Kroenig (not me) thinks it would gain by building a bomb. To be clear: I think it would be better if Iran and its neighbors stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold. But unlike Kroenig, I'm not prepared to panic and start a major war at the possibility that they won't.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.