Background: Last week I posted a sharply-worded critique of a forthcoming article by Matthew Kroenig in which he advocated preventive war with Iran. Kroenig asked me for the opportunity to respond here, and his reply is posted below. I'll post a final rejoinder tomorrow.
Matthew Kroenig writes:
I would like to thank Steve Walt for commenting on my article and for offering me this opportunity to respond to his critique. U.S. policy on Iran's steadily advancing nuclear program is a critically important national security issue that evokes strong passions on all sides. Whether opponents like it or not, the military option is being seriously considered in high-level policy circles in Washington DC and outside analysts have a responsibility to fully debate the merits of this course of action in order to inform these ongoing discussions.
Let me begin by placing this debate in its proper context. In the coming months, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice between putting in place a deterrence and containment regime to deal with anuclear-armed Iran or authorizing military action designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The dilemma we face is not between the status quo or conflict, but between two very different and more dangerous worlds. The options are terrible, but, as the subtitle of my Foreign Affairs article states, my assessment is that, if forced to choose, a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities "is the least bad option."
In his blog post, Walt accuses me of following a "blue print" for advocating the use of force in which I exaggerate the threat of Iranian proliferation and downplay the risks of military action. But, by necessity, any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force. Any particular call for military action cannot simply be discredited, therefore, by claiming that it follows a "blueprint." Rather, the issue comes down to an analysis of the relative merits of each option.
Unfortunately, Walt is guilty of the exact opposite crime of which he accuses me, namely assuming that we shouldn't worry about a nuclear-armed Iran and insinuating that the U.S. will necessarily bungle any military mission. He also mischaracterizes my argument.
First, Walt accuses me of advocating a strike "despite no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb" and in violation of international law. Putting aside for now the preponderance of evidence suggesting that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons, I'll take this opportunity to clarify my argument. I don't argue that Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack. Rather, I maintain that conditions might "ultimately force the United States to choose" between these unattractive options, that we should therefore begin "building global support for (military action) in advance," and strike if Iran "expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom." (I apologize if the cause of this misunderstanding was a lack of clarity in my original article).
Second, Walt systematically discounts the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran currently restrains its support for terrorists and proxy groups out of fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation, butwith a nuclear counter-deterrent it could be confident that it could avoid the worst forms of retaliation, allowing it to be more aggressive. Iran's nuclear program would likely fuel nuclear proliferation globally as: other countries in the region seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Iran itself becomes a nuclear supplier at risk of transferring uranium enrichment technology to budding nuclear programs in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and the teetering nonproliferation regime is further weakened. Walt argues that we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons because these additional nuclear-armed states could help us deter a nuclear-armed Iran, but anyone else would rightly dismiss the idea that a Middle Eastern arms race is somehow good for U.S. national security.
If Iran becomes more assertive internationally, we could see an even more crisis-prone Middle East. Walt wrongly asserts that my fear that Iran could threaten nuclear war to constrain U.S. military andpolitical freedom of action in the Middle East is a "bizarre fantasy," but let's not forget the lessons of the Cold War. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? The United States was not a suicidal state, but we were willing to risk nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union from forward-deploying nuclear weapons on the territory of its ally. Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East. And, more importantly, any future crisis involving a nuclear-armed Iran could escalate, resulting in possible nuclear war between Iran and its neighbors or even Iran and the United States. Some might argue that deterrence will work, but such a statement betrays a misunderstanding of deterrence theory. As I explain in my forthcoming article in International Organization, in order for deterrence to work, there must be a real risk that any crisis could spin out of control and result in a nuclear exchange. My reading of the Cold War is not that mutually assured destruction leads to stability, but that we were incredibly lucky to avoid a nuclear war.
Moreover, Walt is incorrect to claim that deterring and containing Iran would not add to U.S. defense burdens. When the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task. Similarly, every serious plan for deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran (and for the additional steps that would be required to assure nervous allies and partners in the region) currently being proposed by think tanks in Washington calls for a massive increase in our commitments to the region.
In short, opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates for a multi-billion-dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East that will likely buy us decreased influence, a more crisis-prone region, the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries, a Middle-Eastern nuclear scare every few years, and an increased risk of nuclear war.
Third, as I explain in the article and despite Walt's skepticism, we have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent this outcome. It is unlikely that Iran has significant operating nuclear facilities that we do not already know about and the United States could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities even though some are buried and hardened. Walt attempts to poke holes in these arguments, but I support them with strong evidence. According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.
I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign. As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region. I also propose, however, a mitigation strategy to help limit the damage from Iranian retaliation and the other negative consequences of a strike. Walt calls this being overly optimistic, but I call it a necessary part of good contingency planning. A key point is that any assessments of the likely consequences of a strike must also take into consideration the strong measures that Washington and others will take to mitigate those consequences.
My bottom-line judgment is heavily shaped by the gravity of the various threats and time horizons. Iran's current asymmetric response options could potentially be painful, but the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, such as nuclear war, would be much worse. And while the United States and its allies would incur the costs of a strike in the weeks and months following an attack, we would be forced to confront the challenges posed by a nuclear-armed Tehran as long as Iran exists as a state and possesses nuclear weapons. This could be years, decades, or even longer. Thus, while a bombing campaign could be more costly in the short term, it is my assessment that it would be in the long-term national interest of the country.
As I make clear in my article, there are real risks to either attempting to deter andcontain a nuclear-armed Iran, or conducting a military strike designed to prevent Iran from proliferating. My analysis leads me to believe that bombing Iran's key nuclear facilities and attempting to immediately de-escalate the crisis, poses less of a risk than dealing with the many threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran for years to come. I understand that reasonable people can disagree, but in order to do so for the right reasons they must have access to the best information. I hope that this exchange helps shed light on public discussions of this critical issue.
If you'd like to read a textbook example of war-mongering disguised as "analysis," I recommend Matthew Kroenig's forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option." It is a remarkably poor piece of advocacy, all the more surprising because Kroenig is a smart scholar who has done some good work in the past. It makes one wonder if there's something peculiar in the D.C. water supply.
There is a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war. First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don't act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice's infamous warnings about Saddam's "mushroom cloud"?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren't that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short: In Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.
Kroenig's piece follows this blueprint perfectly. He assumes that Iran is hellbent on getting nuclear weapons (not just a latent capability to produce one quickly if needed) and suggests that it is likely to cross the threshold soon. Never mind that Iran has had a nuclear program for decades and still has no weapon, and that both the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb. He further assumes -- without a shred of evidence -- that a nuclear-armed Iran would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. For example, he says that other states are already "shifting their allegiances to Tehran" but doesn't offer a single example or explain how these alleged shifts have anything to do with Iran's nuclear program.
He also declares, "With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war." Huh? If this bizarre fantasy were true, why couldn't the former Soviet Union do similar things during the Cold War, and why can't other nuclear powers make similar threats today when they don't like a particular American initiative? The simple reason is that threatening nuclear war against the United States is not credible unless one is willing to commit national suicide, and even Kroenig concedes that Tehran is not suicidal. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else. And if Kroenig is right in warning that an Iranian nuclear weapon might lead others to develop them too, then Iran would end up being deterred by the United States, by Israel, and by some of its other neighbors too. (As I've noted before, Iran's awareness of this possibility may be one reason why Tehran has thus far stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.)
Kroenig also declares that a nuclear-armed Iran would force the United States to "deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come." But why? Iran's entire defense budget is only about $10 billion per year (compared with the nearly $700 billion the United States spends on national defense), and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. Thus, contrary to what Kroenig thinks, containing/deterring Iran would not add much to U.S. defense burdens. The Persian Gulf is already an American lake (from a military point of view), and Washington already has thousands of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. Given how weak Iran really is, containing or deterring them for the foreseeable future will be relatively easy.
The key point is that Kroenig offers up these lurid forecasts in a completely uncritical way. He never asks the probing questions that any security scholar with a Ph.D. should axiomatically raise and examine in a sophisticated manner. Instead, his article is a classic illustration of worst-case analysis, intended to make not going to war seem more dangerous than peace.
When he turns to the case for using force, however, Kroenig offers a consistently upbeat appraisal of how the war would go. (Needless to say, this is not the kind of analysis one would expect from a Georgetown professor.) He knows there are serious objections to his proposed course of action, and he works hard to come up with reasons why these concerns should be not be taken seriously. What if Iran has concealed some of its facilities? Such fears are overblown, he thinks, because our intelligence is really, really good. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) What about facilities that are hardened or defended? Not an insurmountable obstacle, he maintains, and in any case there are plenty of other facilities that are aboveground and vulnerable.
Isn't there a danger of civilian casualties? Well, yes, but "Washington should be able to limit civilian casualties in any campaign." What if Iran escalates by firing missiles at U.S. allies, ordering its proxies to attack Israel, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments? Not to worry, says Kroenig, "None of these outcomes is predetermined," and the United States "could do much to mitigate them." (Of course, none of the scary outcomes that Kroenig says would accompany an Iranian bomb are "predetermined" either.) Doesn't starting a war increase the risk of regional conflict, especially if Iran retaliates and Americans or Israelis die? Maybe, but not if the United States makes its own "redlines" clear in advance and if it takes prudent steps to "manage the confrontation." To do this we have to be willing to "absorb Iranian responses that [fall] short of these redlines" and reassure the mullahs that we aren't trying to overthrow them (!). Bombing another country is a peculiar way to "reassure" them, of course, and it's a bit odd to assume that those wicked Iranians will be cooperative and restrained as the bombs rain down. Won't Iran just reconstitute its nuclear program later, and possibly on a crash basis? It might, but Kroenig says that we would have bought time and that whacking the Iranians really hard right now might convince them to give up the whole idea. Or not.
You see the pattern: When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take. In other words, Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.
And let's be crystal clear about what Kroenig is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies -- ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians, some of whom probably despise the clerical regime (and with good reason). And Kroenig is willing to have their deaths on his conscience on the basis of a series of unsupported assertions, almost all of them subject to serious doubt.
Kroenig tries to allay this concern by saying that the main victims of a U.S. attack would be the "military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians" working at Iran's nuclear facilities. But even if we assume for the moment that this is true, would he consider Iran justified if it followed a similar course of action, to the limited extent that it could? Suppose a bright young analyst working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and concluded that there were well-connected people at American universities and in the Department of Defense who were actively planning and advocating war against Iran. Suppose he further concluded that if these plans are allowed to come to fruition, it would pose a grave danger to the Islamic Republic. Iran doesn't have a sophisticated air force or drones capable of attacking the United States, so this bright young analyst recommends that the Revolutionary Guards organize a covert-action team to attack the people who were planning and advocating this war, and to do whatever else they could to sabotage the forces that the United States might use to conduct such an attack. He advises his superiors that appropriate measures be taken to minimize the loss of innocent life and that the attack should focus only on the "military and civilian personnel" who were working directly on planning or advocating war with Iran. From Iran's perspective, this response would be a "preventive strike" designed to forestall an attack from the United States. Does Kroenig think a purely preventive measure of this kind on Iran's part would be acceptable behavior? And if he doesn't, then why does he think it's perfectly OK for us to do far more?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Victor Cha of Georgetown University scores a rare two-fer on today's oped pages, landing a piece in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, both on the implications of Kim Jong Il's death. Victor's main argument is that new leader Kim Jong Un, (son of the deceased Kim Jong Il, grandson of Kim Il Sung) won't be up to the task of running an already-troubled regime. In his words: "Such a system simply cannot hold." He suspects this situation will encourage China to get more actively involved in internal North Korea politics (and might go so far as to "adopt" it as a quasi-province). Cha doesn't think there's much that the United States can or should do at this juncture, but he recommends that the United States start more active contingency planning for the collapse of the regime or significant internal turbulence, and redouble its efforts to establish a channel of communication on this issue with Beijing.
Victor knows a heck of a lot more about North Korea than I do, so I'm reluctant to challenge either his forecast or his prescriptions. But I can think of at least one reason why Kim Jong Un might -- repeat might -- fare somewhat better than Cha expects. If North Korea's ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default. Why? Because he's the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.
Dieter Depypere/Bloomberg via Getty Images
What are some potential game-changers in contemporary international diplomacy? By "game-changer," I mean a bold and risky initiative that fundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities and forcing others to rethink their own positions.
I'm thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handel analyzed in his book The Diplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested in how certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpected maneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Nixon's opening to China, Sadat's surprise announcement that he was willing to go to Jerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and helped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advance planning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and had dramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.
So I've been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaders could take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiative can be risky, of course, and there's no guarantee that a bold gamble will succeed. With that caveat, here's a short list of five potential "game-changers," in no particular order.
Read the rest of the article here.
Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
Today I want to offer a few brief words of tribute to Paul Doty, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91. Paul was a distinguished biochemist and molecular biologist, as well as a pioneering figure in the field of arms control. He was head of the Federation of American Scientists, a founder of the Pugwash Conferences (which brought together scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to discuss arms control and war prevention), and a key figure in the renaissance of security studies that began in the late 1970s. A more detailed account of his life and career can be found here and here.
I am one of the countless number of scholars who owe part of their professional success to Paul's vision and support. Back in the 1970s, Paul realized that his generation of policy-minded academics was not being replicated, and he convinced the head of the Ford Foundation, McGeorge Bundy, to finance new research centers at a number of prominent universities. This act led to the founding of the Center for Science and International Affairs (CSIA) at Harvard (with Paul as founding director), and to parallel centers at Stanford, UCLA, and Cornell.
The model for CSIA (subsequently renamed the Belfer Center), was a scientific lab. In addition to providing young scholars with the time and resources to conduct their research, these centers also provided an atmosphere where older scholars could mentor younger colleagues and where people with varying backgrounds could meet, exchange ideas, and build robust professional networks. Thus, a fellowship at CSIA was more than just an opportunity to finish or revise a dissertation. It was also a chance to interact with prominent academics and policymakers, to learn how to challenge a prominent expert with whom one disagreed and, in general, to comport oneself as an engaged and competent professional. My initial stint at CSIA (1981-1984) was central to getting my own career started, and there are now literally hundreds of CSIA alumni holding prominent positions in the academy and in key policymaking circles, including prominent Obama administration figures such as Michele Flournoy, Daniel Poneman, Kurt Campbell, and Ivo Daalder.
Paul had a lot of the "absent-minded professor" in him, and stories about some of his idiosyncrasies became legendary among his colleagues. But what I remember most was his rare ability to cut to the heart of an issue, and his quiet fearlessness in confronting those with whom he disagreed. I never saw him behave rudely to a visiting speaker, but he had little patience for arguments that didn't add up or for policy positions that made no sense. And it didn't matter if the person trying to sell some dubious idea was powerful or prominent; Paul would press the attack with quiet persistence. He was, in short, a truth-teller, who cared more about getting the right answer or the right policy than advancing his own personal fame or power. In that most basic of virtues, he was a model for us all.
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
In a thoughtful dissection of the seemingly endless debate on Iran's nuclear program (and the various proponents of military action), Andrew Sullivan says "For my part, I cannot see how we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb." Sullivan is no fan of military action, but I suspect his view is widespread. Some think the inevitability of Iran's getting the bomb is a reason to attack them now; for others, it is an argument for turning to robust containment.
I'm against the former and would favor the latter if necessary, but I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will actually go forward and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. In particular, I can think of two good reasons why a smart Iranian leader would not want to cross the nuclear threshold.
First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that they will automatically be suspected if a nuclear detonation takes place anywhere in the world. Right now, Iran does not have to fear retaliation should an act of nuclear terrorism occur, because we know with high confidence that they have no weapons at present. But if the Islamic Republic were known to have a nuclear weapons capability, and a terrorist used a weapon somewhere, I'd bet that it would be pretty high up on the suspect list. Nuclear forensics could in theory rule them out, but these techniques are not perfectly reliable and it's not obvious how clearly anyone would be thinking at that awful moment. Powerful countries like the United States have a way of lashing out when they are attacked, and they might not be all that careful to make sure they had the right perpetrator. After all, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration used that attack as a pretext to gin up a campaign against him. So Iran might want to think twice about crossing the nuclear threshold and inviting retaliation, even for acts in which it was not involved.
Second, and equally important, Iran has by far the greatest power potential of any country in the Persian Gulf. It has more people, more economic potential, and plenty of oil and gas too. If it ever had competent political leadership it would easily be the strongest conventional power in its neighborhood. But if it gets an overt nuclear capability, that act would raise the likelihood that other states in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq) would follow suit. It is far from certain that they would, but it would certainly make it more likely. And if they do, this step would partially negate Iran's conventional advantages.
Accordingly, a farsighted Iranian strategist should want to acquire a "latent" nuclear capability (and thus the ability to get a bomb quickly if needed), while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line. (If I had to guess, that is what I think they are trying to do.) This means that it may be possible to convince them not to weaponize, mostly by not creating a situation where they decide that having an overt deterrent is worth the costs and risks. Needless to say, U.S. and Israeli policy is the exact opposite today: we ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them (the STUXNET virus, assassinations of Iranian scientists, etc.), and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program.
There are valid reasons to be concerned about Iran, even though the actual threat is poses is vastly overblown. Iran is an increasingly brittle and sclerotic regime of old men, who are mostly desperate to preserve an aging "revolution," and it is no longer an inspiration for anyone. Its economy is presently troubled and its military budget is about 2 percent the size of our own. Those who now seek to portray it as some vast Islamic menace really do not deserve to be taken seriously.
But it is also too early to conclude that there is "no way to prevent Iran" from getting the bomb. Ten-plus years of pressure and rhetoric haven't gotten us anywhere, and a military strike would solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region.
The only approach that stands any chance of success is genuine diplomacy (as opposed to the Obama administration's half-hearted version of same). Sadly, we aren't going to see any serious diplomacy in an election year, and probably not afterwards. Sullivan may turn out to be right, but not because there was no way to prevent an Iranian bomb. If Tehran eventually joins the nuclear club, it will be at least in part because we never made serious, smart and sophisticated effort to persuade them not to.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
I'm posting this from Talloires, France, on the shore of Lake Annecy, at a lovely conference center run by Tufts University. The conference is on the Middle East (broadly defined to include Afghanistan), with a specific focus on European and American interests, policies, and perspectives on these issues. So far the panels and side discussions have been quite interesting but also pretty depressing, an atmosphere reinforced by lots of clouds and rain. The latter problem is actually a good thing, as France has been experiencing a punishing drought and needs the rain.
One issue that struck me during the discussions was the inherent difficulty of doing accurate "policy assessment," due in part to basic selection effects. To be specific, if you look just at the specific cases where some policy instrument (call it "Policy X") gets applied, it's hard to know whether that policy is on balance a success or not. Policy X may only be chosen and implemented when dealing with really hard cases, for example, which are precisely the cases where it is least likely to work. (Among other things, the target state may have already considered the impact of Policy X and decided it can take the heat). But if adopting this policy in one case leads lots of other states to alter their behavior so that they don't face similar actions, then these "dogs that don't bark" are examples of the positive impact of Policy X that are unlikely to get factored into an assessment of its effectiveness.
A possible case in point is the attempt to alter Iran's nuclear policy by imposing various economic sanctions on Tehran. If we look solely at Iran's behavior, it's clear that it hasn't stopped nuclear enrichment and shows no sign of doing so. In short, the policy has failed. External sanctions have probably had a modest economic effect on Iran's economic growth, but have clearly failed to achieve their main objective. But this failure is partly due to the fact that Iran was highly motivated to start with, which is in part why it rejected initial complaints about its nuclear program and eventually faced a series of escalating pressures. And it seems clear that Iran's leadership decided ex ante that the sanctions would be bearable, or they would have backed down before they actually got applied. In short, sanctions got applied in precisely the circumstances where they were unlikely to work, and we shouldn't be surprised that they failed.
But if a few other states were thinking a bit about acquiring nuclear weapons and took a look at Iran's experience, and then concluded that pursuing the bomb just wasn't worth all the aggravation, then Iran's experience might have broader positive effects. It teaches that if you try to get a bomb, you'll face censure, demands for inspections, lots of diplomatic hassle, and maybe even mildly inconvenient economic sanctions. Unless you really think you need a nuclear deterrent, who needs all these headaches? So while sanctions may have failed in dealing with a hard case like Iran, they may have helped reinforce global nonproliferation norms and thus persuaded a few other states not to start down that road themselves. And if that is indeed the case, then "Policy X" (in this case economic sanctions) may have a more positive "net effect" than a simple focus on Iran might suggest.
Of course, there's a danger in this sort of reasoning: one can justify almost any confrontational policy by arguing that it is having far-reaching positive effects that extend well beyond a particular dispute. And that's one reason that debates about foreign policy are so hard to resolve: it is too easy for all participants to make self-serving claims about the positive impact of the policy positions that they happen to prefer, and too hard to come up with a definitive answer. And dare I add that this is one of those places where academics can make a real contribution, by performing more sophisticated policy assessments that take base-line conditions and selection effects into account, so that we have a clearer assessment of the net effect of different policy tools.
All that said, I should probably add that I still think our confrontational approach toward Iran has been mistaken, insofar as it rests on inflated fears about Iranian capabilities and the implications of nuclear acquisition. But I'll concede that making an example of Iran may--repeat, may--have helped discourage a few others from going down a similar route, and it would be interesting to know whether there's any direct evidence of that effect on the calculations of other potential proliferators.
ToastyKen via Flickr Creative Commons
The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).
The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today's New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.
The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries -- including the United States -- would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.
The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants -- which already face classic NIMBY objections -- which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.
This reaction doesn't make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that's not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events -- like an accident at a nuclear plant -- and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.
So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It's possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn't bet on it.
If you want to see just how ill informed and morally bankrupt an "establishment" political voice can be, check out David Broder's op-ed column in this Sunday's Washington Post. Broder argues that President Obama's prospects will remain bleak if the economy doesn't improve, and that the President cannot count on the business cycle to do that for him. So after reminding his readers that World War II helped end the Great Depression, Broder offers Obama the following advice:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."
I haven't read such an ill informed and morally bankrupt piece of "analysis" in quite some time (which is saying something). For starters, on what basis does Broder believe that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world?" The United States spends over $700 billion on defense each year; Iran spends a mere $10 billion. That amount is less than Greece, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, or Taiwan. As I've noted previously, Iran has no meaningful power-projection capabilities, and its main "weapon" is the ability to modest amounts of money and arms to groups like Hezbollah. This behavior is clearly a problem, but Iran is not an existential threat to anyone. And if Iran were to get a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future -- which is by no means a certainty -- it could neither use them nor give them to terrorists without inviting devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
Political leaders often draw negative inferences from an adversary's conduct, without realizing that their own behavior is not really that different. In particular, an opponent's past actions is frequently invoked to demonstrate how aggressive/dangerous/hostile/unstable they are, but when one's own country (or a close ally) acts in the very same way, we are quick to find ways to rationalize or justify it and we would never conclude that we might be equally aggressive or irrational.
Case in point: in an interview with Charlie Rose on Sept. 7, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came close to endorsing the use of force against Iran, on the grounds that it would be too dangerous if Iran were some day to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. He explicitly rejected the idea that deterrence could work against a nuclear Iran in the same way that it worked against the Soviet Union, saying that "this regime is qualitatively different in their makeup. I see them now exporting terrorism, instability around the Middle East." (Blair also threw in an incorrect reference to one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offensive statements about Israel, based on the usual mistranslation, though what Ahmadinejad actually did say is still pretty objectionable).
But the main point is that Blair's reasoning here is faulty. For one thing, the Soviet Union exported a lot of terrorism and instability in its day (while murdering its own citizens in large numbers), yet containment and deterrence worked well for some forty years. Iran's past conduct, while far from perfect, isn't remotely in the same league with Stalin's or Brezhnev's.
Second, the United States has been a far greater source of "instability" in the Middle East in recent years than Iran (aided in no small part by tame puppets like Blair). Yet surely the former PM doesn't think that the U.S. and British "regimes" are "qualitatively different" (i.e., irrational or aggressive) and therefore cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons either.
Third, countries like Iran rely on low-level strategies like covert support for terrorist organizations precisely because they don't want to take serious risks and don't have any other ways to try to protect their own interests. Far from indicating some sort of dangerous irrationality, therefore, this behavior might be evidence of fairly rational (if from our perspective, undesirable) behavior.
In short, Blair's tacit support for military force in this case is without foundation.
Political psychologists sometimes attribute this sort of faulty reasoning to the "fundamental attribution theorem." The term refers to the tendency of people to attribute another actor's behavior almost entirely to that actor's dispositions or attributes, while ignoring the circumstances that might be forcing the actor in question to behave in a particular way. At the same time, we tend to see our own behavior as forced upon us by the situation we are in. In other words, my actions are forced upon me by my situation, but others are freer to do what they want and so their actions tell me a lot about their character and motives.
Something of the sort may be at work here, but I think it mostly tells you that Blair is not a very careful thinker. And like most politicians, he tends to see his conduct as virtuous and principled and the behavior of potential adversaries as a reflection of bad character. Even when the behavior is essentially identical, or arguably worse on our side.
And please: I'm not defending Iran's support for terrorist groups, justifying Ahmadinejad's hateful rhetoric, or playing down the oppressive nature of the clerical regime. Nor do I think it would be a good thing if Tehran got nuclear weapons. My only point is that if we are going to justify preventive war against Iran by using its past behavior to draw inferences about the nature of their future decision-making, we ought to pause for a second and consider what inferences others might reasonably draw from ours.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Today's New York Times has an interesting article on a diplomatic dispute between the United States and South Korea, arising from South Korea's desire to begin reprocessing some of the spent fuel from its large nuclear power program. South Korea gets about forty percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and is reportedly running out of space to store the spent fuel. It is barred from reprocessing by a 1974 agreement with the United States, and the Koreans are now pushing for a revision when the treaty expires in 2014.
U.S. officials oppose this step, fearing it will set a precedent for other states and could make it harder to push North Korea to give up its own nuclear program. (The problem with reprocessing spent fuel is that it yields plutonium, which can be used to make a nuclear bomb). There are also lingering concerns about South Korea's intentions, given that the country flirted with getting nuclear weapons back in the 1970s.
Three quick thoughts. First, as the Times article makes clear, critics who warned that the lax U.S.-India nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration would come back to haunt us should be feeling vindicated, as South Korea has rightly complained about the obvious double-standard here. South Korea is a long-time U.S. ally and an NPT signatory, while India is a nuclear weapons state that has yet to sign the NPT). Yet the Indians got advance U.S. consent for reprocessing in its nuclear deal with the United States, while South Korea is getting stiffed.
Second, the dispute also illustrates important aspect of intra-alliance bargaining, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. The Times story quotes Cheon Seong-whun, a senior analyst at a government-run research institute, saying that "We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us." Probably true, but notice that this is both a reassuring pledge and an implicit threat. What Mr. Cheon is saying -- and I'm not criticizing him for it -- is that South Korea doesn't need a nuclear deterrent as long as it is under the United States continues to protect it. But one reason why South Korea might want to reprocess -- and again, I'm not saying they shouldn't -- is so that they can go nuclear at some point in the future, should confidence in the U.S. commitment erode. And notice that the closer they are to an actual weapons capability, the more potential leverage they might have over the United States.
Third, it's hard not to be struck by the basic hypocrisy of the U.S. position, which it shares with other existing nuclear powers. Washington has no intention of giving up its own nuclear weapons stockpile or its access to all forms of nuclear technology. The recent New START treaty notwithstanding, U.S. government still believes it needs thousands of nuclear weapons deployed or in reserve, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional military forces on the planet, has no great powers nearby, and faces zero-risk of a hostile invasion. Yet we don't think a close ally like South Korea should be allowed to reprocess spent fuel, take any other measures that might under some circumstances move them closer to a nuclear capability of their own.
In my view, there's nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, 'inconsistent') behavior is common-place in international politics. But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn't place so much value on them ourselves.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
I can't figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what's striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be. Ever since last year's presidential election, the United States has been stuck with a policy that might be termed "Bush-lite." We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won't work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime's hold on power.
To succeed, a foreign-policy initiative needs to have a clear and achievable objective. The strategy also needs to be internally consistent, so that certain policy steps don't undermine others. The latter requirement is especially important when you are trying to unwind a "spiral" of exaggerated hostility, which is the problem we face with Iran. Given the deep-seated animosity on both sides, any sign of inconsistency on our part will be viewed in the worst possible light by Iran. Indeed, a combination of friendly and threatening gestures may be worse than the latter alone because tentative acts of accommodation will be seen as a trick and will reinforce the idea that the other side is irredeemably deceitful and can never be trusted.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration's approach to Iran is neither feasible nor consistent. To begin with, our objective -- to persuade Iran to end all nuclear enrichment -- simply isn't achievable. Both the current government and the leaders of the opposition Green Movement are strongly committed to controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and the United States will never get the other major powers to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" it has been seeking for years now. It's not gonna happen folks, or at least not anytime soon.
We might be able to convince Iran not to develop actual nuclear weapons -- which its leaders claim they don't want to do and have said would be contrary to Islam. I don't know if they really believe this or if an agreement along these lines is possible. I do know that we haven't explored that possibility in any serious way. Instead, the Obama administration has been chasing an impossible dream.
Furthermore, the U.S. approach to Tehran is deeply inconsistent. Obama has made a big play of extending an "open hand" to Tehran, and he reacted in a fairly measured way to the crackdown on the Greens last summer. But at the same time, the administration has been ratcheting up sanctions and engaging in very public attempt to strengthen security ties in the Gulf region. And earlier this week, we learned that Centcom commander General David Petraeus has authorized more extensive special operations in a number of countries in the region, almost certainly including covert activities in Iran.
Just imagine how this looks to the Iranian government. They may be paranoid, but sometimes paranoids have real (and powerful) enemies, and we are doing our best to look like one. How would we feel if some other country announced that it was infiltrating special operations forces into the United States, in order to gather intelligence, collect targeting information, or maybe even build networks of disgruntled Americans who wanted to overthrow our government or maybe just sabotage a few government installations? We'd definitely view it as a threat or even an act of war, and we'd certainly react harshly against whomever we thought was responsible. So when you wonder why oil- and gas-rich Iran might be interested in some sort of nuclear deterrent (even if only a latent capability), think about what you'd do if you were in their shoes.
Third, when Turkey and Brazil launched an independent effort to resurrect the earlier deal for a swap for some of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushed to condemn it and hastily announced a watered-down set of new sanctions. As I said last week, the Turkey-Brazil deal had real limitations and was at best a small first step toward restarting more serious talks. But trashing it as we did merely conveys that we aren't interested in genuine negotiations, and probably ticked off Turkey and Brazil to no good purpose. The smarter play would have been to welcome the deal cautiously but highlight its limitations, and let the onus for any subsequent failure fall on Iran instead of us.
Why is U.S. policy stuck in this particular rut? In part because this is a hard problem; one doesn't unwind three decades of mutual suspicion by making a speech or two or sending a friendly holiday greeting, and sometimes success requires a lot of perseverance. But I think there are two other problems at work.
The first is the mindset that seems to have taken hold in the Obama administration. As near as I can tell, they believe Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will lie and cheat and prevaricate long enough to get across the nuclear threshold. Given that assumption, there isn't much point in trying to negotiate any sort of "grand bargain" between Iran and the West, and especially not one that left them with an enrichment capability (even one under strict IAEA safeguards). This view may be correct, but if it is, then our effort to ratchet up sanctions is futile and just makes it more likely that other Iranians will blame us for their sufferings. Here I am in rare (if only partial) agreement with Tom Friedman: Maybe our focus ought to shift from our current obsession with Iran's nuclear program and focus on human rights issues instead (though it is harder for Washington to do that without looking pretty darn hypocritical).
A second explanation is some combination of inside-the-Beltway groupthink and ordinary bureaucratic conservatism. For anyone currently working in Washington, a hard line on Iran and defending our longstanding policy of confrontation is a very safe position to support. No one will accuse you of being a naive appeaser; you'll have plenty of bureaucratic allies, and you'll retain your reputation as a tough and reliable defender of U.S. interests.
By contrast, any government official who proposed taking the threat of force off the table, who publicly admitted that sanctions wouldn't work, who acknowledged that we probably can't stop Iran from getting the bomb if it really wants to, or who recommended a much more far-reaching effort at finding common ground would be taking a significant career risk. And you'd be virtually certain to get smeared by unrepentent neocons and other hawks who favor the use of military force. So there's little incentive for insiders to contemplate -- let alone propose -- a different approach to this issue, even though our current policy is looking more and more like the failed policies of the previous administration.
Although I obviously can't be certain, I don't think there will be an open war with Iran. I think that enough influential people realize just how much trouble this would cause us and that they will continue to resist calls for "kinetic action." (Of course, I also thought that about Iraq back in 2001, and look what happened there.) But U.S.-Iranian relations aren't going to improve much either, and we'll end up devoting more time and effort to this problem than it deserves. But who cares? It's not as if the United States has any other problems on its foreign-policy agenda, right?
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
I have only one thing to say about Gary Schaub Jr. and James Forsythe Jr.'s op-ed in today's New York Times, published under the title "An Arsenal We Can All Live With."
Schaub and Forsythe argue that the United States could satisfy all its legitimate security requirements with an arsenal of 311 nuclear warheads, dispersed among bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and ICBM's. Not a thousand. Not 1,550 plus a few thousand more in reserve. Only 311. That's all.
Actually, I think that number might still be too large, because you only need a very small handful of nuclear weapons (e.g., maybe a dozen?) to inflict a level of damage that no political leader could tolerate. As former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy famously wrote:
A decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable."
American policymakers clearly understand the compelling logic of minimum deterrence, or else they wouldn't be so worried when states like North Korea or (maybe) Iran seek to join the nuclear club. U.S. leaders recognize that even a handful of nuclear weapons in the hands of a hostile country constrains what we can do to that country (which is of course why some states want to get them in the first place). But if a very small number of weapons can induce such sobriety on our part, why exactly do we need thousands, especially when our conventional forces are already far stronger than any other country on the planet?
Of course, the fact that deterrence isn't sensitive to the actual number of weapons also implies that having more weapons than we need isn't that dangerous, provided that you are very, very certain that you won't lose one, that your large arsenal won't encourage others with less reliable security arrangements to build up, and provided you have lots of money to pay for an arsenal you don't really need. But since I like saving money, would prefer that other states either didn't get nuclear weapons or kept their own arsenals small (and therefore easy to guard), and believe that decreasing the number of warheads in the world is an important step in improving overall nuclear security, I think Schaub and Forsythe's article should be taken seriously.
But I doubt it will. Schaub and Forsythe's analysis is based on careful strategic reasoning, and their conclusions challenge both the bureacratic interests of the professional military and the more atavistic instincts of the body politic. A serious attempt to implement their recommendations would elicit howls of protest from hawkish politicos and pundits, who will maintain that the world's only superpower also needs the biggest pile of (unusable) bombs in order to preserve its capacity to swagger, even if they can't actually explain how we would ever use that many weapons or how we derive any practical political benefits from this alleged "superiority." In the hothouse world of political commentary, insisting that "size doesn't matter" isn't a winning argument, even when logic and evidence are overwhelmingly on its side.
Well, speaking of Turkey, what do I make of the surprise nuclear deal between Turkey, Brazil and Iran, which was announced as I was packing up to leave Istanbul? The deal was proclaimed with great fanfare in Tehran, and it basically resurrects an earlier arrangement by which Iran agreed to give up a large part of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in exchange for a much smaller quantity of more highly enriched (~20 percent) uranium (for use in a research reactor that produces medical isotopes).
The first thing to note is that we've seen this movie before (or at least, we've seen something rather like it), and it remains to be seen whether any uranium will actually change hands. It's possible that the whole thing is just a subterfuge designed to ward off stricter economic sanctions, and that eventually one of the signatories (most likely Iran) will find a way to wiggle out of the deal.
But it is also possible that this is a first step towards a diplomatic resolution of the whole Iranian nuclear problem (albeit a rather small step). The crux of that issue isn't Iran's stockpile of LEU or its desire for fuel for its research reactor; the dispute is over whether Iran is ever going to be permitted to have its own indigenous enrichment capability at all. And this deal says nothing about that question; the best that can be said for it is that it might -- repeat might -- open the door to a more fruitful diplomatic process.
Here's why I think the United States should welcome the deal. The only feasible way out of the current box is via diplomacy, because military force won't solve the problem for very long, could provoke a major Middle East war, and is more likely to strengthen the clerical regime and make the United States look like a bully with an inexhaustible appetite for attacking Muslim countries. (And having Israel try to do the job wouldn't help, because we'd be blamed for it anyway). I think George Bush figured that out before he left office, and I think President Obama knows it too. So do sensible Israelis, though not the perennial hawks at the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, who appear to have learned nothing from their shameful role cheerleading the debacle in Iraq back in 2002.
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Over at the NPT Review Conference, the United States is supporting the idea of a "nuclear weapons free zone" in the Middle East. This position actually goes all the way back to a resolution adopted at the 1995 review, but it's a goal that the United States has soft-pedaled in the past. Even now, U.S. officials have made it clear this goal depends on first achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors.
Makes sense to me. As a practical matter, Israel isn't going to give up its existing nuclear arsenal until its security concerns are met. That would be my position too if I were an Israeli official, because a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee against military conquest or a WMD attack.
So here’s the puzzle: If Washington clearly understands that Israel won't give up its nuclear weapons until its broader security concerns are resolved (and maybe not even then), why does it simultaneously think that Iran can be convinced to suspend nuclear enrichment without its own security concerns being addressed? Like their predecessors in the Bush adminstration, the Obama administration is still demanding that Iran first abandon its nuclear program and is back to the familiar game of trying to ramp up sanctions in order to compel compliance. The United States says it is willing to talk about Iran’s own security concerns after Tehran plays ball with us, but with no guarantee that we will actually do anything about the issues that bother them.
In other words, in one case the United States recognizes that comprehensive peace and reliable security guarantees are a prerequisite for disarmament; in the other case, we think disarmament must come first and that security guarantees are secondary if not irrelevant. I don’t have any trouble understanding why U.S. policy differs in the two cases, but why supposedly serious people think our approach to Tehran will succeed is beyond me.
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Back when I started writing this blog, I warned that the idea of preventive war against Iran wasn't going to go away just because Barack Obama was president. The topic got another little burst of oxygen over the past few days, in response to what seems to have been an over-hyped memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some remarks by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, following a speech at Columbia University. In particular, Mullen noted that military action against Iran could "go a long way" toward delaying Iran's acquisition of a weapons capability, though he also noted this could only be a "last resort" and made it clear it was not an option he favored.
One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran's actual capabilities, and rests on all sorts of worst case assumptions about Iranian behavior. Consider the following facts, most of them courtesy of the 2010 edition of The Military Balance, published annually by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London:
States -- 13.8 trillion
Iran --$ 359 billion (U.S. GDP is roughly 38 times greater than Iran's)
U.S. -- $692 billion
Iran -- $9.6 billion (U.S. defense budget is over 70 times larger than Iran)
U.S.--1,580,255 active; 864,547 reserves (very well trained)
Iran-- 525,000 active; 350,000 reserves (poorly trained)
U.S. -- 4,090 (includes USAF, USN, USMC and reserves)
Iran -- 312 (serviceability questionable)
Main battle tanks:
U.S. -- 6,251 (Army + Marine Corps)
Iran -- 1,613 (serviceability questionable)
U.S. -- 11 aircraft carriers, 99 principal surface combatants, 71 submarines, 160 patrol boats, plus large auxiliary fleet
Iran -- 6 principal surface combatants, 10 submarines, 146 patrol boats
U.S. -- 2,702 deployed, >6,000 in reserve
Iran -- Zero
One might add that Iran hasn't invaded anyone since the Islamic revolution, although it has supported a number of terrorist organizations and engaged in various forms of covert action. The United States has also backed terrorist groups and conducted covert ops during this same period, and attacked a number of other countries, including Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.
By any objective measure, therefore, Iran isn't even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel, which has roughly the same toal of regular plus reserve military personnel and vastly superior training. Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone.
The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears. It's a pretty unloveable regime, to be sure, but given Iran's actual capabilities, why do U.S. leaders devote so much time and effort trying to corral support for more economic sanctions (which aren't going to work) or devising strategies to "contain" an Iran that shows no sign of being able to expand in any meaningful way? Even the danger that a future Iranian bomb might set off some sort of regional arms race seems exaggerated, according to an unpublished dissertation by Philipp Bleek of Georgetown University. Bleek's thesis examines the history of nuclear acquisition since 1945 and finds little evidence for so-called "reactive proliferation." If he's right, it suggests that Iran's neighbors might not follow suit even if Iran did "go nuclear" at some point in the future).
Obviously, simple bean counts like the one presented above do not tell you everything about the two countries, or the political challenges that Iran might pose to its neighbors. Iran has engaged in a number of actions that are cause for concern (such as its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon), and it has some capacity to influence events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, as we have learned in both of these countries, objectively weaker adversaries can still mount serious counterinsurgency operations against a foreign occupier. And if attacked, Iran does have various retaliatory options that we would find unpleasant, such as attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. So Iran's present weakness does not imply that the United States can go ahead and bomb it with impunity.
What it does mean is that we ought to keep this relatively minor "threat" in perspective, and not allow the usual threat-inflators to stampede us into another unnecessary war. My impression is that Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates understand this. I hope I'm right. But I'm still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn't tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us), and try to cut a deal whereby Iran ratifies and implements the NPT Additional Protocol and is then permitted to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes (but not to weapons-grade levels). It might not work, of course, but neither will our present course of action or the "last resort" that Mullen referred to last weekend.
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I'm still digesting the results of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting, but I'll give the Obama administration a pretty high mark on two grounds.
First, it's clear that somebody in the administration did a lot of useful pre-summit diplomacy, to make sure that there some tangible results to report at the summit itself. (This is like making sure you have a few major gifts in the bag in advance before you launch a major fundraising campaign). Cases in point: Ukraine's announcement that it would surrender all of its remaining highly enriched uranium, and the joint Canadian-Mexican project to modify a Mexican research reactor so that it no longer produces weapons-grade material. These and other steps are hardly transformative, of course, but they kept the summit from being solely an exercise in public relations.
Second, Obama acknowledged that the effort to promote greater nuclear security is primarily a political-diplomatic campaign, and one that will require sustained energy and attention. As he noted in response to one questioner: "If you are asking, 'Do we have an international, one-world law enforcement,' we don't, and we never have." In other words, Obama recognizes that there are no binding legal mechanisms or coercive power to impose greater nuclear security measures on other states, and the only way to make serious progress is to a) convince other governments that this is in their interest, b) use various carrots and sticks to persuade them to make a serious effort, and c) provide resources and technical expertise where needed.
Given the nature of the problem, one can make substantial progress even if the effort to secure all loose nuclear material is less than 100 percent successful, because every kilogram of plutonium or HEU that gets secured makes it harder for bad guys to get their hands on any. As some readers probably know, I'm less concerned about the threat of "nuclear terrorism" than some of my colleagues are. But I don't dismiss it entirely, and it is one of those (rare?) policy problems that we actually do know how to address. Securing loose nuclear materials is a lot easier and cheaper to do than addressing climate change, for example, and there are hardly any counter-arguments against it. I mean, does anybody really think poorly guarded bombs or inadequately secured weapons-grade uranium is a good thing?
So Obama's team deserves credit for this initial effort, and for managing to pull off a meeting of 47 presidents, prime ministers, and other world leaders with virtually no visible rifts, fireworks, or gaffes. On a first reading, I'd give 'em an A-.
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The New York Times and other news agencies are now reporting that China is preparing to get behind the U.S.-led effort to toughen economic sanctions on Iran. The Times's headline (in the print version) reads "China Supports Iran Sanctions," but the actual story tells a rather different tale. It says that President Hu Jintao agreed yesterday to "join negotiations" for a new sanctions package, but reminds readers that China has a well-established pattern of using negotiations to delay and deflect stiffer measures. In particular, the article reports that former President George W. Bush tried three times to "corral Chinese support " for tougher penalties on Iran, only to have China use its participation to "water down" the resulting resolutions.
This pattern should not surprise us, because China has every reason to drag its feet on meaningful economic sanctions. To begin with, China wants to safeguard its access to Iranian oil and gas and protect its ability to invest in Iran. Iran is now China's second largest source of oil and gas (providing about 15 percen of its consumption), and China is Iran's second largest customer. China has also become a substantial investor in Iran's economy. With demand for oil likely to grow in the future, this is not a relationship Beijing is likely to jeopardize.
Second, China is sanguine about the prospects of an Iranian bomb because it has a more realistic view of what that development would mean. China's leaders know that they didn't gain a lot of geopolitical clout when they tested their own nuclear weapon in 1964, and being a nuclear power didn't enable them to dictate or blackmail Taiwan, Vietnam, the Koreas, or anyone else. China's rise to great power status was driven by its economic development, not its modest nuclear arsenal, and Bejing knows that same would be true for a nuclear Iran. While China would probably prefer that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, it hasn't succumbed to worst-case paranoia and isn't willing to pay a large price to prevent that from happening.
Furthermore, keeping the U.S.-Iranian pot simmering (but not boiling) is in Bejing's long-term interest. America's ham-handed involvement in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia has been a tremendous strategic boon for Beijing, and they undoubtedly feel a profound schadenfreude as they watch the Uncle Sam expend trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously maintaining an icy confrontation with Iran. After all, the more time, money, attention and political capital we devote to Iran, the less we can focus on China's long-term efforts to build influence in Asia and eventually supplant the U.S. role there. Plus, bad relations between Washington and Teheran creates diplomatic and investment opportunities for China. The last thing Bejing wants is a prompt resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, because it might pave the way for a more substantial détente between Washington and Teheran, thereby diminishing Beijing's value and allowing U.S. strategists to shift their attention elsewhere.
At the same time, China doesn't want a war to break out in the Gulf, which could send oil prices soaring (at least temporarily), put the world economy back in recession, and lead to other unpredictable consequences. So it would like the United States and its allies to keep confronting Iran via economic sanctions, but slowly, so that the dispute with Iran never goes away and the use of force stays off the table.
For China, therefore, the optimal strategy is to drag its heels and play for time. This approach means never quite refusing to go along with stiffer sanctions but never saying "yes" either. They'll probably agree to some additional penalties eventually (maybe after a desperate United States agrees to guarantee China's oil supplies against an Iranian cutoff!), but they won't back anything severe enough to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment altogether. The dispute will continue, U.S. leaders will devote lots of time and attention to it, and China's long-term interests will be advanced.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Realism 101. Too bad that Washington seems to have forgotten how to play it.
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The Obama administration is now rolling out the results of its "Nuclear Posture Review," and presenting it as a significant if not quite revolutionary rethinking of U.S. nuclear strategy. I haven't seen the full text of the document and have only excerpts and press reports to go by, but the basic idea is to narrow the range of scenarios in which the United States would threaten a nuclear response.
To be a bit more specific, instead of reserving the option of nuclear strikes in response to a nuclear attack, an attack by other forms of WMD (such as biological weapons) or even a large-scale conventional invasion, the review declares that the "fundamental role" of the U.S. arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S., its allies, or partners." Accordingly, as a matter of declaratory policy, the Review declares that "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."
The exceptions to this narrower focus would be non-nuclear attacks by any nuclear-armed state, or states that the United States deems to be in violation of the NPT. Translation: We still reserve the option of first nuclear use against Iran and North Korea.
Lots of ink will no doubt be spilled analyzing this shift in declaratory policy, and nuclear theologians will spend time at conferences and workshops parsing the fine-grained implications of the change. And stay tuned for assorted hawkish windbags and right-wing think-tankers declaring that this new language has somehow imperiled U.S. security, even though we still have thousands of nuclear weaspons in our arsenal and the strongest conventional forces in the world.
I'll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value -- i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama's commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.
Here's why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn't going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?
Of course you wouldn't, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You'd worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn't matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you'd also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways -- what Thomas Schelling famously termed the "threat that leaves something to chance -- and thereby ruin your whole day.
To the extent that nuclear weapons deter -- and I happen to think they do -- it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them. In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.
Furthermore, the decision to exclude nuclear weapons states, non-signatories of the NPT, or states we deem in violation of it (e.g., Iran) strikes me as both too clever by half and maybe counterproductive. The purpose seems to be to give these states an additional incentive to sign the NPT or to conform to it, but it's hard to believe that this statement will have that effect on anyone. India, Pakistan and Israel are all non-signatories, but surely they aren't worried about U.S. "first use" against them and so this statement will be irrelevant to their nuclear calculations.
The real target of this exception is Iran (and conceivably North Korea and Syria). At best, this new statement will have little or no effect, for the reasons noted above (i.e., no one know what we might do in a crisis or war, so pledges of no-first-use are essentially meaningless). At worst, however, excluding Iran in this fashion -- which amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons its own -- merely gives them additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option. In particular, declaring that we reserve the right of "first use" against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all), sounds like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice thing to have.
Remarkably, U.S. policymakers never seem to realize that the same arguments they use to justify our own nuclear arsenal apply even more powerfully to states whose security is a lot more precarious than America's. If the U.S. government believes that "the fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States, and the United States is now proclaiming that it still reserves the option of using nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear Iran (under some admittedly extreme circumstances), then wouldn't a sensible Iranian leadership conclude that it could use a nuclear arsenal of its own, whose "fundamental role" would be to deter us from doing just that?
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Interesting news from ABC (h/t Andrew Sullivan), that the CIA reportedly convinced an Iranian nuclear physicist named Shahram Amiri to defect to the United States about a year ago. Amiri was reportedly part of Iran’s nuclear research program and has now been relocated in the United States.
Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was a very talented physicist, a single defection like this isn't going to stop Iran’s nuclear research program in its tracks, or even slow it down very much.
Second, assuming he was intimately involved in Iran's nuclear program, this ought to increase our confidence in its current state of development. There's been lots of disagreement about when Iran might actually be able to assemble a nuclear weapon -- if in fact they intend to do so -- and if this guy's information is any good, then some of that uncertainty ought to be reduced. Is it time for a new National Intelligence Estimate?
Third, I wonder what Americans would think if other intelligence services engaged in energetic efforts to get leading scientists in our nuclear weapons labs to defect? Based on our reaction to prior cases of nuclear espionage (going back to the Rosenbergs), my guess is that we'd regard it as an act of considerable hostility. I'm not saying we were wrong to recruit this guy, but doesn’t it undercut that "open hand" that we've supposedly been extending to Iran? I'll bet that's how Tehran sees it.
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A quick look back at some recent posts, in light of subsequent events:
1. Regarding Hillary’s trip to Moscow to clinch the arms control deal. It’s not over till it’s over, but it looks like her team did read the tea leaves properly. If so, then props to the negotiators. If Obama gets to sign it on the one-year anniversary of his Prague speech, that will heighten its symbolic value.
2. Does the health care win enhance Obama's foreign policy clout? Andrew Sullivan has raised some good points on this issue, see here and here. I'll concede that getting health care done will free up more of Obama's time and energy to devote to foreign policy. It may also make the White House a bit more Bolshie about taking on domestic opposition to its foreign policy agenda. But even if that’s the case, I still think prospects for major foreign policy achievements are slim. Why? Because even if Obama has more free time, he’s gotta worry most about the economy over the next year or two. And as I said in my original post, none of the big foreign policy issues are easy to resolve, and the foreign opposition he must win over isn't likely to be swayed by the fact that the adminstration managed to get 220 members of the president's own party to support a bill that was heavily laden with political compromises. I'm not dissing the domestic achievement, mind you, just skeptical that it gives you that much more leverage abroad.
3. Did General Petraeus say that there was a link between U.S. support for Israel, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and our standing elsewhere in the region? Phil Klein at The American Spectator claims that Petraeus is denying he said any of the things previously attributed to him in recent weeks, and is walking back from his own testimony (i.e., prepared statement) to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But if you look carefully at what Petraeus told the Senators, it’s clear that he recognizes that there is a link (which is what his prepared statement said, in rather uncontroversial language. Consider his response to a question by Sen. John McCain:
We keep a very close eye on what goes on there [in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip], because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. ... Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. My thrust has generally been, literally, just to say -- to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said something similar today too (HT Spencer Ackerman). Of course, what they are saying is pretty mild, unsurprising stuff; it's just the sort of thing that didn't used to get uttered by senior officials.
Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress pokes holes in Klein's revisionism, see here.
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Is this "Be Rude to U.S. Diplomats Month?" First, the Netanyahu government embarrasses Joe Biden during his visit to Israel by announcing it will build 1600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Next, the Russian government welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Moscow with the announcement that it intends to complete the long-delayed Bushehr power reactor in Iran this summer. Clinton told a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov it "would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," but Lavrov confirmed that Russia was going ahead anyway.
The Bushehr reactor has been a thorny issue between the United States and Russia since the 1990s, although it actually has little to do with Iran's nuclear enrichment program and has always been something of a red herring. But it was hardly a friendly gesture for Moscow to make this announcement during her visit, unless they were trying to score some cheap bargaining points. And it made me wonder: where are everyone's manners? Diplomacy doesn't always have to be, well-diplomatic -- but this sort of gratuitous slap is both petty and counter-productive.
The two situations aren't identical, of course, given that Israel is a close ally and the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, and Russia is a country with whom U.S. relations are more competitive. One would therefore expect this sort of thing from Moscow but not from Jerusalem. In both cases, however, the United States should make it clear that it doesn't appreciate being dissed in this fashion.
To its credit, the Obama administration has shown what Woodrow Wilson called "the self-restraint of a truly great nation, which knows its own power and scorns to misuse it." They haven't over-reacted to every perceived slight, and press conferences with foreign representatives don't have to be a complete love-fest. But every now and then, the United States has to demonstrate that this sort of thing has a price tag: the more that other states want from us, the more respect they ought to show. It's about that simple.
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I see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow to clinch a new arms control agreement with Russia. I hope she succeeds, although the details of the treaty are probably less significant than people think. Both sides will be left with plenty of nuclear warheads, so the core strategic situation between the two countries won’t be affected very much. An agreement might help both sides save some money and will make each look like it at least trying to fulfill its long-standing obligations in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Non-nuclear signatories agreed not to get nukes, but Article VI commits signatories -- including the United States and USSR -- to make good faith efforts at nuclear disarmament).
What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.
What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere.
So I’m hoping that Secretary Clinton’s subordinates have done their homework, and that the trip to Moscow won't increase her carbon footprint to no good purpose.
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Given his loquacious style, it's probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden's words too closely. Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye. Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis).
The interesting word in that otherwise unsurprising sentence is the verb "prevent." No, I don't think the vice president was signaling that the United States is going to take military action (i.e., to engage in a preventive military strike). Rather, I thought the use of that word revealed the underlying mindset that still pervades a lot of national-security thinking. If there's something undesirable happening out there, U.S. foreign policy mavens immediately assume that Washington must to take action to prevent, halt, reverse, negate or stop it. Implicit in that choice of words is the assumption that it is our responsibility to do this and that our actions are the essential ingredient to success. We are the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's infamous phrase, and nothing good can happen if we don't will it.
This is a rhetoric that takes American exceptionalism for granted, and it conveys a sense of unilateralism that one normally associates with Bush and the neoconservatives. This formulation also marginalizes and discounts Iran's own motivations and decisions: it is up to us to prevent them from getting the bomb and they have no say in the matter.
To see this more clearly, consider the other verbs that Biden might have used. He could have said "the United States is determined to persuade Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons." This formulation doesn't deny the United States an active role or preclude the use of carrots and sticks to achieve the desired outcome. But instead of declaring that we are determined to decide this outcome more-or-less on our own, it leaves open the possibility of convincing Iran that it would be better off forgoing weaponization. (I can make a pretty good case for that option, although I obviously don't know if Tehran would be convinced by it). Plenty of other potential nuclear powers have ultimately decided not to join the nuclear club, and we ought to be exploring ways to encourage similar thinking in Tehran.
And it's not simply a matter of ramping up pressure, because tightening the screws just increases Tehran's desire to have a more reliable deterrent.
This slightly different formulation acknowledges that whether Iran eventually gets nuclear weapons or not is at least partly up to them, and it treats diplomacy not as a step we have to take in order to persuade others to support sanctions (or to lay the groundwork for "kinetic action" later on), but as a genuine option that may not work but deserves to be pursued with real purpose. Bottom line: I wish the vice president had used a different verb.
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In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.
Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran? A possible sign of slippage is a recent Foreign Affairs article (and accompanying Washington Post op-ed) by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh (also of the CFR). Lindsay and Takeyh are well-known centrists who now seem at least partly infected by some of the alarmism about Iran that the neoconservatives have been trumpeting for years. Although their two articles sound a somewhat skeptical note about preventive war-they admit that "a preventive attack might not end Iran's nuclear ambitions"-they recommend keeping all options "on the table" and in general depict the Islamic Republic as a looming threat to all that is Right and Proper. Their central lesson: the United States had better get serious about preparing for a military response to a wide array of possible Iranian actions.
Lindsay and Takeyh reach this conclusion by incorporating a series of worst-case assumptions and by employing the familiar alarmist rhetoric that has been a staple of hawkish commentary for decades. Despite some significant qualifications (some of which contradict their central point), the overall impression is ominous, and likely to strengthen the hand of those who are in favor of an ever-tougher approach to Tehran.
For starters, the very first line of their WaPo op-ed describes Iran as "relentlessly moving toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." They offer no concrete evidence that this is the case, however, and it is worth remembering that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Iran had no active nuclear weapons program has yet to be rescinded. Iran may be trying to build a working nuclear weapon, but there is as yet no clear sign that a definitive decision to go nuclear has been made. Of course, so long as Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, it is by definition "moving toward" having the potential to build a weapon at some point in the future. Insofar as its nuclear program goes back decades, however, it doesn't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, using words like "relentlessly" and portraying the decision to get a bomb as a done deal makes Tehran sound especially dangerous and further devalues any possibility of a diplomatic deal that might head off weaponization.
Next, they argue that Iran "views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence" and warn that a nuclear shield "would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East." They believe Iran "would not be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card" and predict it "would probably test U.S. resolve early." Indeed, they think America will face a "momentous credibility crisis" if it fails to stop Iran from getting the bomb, warning that "even close US allies would doubt Washington's security guarantees."
Are you scared yet? All these ominous claims might be true, but neither the Foreign Affairs article or the WaPo op-ed contain any evidence to back them up. But Lindsay and Takeyh are just getting started. They also think Iran might increase its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, do more to subvert the Gulf sheikhdoms, demand that these states evict U.S. troops, and maybe even give nuclear technology to other countries. And if that isn't enough, they invoke the old nightmare that Iran might "give fissile material to a terrorist group."
Of course, alert readers with good memories will notice that these are the same arguments that pro-war hawks made about Iraq. And though each of the warnings is hedged in various ways-i.e., they don't say Iran will do these things, only that it might-the cumulative effect of all these scary scenarios is to suggest that an Iranian bomb would be major turning point in world history (and not in a good way).
So what should the U.S. do in response? According to Lindsay and Takeyh, the United States needs to draw several lines in the sand: 1) no initiation of conventional warfare, 2) no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technologies, and 3) no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. If Iran does any of these things, the United States should be ready to respond "by any and all means necessary." If we aren't ready to retaliate, they write, "the damage created by Iran's going nuclear could become catastrophic.
Time to chill, guys. Iran is an important security issue, and the United States should take appropriate steps to maintain a balance of power in the region. Unfortunately, the drum-beat of alarmism that pervades their article-and even more in the op-ed version-is both misleading and possibly counterproductive.
First, their depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran's actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran's military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran's actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment. It has no conventional power-projection capabilities, outdated air, naval and armored forces, and primitive electronic warfare capabilities. Iran's population and economic potential raise the possibility that it might one day be the dominant power in the Gulf, but it is nowhere near that capacity now. Getting a nuclear weapon won't change that fact, because nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and confer little positive leverage over others. (Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this latter point in the Foreign Affairs version, but if they genuinely believe this, then many of their other arguments are irrelevant).
Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won't change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest. And the good news is that Iran almost certainly knows this too.
Third, they overstate Iran's capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran's capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn't very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The brutal crackdown following the elections last summer has undoubtedly tarnished Tehran's appeal even more. Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this point as well in the long version of their article, but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: if Iran cannot subvert its neighbors, then the danger it poses is modest and their article didn't need to be written.
Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could not blackmail its neighbors (or compel them to expel U.S. forces), because it could not carry out a nuclear threat without facing devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation. The mighty Soviet Union could not blackmail any US allies during in the Cold War; indeed, it wasn't even able to blackmail weak and neutral countries. American leaders have found it equally difficult to translate our vast nuclear arsenal into meaningful political leverage. Yet Lindsay and Takeyh imply that Iran could perform this miracle today, even though it is far weaker. They never explain why or how, however; it's just another convenient bogeyman.
Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.
More importantly, Iran is not going to give fissile material to terrorists. Having labored long and hard to acquire an enrichment capability, would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control? Giving fissile material to terrorists is a potentially suicidal act, and Iran's leaders show every sign of wanting to retain power permanently and to live as long as they can. They could never be sure the hand-off would not be detected and that they would not be blamed (and punished) for whatever the terrorists did. There's no sign that any of Iran's leaders has a death wish, which is why they won't be giving any bombs away.
Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh's redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we're the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.
In particular, threatening retaliation against "subversive activities" risks either an unnecessary war or a further challenge to US credibility. For example, many well-informed observers believe Iran has substantial influence in Iraq today, and may be actively trying to affect the outcome of the March 7 elections. Is this the sort of "subversive activity" that should trigger a US response? How about a single shipment of mortars to Hezbollah, or the capture of an Iranian intelligence agent operating in Bahrain or Dubai? In a world where the United States, Israel, and plenty of other states are conducting covert, "subversive" operations in assorted foreign countries-including targeted killings and assassinations-this item hardly seems like a redline we can or should try to enforce.
It is also worth remembering that the U.S. and its allies didn't threaten to retaliate against the USSR for the "subversive activities" that were a central part of Soviet communism's international agenda from 1917 to 1986. The United States and NATO made it clear they'd respond to traditional acts of aggression, but we knew better than to make "subversion" a key "redline" in our overall strategy of containment. The goal was prevent Soviet expansion and to out-perform the USSR over time, so that communist subversion failed to find root in any countries that mattered. As 1989 proved, that strategy was a smashing success.
Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran's acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position. I certainly hope Iran isn't listening to them, because it's hard to think of a better way to convince its leaders to go ahead. Moreover, overheated talk about the need for a more robust containment strategy is likely to reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent shield that can take the threat of regime change (an option Washington has never renounced) "off the table." But if we don't much like the idea of an Iranian bomb (and I don't), shouldn't we doing everything we can to convince Tehran that a bomb would be of little value? Perhaps unintentionally, Lindsay and Takeyh are sending precisely the opposite message.
Seventh, like most Americans writing about Iran these days, Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran's enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.
This is the sort of "grand bargain" that others have proposed in the past, and there is of course no guarantee that it will work. Moreover, many people would find any dealings with the current regime objectionable, for understandable reasons. But if an Iranian bomb is such a scary prospect, shouldn't we be pulling out all the stops to see if an acceptable diplomatic solution is possible? As near as I can tell, the sort of grand bargain sketched in the previous paragraph has never been tried; instead, we've made rhetorical gestures and incremental take-it-or-leave-it offers-all of which predictably fail-and we falsely conclude from these half-hearted efforts that more ambitious diplomacy is unworkable.
Finally, it's possible that I'm being too hard on Lindsay and Takeyh. Perhaps they are sheep in wolves' clothing, and their article is in fact a plea for a moderate and sensible strategy of containment dressed up in a lot of tough rhetoric intended to make it more convincing. If so, I fear their approach is too clever by half. Despite their apparent rejection of preventive war and assorted other qualifications, the Lindsay/Takeyh articles unintentionally reinforce an alarmist view of Iran that has been the neoconservatives' bread-and-butter for many years.
Don't forget: between 1998 and 2003, the pro-war party took an extreme position on Iraq and stuck to its guns (literally), looking for every opportunity to advance its program. 9/11 opened the door, and they were quick to seize the moment. Over time, both liberals and moderates were dragged rightward, adopting hawkish rhetoric and tortured rationales in order to show how "serious" they were. Former doves jumped on the bandwagon, the center of gravity swung inexorably to the hard-line position, and the results were disastrous. Something similar seems to be happening again; to paraphrase Yeats, "the centre cannot hold."
Why? Yeats also gives us the answer: because "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Regular readers here know that I think a military attack on Iran would be a huge mistake, and I was sharply critical of a recent NYT op-ed by Alan Kuperman that advocated this course. This morning, the Times's pendulum swung nearly as far the other way, offering up an equally unconvincing op-ed suggesting that there might be hidden strategic benefits for the United States if Iran did in fact cross the threshold to a nuclear weapons capability.
To be specific, the author of the piece, a defense analyst named Adam B. Lawther, suggests that Iran's acquisition of a bomb would 1) encourage threatened Arab governments to get serious about the al Qaeda threat, 2) allow the United States to "break OPEC," 3) cause Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about peace and bury the hatchet, 4) boost the U.S. defense industry (thereby enabling us to get ready for a rising China), and 5) enable the U.S. to "stem the flow of dollars" to Arab petro-states, get them to ante up for the war on terror, and allow us to save the money we are now spending on counterinsurgency operations.
Well, gee, if an Iranian bomb would produce all these benefits, maybe we ought to just skip the whole dispute over enrichment and just give them a few warheads from our own arsenal. But the more you look at these arguments, the less convincing they are. Arab governments like Saudi Arabia are already serious about al Qaeda, because it is a direct threat to their rule. Iran's bomb won't help us "break OPEC," because oil exporters need the revenue. It's not going to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, both because the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel have been overblown and because the obstacles to a workable piece have little to do with Iran. The U.S. defense budget doesn't need a further boost right now, and we are already spending at least five times more than China anyway. Finally, the way to stem the flow of money to Arab petrostates and to get out of the counterinsurgency business is to consume less oil and gas and wean ourselves from our futile efforts at social engineering in societies we do not understand. The answer is not to encourage an Iranian bomb.
More generally, this piece makes the same sort of error that advocates of preventive war routinely make, but in the opposite direction. In particular, it assumes that acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran (or anybody else) will have enormous, far-reaching, and maybe even revolutionary effects on that state's global position and international influence. Hawks claim that an Iranian bomb would lead to all sorts of horrible bad things; now Lawther is suggesting that it will actually produce an equally impressive number of pretty good results.
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In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).
But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.
But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):
The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program. Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat. ... There is also some possibility ... that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”
Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we've made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn't inevitable. But if it does happen, you'll know who played a key role in bringing it about.
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Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent. The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.
Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.
But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.” He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal). He also thinks -- from his lofty perch in New York City -- that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.
While there is no question that Haass’ piece will help fuel America’s sense of self-righteousness -- look, we’re defending freedom! -- the course of action he lays out is foolish. No one in the United States can be confident that Iran is close to “profound political change”; we simply don’t have enough information to know what is happening in Tehran, and authoritarian regimes often hold on to power for decades despite widespread domestic discontent.
Moreover, as I’ve noted before, key members of the current opposition are strongly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, which means that there is little reason to think that Iran will abandon its nuclear program even if there is some sort of regime change. So if that's what's really bugging him -- and it appears to be -- then his prescribed course of action will just reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Acting as Haass prescribes could also weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it, by allowing the regime to discredit their adversaries as foreign puppets. He says the clerics and Revolutionary Guards are doing that already, but why give them more ammunition for the fight?
There are at least three other reasons why Haass’ new position is misguided.
First, after acknowledging that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” he assumes that anything would be preferable to what we have now. Maybe so, but our track record in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere suggests that U.S. meddling often makes things worse. Like the liberal interventionists he has sometimes sparred with in the past, Haass simply cannot imagine leaving well enough alone, and letting Iran’s own people determine their own political future. A hands-off approach is not an endorsement of the clerics or the brutal behavior of the Revolutionary Guards; it is merely recognition that further meddling on our part might be counterproductive.
Second, as Richard Silverstein points out on his blog, Haass’ approach lacks patience. Repairing the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year, and the kind of posturing and pressure that Haass is calling for is more likely to retard progress than advance it. Ordinary Iranians are already convinced that the United States has long interfered in their affairs for various nefarious purposes -- and with some reason -- and putting on the full-court press isn’t going to reduce those concerns. Indeed, it will surely exacerbate them.
Third, a policy of “regime change-lite” puts us one step closer to actual war. Haass is saying in effect that Iran’s government has no legitimacy or standing and that we ought to help bring it down. Attacking Iran is not a practical goal right now, but getting rid of the regime ought to be. So what happens when sanctions and speeches and ostracism don’t work, and Iran continues to develop its enrichment program? Wait another year or two, and Haass will find himself sounding even more like Kenneth Pollack, telling us that he has ever so reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to bomb.
One would hope to see better analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, especially in light of the fiasco in Iraq. And if it is a harbinger of things to come, look out.
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Haass discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.