Friday, September 22, 2006

Greenberg, Ahmadinejad and the Iran Debate

Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg gave an interview to The National Interest following his encounter with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I recommend the entire interview, but wanted to call attention to this point. After noting that it was important to assess and get the measure of the man, he concluded: "We can't deal with him. You can't deal with this guy. I do not believe that we should let him come into possession of the capabilities to manufacture a nuclear device, or achieve it by an indirect means, such as buying it from somebody else."

This is important because while we have had a good deal of discussion about the costs of action against Iran, many of the proponents of diplomacy assume that simply by negotiating we can achieve a solution. I think this was the de facto position of a number of the speakers at the New America conference last week; concentrate efforts on some sort of "grand bargain." But Greenberg, no fan of unilateral action, if you read the rest of the interview, is also not convinced that the United States can deal with Ahmadinejad. A bargain implies two partners capable of reaching and implementing an agreement.

So we may have the worst of all possible worlds--no desire to carry out military action, and no partner with whom to negotiate seriously. So not a "binary choice" as Steve Clemons put it, but no choice at all.

I have read the interview.

If by "doing business" is meant accomodation of each other's kitsch; no clearly that cannot be done. Ahmadinejad is saying what hundreds of millions of Muslims think. Probably four out of five Muslim statesman agrees with him in private as well. The interviewer's comments indicate the depth by which "West" has lost Mulsims. Americans and Westerners are also too attached to their sacred cows; they cannot even admit that the man might have a point.

On the other hand, if by "doing business" is meant accomodation of each other's power interests; that can be done.

The interviewer clearly does not understand the extend of the Iranian achievement: Iran has not lacked for anything to build a nuclear bomb for several years; that skill has gone native. The Uranium enrichment issue, in my opinion, is a red herring. An undetectable zero-output heavy water nuclear pile in small warehouse could be used to produce plutonium.

For the near future, US will most likely pursue containment and deterrence and so will Iran.

But I am not sure if other state actors will be happy with that arrangement but they can live with it.

For most state actors, detente between Iran & US is quite desirable and they would support it. But the current governments in Washington, Tehran, London, Paris, and Berlin are incapable of achieving that.

We have to wait for new governments everywhere. So keep the process moving and avoid a war until then.
One problem in the discssion on Iran is that people think they can bypass Ahmadinejad as part of the solution. Americans appeal to a vague sense of the Iranian "people"; Russians expect that at some point the Supreme Leader will put Rafsanjani or some other practical politician back in charge. But the reality is you have to deal or not to deal with Ahmadinejad now.
Anonymous 7:07 and 7:27,

Is Ahmadinejad actually in the Iranian chain of command? The whole question of whether we need to deal with him is different if he is not the hand on the nuclear trigger.

If he will be in charge of any nuclear weapons that Iran builds, then his suitability for that role is very much an issue. Every other country with nuclear weapons has been very careful about who they allow to control them.

However, the problem for us of a nuclear Iran is really not the quality of their command and control (although that is not an unimportant concern). It is whether in a larger sense the regime can be trusted politically with nuclear weapons. We may be unable to do anything about Iran at a low cost if the choices we think we have are in fact the only choices we have. But if US leaders agree that we must either acquiesce or go to war if diplomacy fails, it doesn't appear that the White House has ruled out going to war.

If Iran's president is thought to be mad and if he controls his country's nuclear trigger, that can only sharpen the determination of US leaders to confront Iran whatever the cost.
david billington:

I disagree becuase:

1- Iran has not withdrawn from NPT
2- Iran has not built a nuclear bomb
3- Ahmadinejad may or may not win the presidency of Iran for a second time.
4- Ahmadinejad is not Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Forces; the Supreme Jurisprudent, Khamenei, is constitutionally entrusted with that office.
Anonymous 11:09,

Regarding your first two points, the problem for American leaders is not what Iran has or has not done in an open or declared way but what its government has failed to declare in the past and might do in the future with a nuclear weapons capability.

Iran has not formally withdrawn from the NPT but they did not declare all of their nuclear activity as required under the treaty and the IAEA continues to express concerns that Iran is not in full compliance.

Regarding your third point, I agree. On your fourth point, if that means Ahmadinejad has no role in the chain of command, then you have answered my question about his particular role.
Anonymous 11:09 again,

I think you may have misinterpreted my next to last post. What I intended in my post was to identify what I think is the concern in the White House and how worries over the intentions of Iranian leaders (as stated by Amadinejad and others) may shape how US leaders assess the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

I did not mean to endorse any particular assessment of Iran's intentions, although I have my worries. My real concern is how we got into this dilemma. It is a very serious matter to face the choice of war with Iran or further nuclear proliferation if diplomacy fails. It may be time to call into question some of the deeper assumptions about the present world order that have brought us to this point.
david billington:

Whether Iran has been in breach of its obligations under NPT or not is debatable. The finding of non-compliance is reached through the (rotataing) board of governors of IAEA. Like every other board, its findings can be politicized (as they have been, in my opinion, in case of Iran). This has to be contrasted with the SALT I and II treaties in which there were specific provisons for dealing with "cheating"; there was a group appointed by each side of equal numbers to investigate claims of non-compliance etc. NPT does not have these sort of proisions.

US, over time, had narrowed its differences with Iran to the nuclear field. Unfortunately, from my point of view, US started with a maximalist position (no nuclear any thing in Iran) which was clearly un-achievable. Over time, her position has more and more shifted to accept more and more nuclear technology in Iran.

Moreover, US has destroyed her diplomatic position in Iran by despising the 2003 Iranian trial baloon.

Iran shoud have withdrawn from NPT in 1998 after India and Pakistan exploded their bombs. Iranian leaders were stupid and did not do so. Now it is too late.

US can destroy NPT by attacking Iran or come to an agreement with Iran to not produce nuclear weapons. Perkovich had some useful ideas back in 2005 that were ignored by USG. But the power to undo nuclear Iran does not exist.

Iran is a proud and resourceful country. They do not have much use for UN. If the leaders of Iran decide to build a bomb because they believe it to be in the interests of their country then they cannot be stopped. Currently the same leaders have made too many promises to NAM, China, Russia, Japan, Arab League, EU states to break out of NPT. With a US attack all bets are off.

On the other hand, the intentions of the Iranian leaders has changed over time, first they wantd to kick US influence out, then they were willing to accomodate it, and now they are preparing for the possible confrontation.

The problem with American leaders is that they want America to be the hegemon of the Persian Gulf and the Levant where the local population despises US and Iran and Syria oppose US strategies. US, I am afraid, will go to extraordinay lengths to maintain this hegemony. I believe it is foolish to follow this course but I also think that this has become an emotional article of faith among certain plocy circles in US.

So, while I would not expect an attack by US on Iran, I cannot rule out folly either. It would be a disater for US and quite painful for Iran; but at the end of the day, US will leave and come home and Russia, China, and others will pick up Iran on the cheap.
I've read the article, and I respect the man being interviewed, and I won't throw his conclusions out the window. But, frankly, I think a clinical look at the larger situation minimizes the significance of the information.

What you could say is this: Ahmenedidjad is not at this time interested in neogtiating with the US over its nuclear program. There won't be a grand bargain that involves the end of Iran's nuclear program, not one reached in the next couple of months, anyway.

As Greenberg said himself, Ahmenedidjad is not crazy. He's clearly making calculations and employing a strategy. And I agree with the first poster here - he is throwing a frame of Arab thinking into our faces, regarding Israel. It's clear that Iran's government resents Israel's existence. He knows the Holocaust happened - he is exploiting the West's elevation of the event to a quasi-religious level of sensitivity. I don't know why he's so interested in pissing us off, except perhaps that he considers an attack on Iran by the US to be a benefit to his regime.

But so what? For the first two decades of Israel's existence, every state in the region resented Israel's existence. It's the natural state of a pair of enemy states to resent the other's existence. India and Pakistan have considered the other illegitimate states for most of their respective histories - and yet, they're still alive. With a nuclear balance of power, they're actually closer to mutual resignation now than in prior years.

The bottom line is that Iran's nuclear "threat" doesn't give them any more power, and actually quite a lot less, power than the USSR, or Communist China, whose leaders were genuninely crazy, and ruled much stronger countries, at the time. The Chinese and the Russians could also have given their suitcase nukes to terrorist groups to plant in the US, and they didn't. The reason is because they wanted to live. If Iran's regime wanted to commit suicide, they don't need nuclear weapons to do it. They could just conventionally invade Iraq right now.
Jordan W.

"I don't know why he's so interested in pissing us off"


1- The issue is central to Muslim people; therefore he has cucceeded in wrapping himself in the mantle of Islam

2- Attack on Iran is now attack on Islam, thus raising the cost of such an attack

3- He is vain (like many people from that part of the world)
Thanks largely the Bush government incomptence, hubris, and FAILED policies in Iraq, - Iran is emerging as the new power center in the ME, - and right or wrong, just, or not, evil, or not - Iran is working in every way possible to undermine and counter American hegemony.

Tragically - America has absolutely zero credibility, far fewer real allies, and many millions more enemies, - and with good reason.

Until we change our leadership here in the land of OZ and return to a nation that leads instead of dictates, - our future will be more staying the course in the socalled neverendingwaronterror, engorging the offsheet accounts of fascist warmongers and profiteers in, or beholden to the Bush government, and a world seething with division, conflict, and vehement hatred of America.

Deliver us from evil
Frankly, I read nothing in the interview that helped me one bit in deciding whether negotiations with Iran would be productive or not.

I did hear once again that Ahmadinejad has deplorable views on the Holocaust. Indeed. He's one of numerous global leaders who have deplorable views on some question or other. I fail to see what that has to do with the question of whether or not he is willing to deal away concessions on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for considerations that would be of great benefit to his country.

I can understand the sentiment of not wanting to give Ahmadinejad too prominent a forum. He is a populist windbag who loves the stage, and takes every chance he can to lay out his "vision". But that's something that could be used to our advantage. Ahmadinejad strikes me as a guy who doesn't know when to shut up. Give him enough microphone, and he'll electrocute himself. And there are lots of other sources of power in Iran. Many of these people are intelligent, no-nonesense strategic thinkers who take a long view of their country's interests and what it will take to advance them. They also have a strong commitment to preserving and consolidating their 1979 revolution, and will do whatever it is they are persuaded will lead to the survival of the regime, including cutting a security deal. Ahmadinejad is their errand boy. I suggest we approach the matter of negotiations with Iran in such a way as to diminish Ahmadinejad's role, and bring others forward.

The presupposition of much of the debate about negotiations seems to be that unless we can be assured at the outset that the negotiations will produce our most desired result, it is not worth having them. I can't understand the defeatism behind this attitude. In a high-profile state-to-state negotiation, both sides have the opportunity to improve their diplomatic position, even if the negotiations prove fruitless. Why are the opponents of negotiations afraid the US would come out the loser? Wouldn't they provide a wonderful opportunity to turn a keener global eye toward Iran and some of its statements and positions, and change the current dynamic which is trending in Tehran's favor? After all, the US has a State Department full of experienced diplomatic hands. I would think most of these people would jump at the chance to get into a room with Iranian negotiators and outwit them.
Jordan W.,

I think Russia and China were essentially satiated powers; to the extent that there was craziness, it was a craziness directed inward at their own populations, not outward at perceived adversaries.

American leaders (and my sense is that the concern is bipartisan) are less sure that Iran would be satiated once Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, and if it is not, then even a very small nuclear arsenal could have quite unpredictable consequences. There is of course a range of opinion on this question and those in the US who want preventive war may be wrong about Iran's intentions. But those Americans in positions of responsibility right now seem to be undecided. Presumably they will decide one way or the other in the relatively near future.

I agree that where compromise is possible, diplomacy to reach it should be the priority of our government, and there have been a number of missed opportunities to reach agreement with Iran on matters other than its nuclear program. But it isn't clear to me whether you are arguing that nuclear weapons are also an issue on which compromise is possible.

The Iranians want the capability to produce nuclear weapons (ie. a complete fuel cycle). Our position is that the present government of Iran should not have the ability to produce nuclear weapons. It is difficult for me to see how a compromise between these two positions is possible. The outcome of any negotiations, it seems to me, is that Iran will either get the ability to make nuclear weapons or it will not.

There is of course the separate question of whether we can actually prevent Iran from going fully nuclear and there is the further question of whether Iran would be different from any other nuclear state in how it conducts itself once it has such technology. If the starting point is that we cannot stop the present government of Iran from going nuclear, then our diplomatic position will have to be more accommodating.

But while there have been a number of mutually agreed delays, I don't see any Iranian willingness to compromise their right to possess the technology to make nuclear weapons. For that reason, I don't see what the United States could offer by way of compromise on the issue except to drop its opposition.
The Iranians want the capability to produce nuclear weapons (ie. a complete fuel cycle). Our position is that the present government of Iran should not have the ability to produce nuclear weapons. It is difficult for me to see how a compromise between these two positions is possible. The outcome of any negotiations, it seems to me, is that Iran will either get the ability to make nuclear weapons or it will not.


We can't know whether a deal with Iran is possible unless we know what their price is. And we can't know what their price is unless we negotiate with them.

We don't really know to what extent Iran is determined to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and to what extent they are just trying to protect their domestic energy program from US or Western attack. Iran does have very good reasons for wanting a domestic nuclear energy program. Production in their own oil sector is not rising as fast as its domestic demand; and petroleum is their most important cash export and a key to their security.

There are also good reasons for them to be somewhat resistant to inspections of about their program. Looking next door, they can see that the UNSCUM inspections in Iraq were infiltrated by western intelligence operatives, who were communicating what they learned directly to their own governments. Presumably this information was used during early stages of the Iraq War for targeting. If Iran does sincerely want a domestic energy program; and if they are convinced that the US will not tolerate a nuclear program in any form; then they have reason for care in providing details to the outside world. Iran's position is that they are being singled out for special attention, and are being asked to fulfill special requirements that go beyond their obligations under the NPT.

Even if Iran does want nuclear weapons capability, there are many other things Iran probably wants as well: They probably want the assets that were frozen by the US in 1979 unfrozen; they probably want normalized diplomatic relations; they probably want to meet their public's rising expectations with a trade relationship that will provide their people with Western consumer goods and access to the world's largest consumer market; they probably want a non-aggression commitment from the United States; they probably want the US to use its good offices to get a non-aggression commitment from the Israelis. My guess is that what they want primarilly is to be accepted as a legitimate nation whose regime isn't under permanent threat of being toppled or attacked. Now, Iran can't get all of the things it wants. So the question is which ones they want most, and which ones they are willing to give up in exchange for what they want most. I think it is very much worth exploring.

Now perhaps my interpretation of Iranian expectations is mistaken. It very well may be. My main point is that negotiations can be a good thing, even if you don't get a deal in the end. Suppose we sit down to deal with Iran, and we let it be known publicly that some of the items listed above were on the table, and that Iran refused to take them. Well, I think that would help our diplomatic position quite a bit. On the other hand we might get actually what we want.

If the aim is to prevent Iran from having the capability of building nuclear weapons you have to occupy that country. To do so, you have to kill 5 to 7 % of their population. That is a non-starter.

Iran, I am afraid, is no longer interested in a grand bargain. I suggest something like East-West detente between Iran and US that delimits each state's so-called red-lines and interests.

US cannot overthrow the Iranian government either by hook or by crook.

The reason we have imposed special requirements on Iran is that they failed to disclose all of their nuclear program before 2003. All NPT signatories accept the same risks that inspections will provide outsiders with access to what they are doing. That should only be a problem if a government wants to conceal aspects of its program. If Iran doesn't want inspection, it should leave the NPT.

Given its prior violation of NPT obligations, I see no reason why Iran shouldn't be the side obliged to make the first move toward compromise. If the government in Tehran has a price for limiting its nuclear program, it has had every opportunity to specify terms since 2003 and still has the opportunity to do so. The onus is on Iran to make the first move. Of course, Iran does not have to seek compromise, but then I see no reason why we should be faulted for not taking the initiative in seeking it.

In fact, America has signaled all along that it has no objection to a civilian nuclear program in Iran to meet that country's domestic energy needs. All we oppose is a complete fuel cycle. Russia has generously offered to reprocess Iran's fuel rods and has been turned down by Tehran. It is for Iran now to specify some arrangement that would give it a civilian but not a military nuclear program, if Tehran is in fact open to such a limitation.

The problem with our diplomacy is that we targeted Iran for regime change in early 2002 and since then we have been insisting that Tehran live up to its treaty obligations. We can't have both. The Axis of Evil speech does not justify Iran's prior NPT violations but it does require America to make a choice.

If Iran is open to compromise, it could propose terms that transfer reprocessing to another country and then demand that the United States retract its commitment to regime change as the price of this compromise. That would properly throw the ball in America's court.
david billington:

Iran is not going to abandon the nuclear fuel production and re-processing on the Iranian territory. Iran is already prepared for a US attack - and the Iranian leadership has already indicated its willingness to absorb that cost.

US is not interested in a grand bargain, small bargain, or any bargain with Iran. I do not see any evidence, whatsoever, for that. USG, in my opinion, is in denial regarding what can and cannot be done to stablize teh Levant, the Persian Gulf, and the Central & South Asian regions.

The US attack on Iran would be large and anticipated. It will be large because of the following:

1- Targeting data is unavailable; many potential targets have to be hit.

2- Since US has to pay the political costs of an attack on Iran any way, it will also take advantage of that to attack other military targets such as missile production facilities, armed forces barracks, etc.

But since the attack is large, its preparations will be noticed weeks in advance and the Iranian Government would be aware of it; no element of surprise here.

I think US thinking might be that Iran will not retaliate directly in Iraq; that will hram the friendly Iraqi government. By the same token, Iran will not retaliate in Afghanistan directly provided no attacks are launched from there.

However, I believe Iran will retaliate.
There is a report out today by Sam Gardiner in which he enumerates the reasons that he believes a US attack on Iran is in the works.
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