Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Now On to Iran

Spoke this evening at a panel hosted by the America's Future Foundation on the theme, "Iran: Clear Problem, Unclear Solution."

I can propose all sorts of policy solutions, but the real issue is for the United States to assess the risks it wants to bear, the costs it is willing to pay and the outcomes it is prepared to live with. Too often, policy toward Iran is compartmentalized in a box away from the rest of the world--and we seem unprepared to acknowledge that Iran has to be fitted into a larger set of priorities.

Russian, Chinese and even some Europeans I've spoken with express amazement that the U.S. rhetorically claims Iran is the biggest threat facing the United States, yet Iran does not seem to be an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. We still treat energy independence as some sort of domestic policy matter separate from foreign policy. What is our end game for Iran--no nuclear program or change of regime? What costs are we prepared to pay. Sens. McCain, Clinton and others say Iran must not acquire a nuclear capability. Are they asking Americans to pay $6 at the pump to realize this?

I don't see a serious conversation about Iran policy coming anytime soon. I think that we will continue to react to what Iran does rather than be proactive; and I don't see us prepared to make the Hobson's choice about scaling back our goals in return for a substantial international effort versus unilateral action (and paying the cost) to pursue our specific agenda.

I think you are framing the issue incorrectly.

Iran is not a problem to be solved.

US really cannot do much about Iran that will make a substantial difference to the evolution or orientation of the Iranian state and polity.

Iran has to solve its internal problems frst.

The real policy of US, just like in North Korea, is or should be this: "Do nothing!"

A limited war against Iran will make no difference (Iran will absorb the damage and will retaliate) and detente will take years to develop and workout.

I am not going to comment on the neo-conservative fantasies here.
Nick--heard you tonight at the AFF event. You put good questions on the table but as the moderator said didn't really put your own opinion out there as to what to do about Iran? Care to venture an answer?
Why would we have a serious conversation about this issue? Why break with form?

Iran is probably 6 - 15 years behind where North Korea is. All DPRK has to worry about is more speechifying.
I liked the Scowcroft Initiative and my best case scenario given what the U.S. taxpayers are prepared to endorse is to move to a concert of powers approach, also in line with Etzioni's vision of a Global Security Agency. Worst case scenario is strong deterrence with clear sticks and clear red lines.
You guys live in a dream world of US supremacy and consort of powers.

Really, if USG were smart it would follow up on some of the ideas of Takyeh, Odom, and Perkovich vis a vis Iran. In that manner, US and her EU allies might have had a chance in getting Iran to positvely deal with Western interest in the Near East.

The polciy of carrots and sticks is a road to nowhere. Iran lost 300,000 people to chemical weapons. She fought an 8-year war against Iraq, the Arab League (minus Syria), US, and EU. Iran cannot be frightened.

Furthermore, to cause the undconditional surrender of Iran requires killing 5 to 7 % of the Iranian population. This is an aim that is not achievable without using strategic weapons. Any other sort of approach (sanctions, deterrence, etc.) is not going to cause that state to change its behavior.

Mr. Khamenei (a victim of a terrorist bombing) and Mr. Ahmadinejad (a comabt war veteran) cannot be intimadated or frightened.

Accept Iran the way she is or leave her alone (India, China, Russia and others accept her the way she is).

I don't think what anyone has said here is a proposal of military action to prevent a nuclear Iran.

If I understand his point, Nikolas Gvosdev is saying that we should make an effort to dissuade Iran from going nuclear but not to the point of taking military action. The merits of non-military measures can certainly be debated. But if the West has a fallback position, the implication is that Iran will not be impeded from going nuclear if it is determined to do so.

If Iran tests a nuclear device, the United States could adopt a policy of deterrence, with military action conceivable only if certain additional lines are crossed. That is essentially the position we took toward Russia during the Cold War.
David Billington:

My point is precisely this: that military intervention is not an option: 1) Not enough soldiers to invade and hold Iran, 2) Unwillingness to use nuclear weapons to crush Iranian resistance, 3)Ineffectiveness of Air Power to achieve the strategic objective of making Iran more amenable to Western interest in the Near East.

US & EU have no negative options to coerce or compel Iran strategically. They have picked up a fight that they cannot win.

Thus, it follows that the carrots is all that they have got left to affect a change in the strategic thinking of the Iranian leaders.

Sanctions and limited air strikes are tactical choices whose time is past in this case.

Again: Either accept Iran the way it is and normalize the relationship or follow a policy of benign neglect.

This is the same binary choice that Israel rejected in regards to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to her own detriment.
Anonymous 11:10,

Ceteris paribus, your assessment is almost certainly correct, although I don't think full normalization of relations between the United States and the present regime in Iran is either necessary or likely as an alternative to confrontation. A gray area seems to me more likely.

But the problem is not what great powers outside the region can or cannot do. It is what will happen in the region itself if Iran goes nuclear. The major Arab countries have signaled their intention to go nuclear if iran does so, and if Iran does not retract its threatening statements about Israel soon, the Israelis may take military action on their own. If your option (3) is not practical, option (2) would be the only one left to Israel if its leaders see their country's annihilation as the likely result of a nuclear Iran.

I think matters ought to be prevented from reaching this point. What I would agree is that an approach that tries to remove the nuclear threat piecemeal, by disarming this or that particular country, will not succeed in the long run. We need a new global regime that applies to all nuclear and world-be nuclear states and that does not just ratify the nuclear status quo.
David Billington:

Israel does not have the capacity to hurt Iran even tactically (US does). All Israel will achieve by attacking Iran is to make the Iranian mad - but then again Israel is an undeclared war against Islam - so it might make some sense for her to continue her policy of escalating to no-where.

Full normalization of relations, as you suggest, will have to wait for different governments - both in US and in Iran. But substantial changes to the character of the Iranian regime and state are certainly years in the future - perhaps decades.

I agree with you that the present NPT needs to be modified but I am not sure that the great powers are interested in it. To my knowledge, UK is the only state that has even considered dismantling of its nuclear forces. US & Russia do not seem to be even remotely interested.

While you point out to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I would point out to Australia and Brazil.

From a military point of view it makes sense of Australia to develop tactical nuclear weapons against invasion by more populous Northern states - they have the uranium mines and the know-how. I do not see how their security can be guaranteed otherwise.

Brazil, on theother hand, is a potential US (strategic ?) competitor in the Western Hemisphere (with a military initiated nuclear program.)

Which brings me back to USG's non-proliferation policies: Fantasy. Land.

Israel is believed to have 100-300 nuclear warheads in the 00-000 kiloton range. I would think these could do more than just tactical damage to Iran.

An escalation of tension in the Middle East could trigger a much larger conflict and more imaginative diplomacy is needed right now to avert such a disaster. Nonproliferation that preserves the existing nuclear club is not sustainable in the long run and we need to envision a comprehensively new world system to replace it.
David Billington:

If the State of Israel ever uses nuclear weapons it will be its last act as a sovereign state.

I agree with you that more imaginative diplomacy will be useful.

In case of the Near East that diplomacy must include the verifiable dismantling of the nuclear capacity of Israel.
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