Tag: Iran

Could the U.S. Stop Israel from Bombing Iran?

Last night, Chris Matthews presided over an odd, staccato interview with AEI’s Michael Rubin and Time magazine’s Bob Baer that was enough to make one feel sorry for the interviewees.  Matthews was wildly whipping questions at Rubin and Baer, but they both did an admirable job returning Matthews’ volleys.

One interesting topic that came up was whether the Obama administration should discourage Israel from attacking Iran.  Rubin and Baer agreed that at this point an Israeli attack would be unhelpful and should be discouraged, but Baer noted that our ability to prevent such an attack is “zero.”  They agreed that the likelihood of an Israeli strike in the next year was “greater than 50-50” and Rubin suggested that the Israeli timeline for an attack was “months if not weeks.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski recently broached the subject of Israeli overflight of Iraqi airspace in an unfortunately provocative manner, telling the Daily Beast that the United States ought to make clear to the Israelis that there was a real danger of “a Liberty in reverse,” meaning the prospect that Israeli aircraft overflying Iraq may find themselves under fire from the United States, the de facto owners of Iraqi airspace.  (The Iraqi government that we have helped obtain power almost certainly would be under great pressure to respond militarily to Israeli overflight.)  Neoconservatives predictably pounced on this framing.

Readers interested in the technical questions surrounding a potential Israeli strike can find an optimistic assessment here. [.pdf] But this larger issue of whether the United States could stop Israel from doing something contrary to American interests reminded me of this passage George Kennan wrote about U.S. involvement in the Middle East more generally in 1977.  In The Cloud of Danger, Kennan called on U.S. policymakers to

kennanbring about an early clarification–not just vis-a-vis the Israelis themselves but also vis-a-vis the Arabs–of the limits of our responsibility for Israeli policy.  We have allowed the impression to become established throughout the entire region that we have it in our power to make the Israelis do almost anything we want, and that this being the case, we are really responsible for Israeli policy.  This assumption is reflected in a host of Arab statements.  It is, of course, wholly incorrect.  Not only can we not dictate to the Israelis, who are very well aware of the strength of their bargaining power vis-a-vis us, but it is a real question whether we ought to do it even if we could.  (More about that in a moment.)

[…]

[W]e have allowed ourselves to be maneuvered into a position where each of the two parties believes it can use us for its own ends, where each has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party.  Seldom, surely, can a great power have got itself into a more unsound and unnecessary position.

I stand firmly with [George] Ball on the need for an attempt to reach an understanding with the Soviet Union with relation to the larger problems of the region, but not on the details of a possible Arab-Israeli settlement.  That, it seems to me, should be left for direct negotiation between Israel and her Arab neighbors.  Our own role should be confined to assuring that the Israelis are strong enough militarily so that the idea of crushing them by force of arms does not offer promising prospects to anybody, and so that they have an adequate measure of bargaining power in any negotiations on these subjects they may enter into.  But we should not try to tell them, or the Arabs, what the terms of a settlement should be.  It is they, after all, not we, who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved.  Many of us can think, I am sure, of concessions which, in our personal opinion, it would be wise for the Israelis to make; but for the United States government to take the responsibility of urging them to make such concessions is quite another matter.  There are many who would think, for example, that it would be wise for them to give up the Golan Heights.  They may of course be right.  But how can we be sure?  What would our responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?

A couple of thoughts.  First, obviously the repeated references to “the Arabs” reflect the book’s authorship pre-1979.  Second, Kennan is clearly uncomfortable with a situation in which a foreign country, fairly pursuing what it perceives to be its own interests, can pull America along for the ride.  (This is a mainstream position in U.S. views of Israel today: the idea that the United States should write Israel a blank check and allow that country to do what it may, with lockstep American support.)  Third, and I think most interesting, is Kennan’s discomfort at the prospect of directing Israel’s foreign policy ourselves.  (This is an increasingly mainstream position in the foreign-policy debate today, where U.S. analysts decide that they can perceive Israeli interests better than the Israelis can, so we should intervene and pressure them to act as we think they should.)

Kennan recognized that the Israelis, unlike the United States, live in a rough neighborhood and that they simply have different national interests than we do.  But the idea that we ought to demand various concessions from the Israelis, or attempt to dictate their foreign policy to them, appears to have horrified Kennan.  Decisions about Israeli security could have serious consequences for the people who live there, and for Kennan this seems to have been a strong argument for putting the weight of costs and benefits squarely on the shoulders of the Israelis themselves, beyond the (unlikely, even in 1977) prospect of Israel being militarily overrun.

To listen to the Matthews-Baer-Rubin discussion today, the Israelis are preparing to do something contrary to U.S. national interests about which we can do nothing.  As Kennan wrote, “Seldom, surely, can a great power have got itself into a more unsound and unnecessary position.”

Limited Options in Dealing with Iran

IranThe revelation last week of a second secret Iranian nuclear facility, and Iran’s test firings over the weekend of its short and medium range missiles, bring a new sense of urgency to the long-scheduled talks between Iran and the P-5 + 1 beginning on Thursday in Geneva. Many in Washington hope that a new round of tough sanctions, supported by all of the major powers including Russia and China, might finally convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program.

Such hopes are naive.

Even multilateral sanctions have an uneven track record, at best. It is difficult to convince a regime to reverse itself when a very high-profile initiative hangs in the balance, and Iran’s nuclear program clearly qualifies. It is particularly unrealistic given that the many years of economic and diplomatic pressure exerted on Tehran by the U.S. government have only in emboldened the regime and marginalized reformers and democracy advocates, who are cast by the regime as lackeys of the United States and the West.

But whereas sanctions are likely to fail, war with Iran would be even worse. As Secretary Gates admitted on Sunday, air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would merely degrade and perhaps delay, not eliminate, Iran’s program. Such attacks would inevitably result in civilian casualties, allowing Ahmadinejad to rally public support for his weak regime. What’s more, the likelihood of escalation following a military attack – which could take the form of asymmetric attacks in the Persian Gulf region, and terrorism worldwide – is not a risk worth taking.

The Iranian government must be convinced that it does not need nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the regime. It is likely to push for an indigenous nuclear-enrichment program for matters of national pride, as well as national interest.

The Obama administration should therefore offer to end Washington’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, and should end all efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iran’s pledge to forswear a nuclear weapons program, and to allow free and unfettered access to international inspectors to ensure that its peaceful nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.

While such an offer might ultimately be rejected by the Iranians, revealing their intentions, it is a realistic option, superior to both feckless economic pressure and stalemate, or war, with all of its horrible ramifications.

Wednesday Links

Tuesday Links

  • Is the president’s speech part of a sinister plan to create a socialist Obama Youth movement? Hardly. However, let us not forget that our Constitution’s framers thought schooling was too important to be left to a federal government.
  • The Supreme Court will rule Wednesday on whether the government can ban political speech during election time. Here’s the back story.
  • Podcast: The real problem with Obama’s speech to schoolchildren.

Iran’s Stalinesque Show Trials

Stalinism was dropped even by the Soviet Union when the murderous Joseph Stalin died, but it has never disappeared completely.  North Korea, for instance, mimics the bizarre personality cult promoted by the Soviet dictator.

Now Iran appears to be adopting the Stalinesque tactic of staging show trials, with “confessions” from the obviously brutalized accused.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

On Sunday, reaction by Iranian newspapers and Web sites to the trials of some 100 detained opposition members, including a former vice president, was polarized as some raised questions about whether their confessions were coerced.

The trial by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court appears to be paving the way for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to secure his grip on power and cap a gradual takeover of Iran’s political landscape by hardliners. Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose government claimed victory in the disputed June 12 presidential elections, is to be inaugurated Monday for a second four-year term. Opposition leaders said the election was rigged.

Top reformist figures appeared in court Saturday looking disheveled and dazed. They sat in the front row wearing gray prison pajamas and plastic slippers without socks, in an apparent attempt to humiliate them in public. The reform leaders were unshaven and had lost weight.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former vice president to former President Mohamad Khatami, appeared without his robe and turban. Mr. Abtahi, who should legally be tried at the special tribunal for clerics, clutched a piece of paper and took the stand to give an elaborate confession. He said that reform leaders had been plotting for years to take over the government and had vowed to stick together.

By putting its outrageous repression forward front and center, the regime–fronted if not controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–has delivered its own affirmative answer to the question whether the recent ballot was stolen.   Although the regime has sufficient coercive force to remain in power at the present, it has sacrificed any remaining legitimacy at home as well as abroad.  The oligarchy led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to have an ever more difficult time fending off challenges within the governing elite as well as among the people.

Americans should wish the forces of liberty and democracy well.  There is little that the U.S. government, with an unsavory record of supporting repression in Iran, can do, other than ensure that Washington does not divert attention from the responsibility of the Tehran regime for the many problems facing the Iranian people.  But people around the nation and world can help publicize the struggle in Iran and provide Iranians with the tools of freedom, including freer access to the Internet.  The Iranian struggle against tyranny is one with which all lovers of liberty should identify.

Continuing Erosion of the Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy

The gravest threat to the survival of the repressive regime in Tehran may be the continuing attacks on its perceived legitimacy.  Part of the factional infighting undoubtedly reflects a simple power struggle.  However, religious principles also appear to be at stake.  A number of Muslim clerics are denouncing the authorities for their misbehavior.

For instance, Iranian cleric and blogger Mohsen Kadivar recently applied several Islamic principles to the Iranian government:

The fourth question concerns attempts by some to cite the protection of the Islamic state to justify suppressing people’s efforts to defend their own rights.

The response is that an Islamic state cannot be protected through violence.

The fifth question is about what Shari’a law says are the signs of suppressive guardianship.

The response is that a leader who fails to respect Shari’a law, promotes violence, and rejects the public’s demands is a clear sign of oppressive guardianship and that leader is oppressive. The recognition of those signs is the responsibility, firstly, of Islamic jurists (experts in religious law) and, secondly, of ordinary people.

His words alone will not topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those behind and around him.  But as the regime’s moral foundation further erodes, the long-term possibility of significant changes in Tehran grows.

Americans should cheer for the advance of liberty in Iran.  But the U.S. government, with precious little credibility for promoting democracy in Iran, needs to stay far away.  The last thing Iranian human rights advocates need is for their struggle to become a contest between the Iranian and American governments instead of the Iranian government and Iranian people.

Biden’s Situational Sovereignty

Vice President Biden was on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos yesterday talking about Israel bombing Iran:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

The vice president made this point three times.

I suppose it would have been tangential to point out that Biden’s view of sovereignty has not always been so robust. Or that he is effectively renouncing the international laws of war, which dictate what self-defense allows.  But Stephanopoulos might have at least acknowledged the irony of this particular exchange. Iran, the country being bombed in his question, is also a sovereign nation. Biden’s needlessly universal principle – U.S. deference in the face of a sovereign nation’s determination that it is in danger – would protect its right to build nuclear weapons. 

Biden is being overly broad to obscure the fact that he’s granting Israel special rights, of course. But it’s still worth pointing out that it’s a bad principle, if “not dictating” means never saying “bad idea.” When considering war, the opinions of other nations are generally worth knowing. Some of our European friends argued in 2002 that invading Iraq would not enhance our security, after all. Useful advice! Offering our opinions is perfectly consistent with a policy of military restraint.

The problem here goes beyond the principle though. We give Israel all sorts of aid. The F-16s and F-15s carrying out the bulk of the attack would be U.S.-made. They might pass through Iraqi airspace that the U.S. effectively controls. Historical U.S. support for Israel means that people around the world reasonably hold Americans responsible for what Israel does to Iran. Sooner or later, probably sooner, an Israeli attack on Iran would be likely to produce blowback, diplomatic or otherwise, that would damage us. Given that, our position should be that attacks on Iran are unacceptable, and would cost Israel our support.

For analysis on Israel’s ability to disable Iran’s nuclear programs, read Whitney Raas and Austin’s Long’s work.