Tag: Iran

Washington’s Dead Policies Toward Pyongyang and Tehran

In the next week, the Obama administration could face its toughest test yet in handling Iran and North Korea’s quest for nuclear capabilities. If Washington continues to pursue the same sterile policies toward these distasteful regimes, little progress will be made. Diplomacy is still a workable option in each case, but the administration must seek to establish diplomatic relations with Tehran and Pyongyang, even though such a wise goal will be politically controversial..

North Korea seems to be on the brink of conducting a long-range missile test thinly disguised as a satellite launch. And according to the Associated Press, South Korean intelligence officials claim the North is preparing for a third nuclear test. The P5+1 talks with Iran are now set to begin April 14 in Istanbul, but tensions remain high.

The developments on the Korean peninsula are particularly worrisome, if unsurprising. They confirm that Washington’s policy of threatening the North Korean regime with stark international isolation if it does not abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program is increasingly an exercise in futility.  Most experts believe that Pyongyang already has enough fissile material for four to six weapons and may have already built two or three such weapons.  And the North Korean missile development effort has gone forward, despite periodic setbacks.  The effort to isolate Pyongyang has fallen far short of Washington’s goal—with China especially continuing to give Kim Jong-un’s government the food and energy aid that it needs to stay afloat.

U.S. policy toward Iran has not fared much better.  Despite getting the international community to impose ever tighter economic sanctions, Tehran’s nuclear program also seems to have made steady progress.  Indeed, the sanctions system is notable for its leakage.  Frustrated political leaders and pundits in the United States and Israel mutter darkly about resorting to military action to halt Tehran’s march toward a nuclear capability.  But the risks of waging a counter-proliferation war against Iran are obvious, worrisome, and potentially catastrophic.

The 19th century British statesman Lord Salisbury once observed that “the commonest error in politics is clinging to the carcasses of dead policies.”  The sad state of U.S. efforts to prevent Pyongyang and Tehran from joining the ranks of nuclear-weapons states is Exhibit “A” in support of Salisbury’s observation.  U.S. policy makers have doggedly pursued their attempts to isolate the two “rogue” regimes for decades—with almost no evidence of success.  Washington now faces the prospect of utterly bankrupt policies on both fronts.  Indeed, the United States risks ending up with the worst possible combination—the emergence of two new nuclear powers with whom Washington has no formal relations and unrelentingly hostile informal relations.  That combination is both futile and dangerous.

Wise statesmen learn to abandon obsolete or unworkable policies.  President Richard Nixon did so with his opening to China in 1972, and President Bill Clinton did so with his normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s.  The results have been clearly positive in both cases, even though the regimes in Beijing and Hanoi are still highly authoritarian and engage in some repulsive actions.

The Obama administration needs to show the same judgment and courage by making a sustained effort at the highest level to establish something at least resembling a normal relationship with Pyongyang and Tehran.  It is well past time to bury the rotting carcasses of Washington’s ineffectual policies toward those two governments.

Cross-posted from The Skeptics at the National Interest.

Give Talks with Iran a Chance

In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, my co-author Doug Bandow and I argue that Washington must engage Tehran in order to keep it from following the same course as Pyongyang—a nuclear regime ruling over a population anguishing under international sanctions.

Negotiating with Iranian leaders will not resolve the nuclear issue in the next few months. What’s needed is a process that encourages Tehran to make tactical concessions, such as persuading it to forestall uranium enrichment at higher levels and allowing for more intrusive inspections. Next month, when Turkey hosts talks between Iran and the “5+1 group”—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—American officials should move toward adopting a long-term policy that incorporates Iran into the community of nations. Diplomacy remains the best means of containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, diplomacy is unpopular with those who see war as the answer to most international problems.

But an attack is not in America’s national interest. Rather than promoting regime change or bringing hope and prosperity to the region, an attack will unify a divided country, likely lead to a regional conflagration, and potentially leave the global economy in turmoil. Moreover, an attack would be counterproductive. As those opposed to the prospect of military action have argued, bombing Iran is the fastest way to ensure that Iran gets a bomb.

The U.S. is willing to allow Iran to have civilian nuclear power, but not nuclear weapons. As Doug and I argue in our piece, “Virtually no one wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons. But war would almost certainly leave America worse off, and sanctions could well fail while punishing the Iranian people for no good reason.”

This Friday, the Cato Institute is hosting a half day conference to examine two main questions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program: What are the prospects for a diplomatic solution? And what are the options should diplomacy fail? Two excellent panels with diverse views, including the Skeptics’ own Justin Logan, will debate the topic. You can sign up here or watch it live here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Iranian Rhetoric: Heard and Unheard

Commentators who believe that Iran would nuke another nation unprovoked tend to infer the clerical regime’s future intentions from its hyper-inflated rhetoric. The problem with this logic is that statements from its leadership often get cherry-picked.

Anti-Israeli diatribes made by Iran’s fiery-tongued President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are typically taken at their word, while statements made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top leader, go virtually unnoticed. For example, last month Khamenei repeated his country’s vow not to seek nuclear weapons. He called their possession a “sin,” “useless,” and “dangerous.” Last Thursday, Khamenei reportedly praised President Obama’s recent comment that he saw a “window of opportunity” to use diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

If Iran’s rhetoric is as reflective of its intentions as some lead us to believe, then the Obama administration should applaud these rare and positive overtures.

Indeed, Meir Dagan, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency for eight years, last night on 60 Minutes declared, “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime.” When pressed to elaborate, he said, “No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.”

That assessment echoes the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, when he told Fareed Zakaria, “…[W]e are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.  And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”

The administration should be highlighting such statements publicly, especially to members of Congress in order to dampen their ever increasing pro-war hysteria.

Bombing Iran Risks Mission Creep

In an op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, my co-author Jonathan Owen and I argue that damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities from limited strikes would be modest, and likely require further strikes every few years or a long-term occupation on the ground. The better option at present is for the Obama administration to show restraint and continue to explore diplomatic options:

Unless Americans are willing to fight Iranians to the death — possibly every few years — Washington must stop polarizing the situation. Aggressive policies and rhetoric do not benefit our security.

Without demanding that Iran surrender on the issue of uranium enrichment, the U.S. — which accounts for almost half of the world’s military spending, wields one of the planet’s largest nuclear arsenals and can project its power around the globe — should lift sanctions, stop its belligerence and open a direct line of communication with Tehran.

The President has said repeatedly that “all options are on the table.” But contrary to popular belief, diplomacy with Iran is an option that has yet to be fully exhausted.

Left out in the final cut was the important point that if the United States was to go to war with Iran, U.S. soldiers will once again be asked to risk their lives by prosecuting a reckless war of choice against an enemy willing to accept high casualties. Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught policymakers that mission creep often drives seemingly easy and limited interventions toward prolonged wars of occupation and nation-building. Attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would risk a similar, unacceptable mission creep.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Would Haass and Levi Accept Their Own Proposed Deal?

One of the more exasperating phenomena surrounding the question of “diplomacy” with Iran is that many of the people proposing diplomatic offers have outlandish suggestions for the contours of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. The latest offering comes in today’s Wall Street Journal, courtesy of Richard Haass and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Before the criticism, though, a bit of praise: Haass and Levi concede at the outset that

Iran will not do away with its nuclear program, which is simply too extensive and enjoys too much political support among Iranians. No Iranian government could forfeit the “right to enrich” and survive.

This is a refreshing and welcome reality check for the foreign-policy fantasists in the United States Senate, whom Paul Pillar has rightly criticized [over at the National Interest].

Setting that aside, however, the Haass/Levi proposal is almost certain to fail. The essential dilemma of U.S.-Iran diplomacy is that anything our domestic politics permits will fail and anything that might not fail is impossible because of our domestic politics. (If pressed, I am enough of a realist to guess that even in a perfectly permissive domestic political environment any deal we could offer would not be accepted and adhered to by Iran, for the simple reason that they have little reason to trust us.) Robert Wright has a useful rundown on some of the domestic political constraints at the Atlantic.

But despite not demanding outlandish things like foregoing any enrichment or ending any ballistic missile programs, for all Haass and Levi’s recognition that either another Middle East war or a nuclear Iran would be a mess, they don’t propose a particularly irresistible set of enticements to Tehran. To wit:

the world should offer to dial back the most recent sanctions (including those not yet fully implemented) that target the Iranian oil and financial sectors. But no existing sanctions should be eased (or new sanctions delayed) as a reward for Iran’s agreeing to talk, lest negotiations prove to be nothing more than a tactic. And sanctions aimed at firms and individuals involved in illicit nuclear activities—particularly those associated with military efforts—would need to stay. So, too, would other sanctions prompted by Iranian violations of human rights, support for terrorism, and threats to regional security beyond its nuclear program.

It is definitely sensible to insist that sanctions on illicit nuclear activities should remain in place, but the rest of this seems certain to produce little more than a yawn and a backhanded wave from Tehran. The paragraph is a bit confusing, but it seems like the ultimate payoff here is that the recent financial and oil sanctions would be lifted if the diplomatic process produced fruit. The phasing-in question is important here—maybe the most important piece. And what Haass and Levi suggest that the United States, with a much stronger negotiating position than Iran, should offer up front isn’t clear. Given the constant threats against Iran, if I were sitting in Tehran, I wouldn’t view this as a deal worth taking. There’s reason to believe that Ehud Barak wouldn’t take it, either.

So perhaps it bears asking of Haass and Levi, as well as all advocates of diplomacy with Iran: If the situation were reversed, would you take the deal you’re suggesting the United States should offer?

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Tragedy of U.S. Iran Policy

The latest orchestrated frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program is reaching a crescendo. If the Obama administration were genuinely interested in increasing the prospects for a diplomatic resolution, it would be trying to lessen Iran’s perception of insecurity. Instead, every new policy initiative on Iran heightens that insecurity. Unless Iran responds to all of this in a way that few predict it will, each day brings us closer to another war in the Middle East.

Iran likely wants a nuclear option, if not a nuclear weapon, for a variety of reasons. The most important is security. The different treatment meted out to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea and Pakistan on the other taught Iran that the only sure way to avoid being attacked by the United States is to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Iran also probably seeks the international prestige of being at least an incipient nuclear state.

When Iran hears the constant threats emanating from Washington—the almost daily repetitions that a preventive war is “on the table,” attempts to strangle the Iranian economy, and legislation taking containment off the table—Tehran’s belief that the United States has aggressive intentions is confirmed. Iran knows that a nuclear capability wouldn’t provide it with power projection capability or allow it to dominate the Middle East. Rather, Iran would move from being a weak state with no deterrent to a weak state with a small deterrent. Tragically, the main reason America and Israel are so frantic about the Iranian nuclear program is that neither country wishes to allow itself to be deterred by Iran. In an election year, all of the political pressure on the administration is going to push the administration to make the problem worse, not better.