Tag: Iran

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.

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

[N]ew threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia…

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

[A]t least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia—a nation that is now a Western ally—an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

War Vets and the New Hampshire Primary

Like many Americans, a growing number of post-9/11 veterans care more about protecting and defending the United States and less about transforming failed states, democratizing the Middle East, protecting wealthy allies, and sacrificing more American lives in the name of global hegemony.

Last Friday, ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, Gwen Ifill of the PBS Newshour interviewed five Granite State Republicans and independents about their views on the Republican presidential field. In alluding to the divergence between keeping America safe and fighting wars indefinitely in the war on terror, New Hampshire voter and Iraq war veteran Joshua Holmes told Ifill:

HOLMES: …We haven’t defined what it is that is going to satisfy basically victory in the global war on terror. And until we define victory, until we develop a plan to achieve that victory and then to end the war, soldiers are going to continue to die.

IFILL: And who [of the candidates] do you think has got a plan?

HOLMES: I think that Dr. Paul is the first person, the only person now that Gary Johnson is out of the race. All of the other candidates are planning on continuing the global war on terror without any objectives.

(Presidential contender Jon Huntsman also favors more limited and concrete counterterrorism objectives as well as reducing the active-duty Army and closing 50 overseas bases.) Moments later in her interview, Ifill circled back to Holmes and asked him why he thought Paul was doing better this year compared to four years ago, in terms of more attention, more support, and more money. He replied:

Well, simply, the things that he was talking about four years ago have - they’ve manifested. I mean, he predicted the financial meltdown back in 2001 and warned about it for almost a decade before it happened.

He warned about the consequences of the Iraq war, especially the long-term consequences. And now we’re actually seeing those consequences. And that opens people’s minds to the idea that this guy, who did warn us, might have the solutions.

Mr. Holmes is not alone, particularly on the subject of war. One in three veterans of the post-9/11 military believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. A majority, according to the Pew Research Center, think America should be focusing less on foreign affairs and more on its own problems.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates, however, seem all too willing to surrender more American treasure and possibly more American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for preemptive strikes against Iran. Republicans would do best to appreciate the critics of intervention, a growing number of whom now reside within the post-9/11 military.

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.

Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble.  Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

Cross-posted from the the Skeptics at the National Interest.