Tag: Iran

The Libertarian Take on Iran

In this video, David Boaz makes an excellent case for tamping down our overblown perception of Iran.

In the clip, Boaz argues persuasively that far from being suicidal, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance its interests in the region. Thus, rather than assessing Iran based on their leaders’ repulsive and provocative rhetoric, U.S. officials should deduce future Iranian intentions based on how it has reacted when confronted with overwhelming force. While no one can predict the future, regional experts—not hawkish, misinformed policy analysts or neo-conservative ideologues who advocate regime change—insist that the clerical regime has valued self-preservation and in the future can be deterred.

My colleague, Justin Logan, argues here that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails. Of course, the problem is that those who endorse a tougher approach toward Iran insist that we have tried diplomacy before. That is not true. Washington typically offers halfhearted gestures and then falsely concludes that diplomacy does not work. Americans must reject the alarmist rhetoric and tortured rationales that have thus far proved counterproductive for arriving at a long-term solution toward Iran.

Exiled Iranian Journalist Awarded $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and journalist who spent six years in a Tehran prison for advocating a secular democracy and exposing government involvement in the assassination of individuals who opposed Iran’s theocratic regime, has been named the 2010 winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.

Ganji may be best known for a 1999 series of articles investigating the Chain Murders of Iran, which left five dissident intellectuals dead. Later published in the book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, his articles tied the killings to senior clerics and other officials in the Iran government, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ganji was arrested for spreading propaganda against the Islamic system and “damaging national security.” He was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

Ganji was released from prison in March of 2006 and left Iran shortly thereafter. Many countries around the world offered him honorary citizenship, and he traveled extensively, giving talks promoting democracy in Iran and exposing major human rights abuses by the Iranian government. Despite his battle with Iran’s theocracy, Ganji remains steadfastly opposed to military action by the United States in both Iran and Iraq, saying “you cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it.”

Established in 2002 and presented every two years, the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty is the leading international award for significant contributions to advancing individual liberty.

The Friedman Prize biennial dinner and award presentation will be held at the Hilton Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C, on May 13, 2010. Reserve your table now to attend.

Does Promising Iran Material Benefits Make a Nuke Deal Less Likely?

I regret not remembering where I found this and therefore not being able to thank the source for the link, but Scientific American writes about research on “sacred values” and negotiations.  Describing “sacred values,” SciAm writes that when an object becomes sacred, it “becomes worthy of boundless reverence, commitment, and protection. As diverse as people are in ascribing sacred status to possessions, they are equally varied in which values they consider sacred, a diversity that can breed substantial conflict. The abortion debate, for example, often presents a divide between those who consider woman’s ‘right to choose’ sacred versus those who consider a fetus’ ‘right to life’ sacred.”

But the potentially important part for international politics is that

When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular…they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange. What’s more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money. People consider trading sacred values for money so morally reprehensible that they recoil at such proposals.

If right, this is obviously an important challenge to those of us who have proposed offering Iran a grab-bag of goodies in exchange for opening its nuclear program to invasive international inspections.  I haven’t read the study the article is drawn from very carefully, but I have a few immediate doubts.

  1. The authors’ discussion of the “sacredness” of the Iranian nuclear program is pretty nebulous.  They reference how “the nuclear dispute is essentially framed as an ongoing resistance with deep historical context.”  They talk about how Iran asserts its “inalienable rights” and how it pledges it “will not retreat one iota.”  But lots of disputes are couched in these sorts of terms.  Are they all over “sacred values”?
  2. They code respondents as holding Iran’s nuclear program as a sacred value if they select the statement that Iran shouldn’t give up its nuclear program “no matter how great the benefits are.”  Isn’t it possible that the respondents see the United States as untrustworthy and fear that their country will get tricked into accepting a deal that can be easily broken?  That there are no benefits that are great enough to offset an indigenous, autonomous nuclear capability?
  3. Most importantly, if the authors are right, we’re probably in big trouble.  They write that “in conflicts involving sacred values, symbolic compromises which may lack any material benefits, such as apologies for past disrespects, may be key to solving the issue.”  My sense is that the Right in America has been winding up American nationalism so high that the Obama people are in no mood to confront it head on.  From lapel pins to “apology tours,” to claims that Obama may be an “alien” and therefore an inherently illegitimate president, to claims that he doesn’t recognize that al Qaeda is an Enemy, to the Nobel prize, and on and on, apologizing to Iran probably isn’t something the administration is particularly keen on.  So if apologizing to Iran for something or other is the key to solving the nuclear puzzle, get ready for trouble.

Monday Links

The Hopelessly Stupid Politics of the Iran NIE

The Washington policy establishment is now pulsing with excitement over news that the intelligence community (IC) is revising its 2007 statement that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” and that this halt “lasted at least several years.”

Funny story: The day the NIE came out, Ted Carpenter and I were arriving in Los Angeles to give at talk at the LA World Affairs Council on Iran.  Immediately on our deplaning, the questions started coming: “What do you think about the NIE?  How does this change things?”  “What NIE?” I asked.

So amid our last minute preparations for the talk, I was scrambling to get hold of a copy, but being the Luddite I am, I couldn’t manage to get my computer to work, or to get the .pdf to open right on my Blackberry.  But I was ultimately able to pull up the first sentence, quoted above, and to look at the first footnote.

That was all anybody needed to do.  The footnote read:

For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

Well, this is like saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because we found a few degraded mustard gas shells out in the middle of the desert.  That wasn’t what anybody was referring to when “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” were a topic of conversation, so it proves only that if you redefine things you can change conclusions.  Much of the nuclear infrastructure that is in dispute in Iran is contained in “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” so the new definition does not include much of what people speaking in the vernacular are including when they say “Iran’s nuclear program.”  So at the talk that night in LA, I said this:

the headline splashed all over the newspapers with respect to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that Iran in 2003 suspended, and kept in suspense, its nuclear weapons program; however, it continues to operate facilities like that at Natanz which could at some point in the future be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. So it really becomes a definitional problem in the context of what components of Iran’s industrial infrastructure are included in this nuclear weapons program and which of them are kept outside of it. From my reading of the news reporting I think that it has been at least mildly misleading.

Predictably, American neoconservatives began rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, whipping each other into a frenzy, decrying the “politicized intelligence” at the CIA (do they ever tire of that?).  But really, is it too much to ask of journalists who write about national security (and, to be fair, their headline writers) to read one footnote in a document that contains about three pages of text?  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, and I managed to figure out what the deal was while in a big time crunch, without access to the full document, and without a sizeable rolodex of insiders I could call to help me figure out what was going on.  Still, the American journalistic community splashed headlines like “NIE: Iran halted nuclear weapons program in 2003” and such.  So in a sense, the neocons were right: the inferences people drew from reading the reporting on the NIE were inaccurate.

But this is, more than anything, a critique of the American journalistic establishment than it is the IC.  Writing in the first sentence of a three-page document a provocative claim and then footnoting a definition that dramatically alters the implications of the claim is not really all that tricky.  The people who assemble news stories, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory in scrutinizing government claims before the war in Iraq, were either lazy or stupid in this case as well.  Given the benefits the neocons reaped from the media’s laziness or stupidity in the Iraq case, the spluttering outrage in this case was always a bit much to take.

Israel, the United States, and the Danger of War with Iran

Steve Hynd at Newshoggers looks at Heritage’s recent work on Iran and observes that it sure seems like they’re prepared for war.  James Phillips says the Israelis may attack Iran but we shouldn’t try to stop them.  Phillips notes uncritically Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s characterization of the Iranian state as a “a messianic apocalyptic cult” and points out that while the United States “has the advantage of being geographically further away from Iran than Israel and thus less vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear attack … it must be sensitive to its ally’s security perspective.”

Therefore we should accede to an Israeli preventive strike and prepare for the consequences.  What’s odd about Phillips’ piece is that he doesn’t seem to think that the United States should provide its own view as to when an attack would be smart and when it would not be.  Instead, we should just toss the keys to the Israelis and buckle up: “Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now.”  This is a pretty high standard.  It’s very difficult to guarantee a third party won’t do something in the future.  If that’s the standard we’re using to determine when we allow ourselves to be sucked into wars, we’re in for a lot of wars.  Moreover, I’m clear on the logic of starting a war, but why wouldn’t we, as the larger power in the relationship, want to determine the timeline on which the attack occurs?  Why just defer to Tel Aviv?

Ariel Cohen

Ariel Cohen

Hynd also points to an accompanying piece by Ariel Cohen that calls on the U.S. to extend nuclear deterrence over Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and to “deploy a visible deterrent, including overwhelming nuclear forces near Iran, on surface ships, aircraft, or permanent bases … designed to hold at risk the facilities that Iran would need to launch a strategic attack, thereby making any such attack by Iran likely to fail.”  Interestingly in a passage he attributes to personal meetings with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, he says the Russian leadership sees Iran as a “regional superpower” and doesn’t want to go to war with them.

Cohen also says bombing is better than non-bombing because of the “existential threat” a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel, as well as Cohen’s worry that by not bombing “the U.S. would send a message to other countries that nuclear weapons are the trump card that can force U.S. and Israeli acquiescence.”  But they sort of are that sort of trump card, right?  Presumably that’s why the Iranians and the North Koreans appear to have been so enthusiastic about getting some.  Ultimately, says Cohen, the U.S. should drop the pretense of UN sanctions against Iran and opt instead for a sanctions coalition of the willing.  We should also apply unilateral sanctions against Russia for refusing to join the Iran sanctions coalition, and we should station nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

This is getting a bit too long for a blog post already, so I’ll just point to the study I produced on the “should we bomb Iran?” question back in 2006 for those with interest.  The basic outline of the argument holds up reasonably well, I think, so my thoughts are mostly contained in it.  While the Heritage scholars point out that the Obama administration is unlikely to be terribly enthusiastic about bombing Iran, it’s an interesting counterfactual to think about what things might look like if John McCain had won the presidency.  Imagine the Sarah Palin speeches.