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.
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.
In his lively and engaging speech to South Korean students earlier this week, President Barack Obama disclosed that a “comprehensive study of our nuclear forces” was underway and that he could “already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.” Accordingly, he was planning to meet with the Russians in the hope that “working together, we can continue to make progress and reduce our nuclear stockpiles.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with no apparent sense of irony, quickly assured the press and Congress that we would never reduce the number of our unnecessary nuclear trinkets—which cost several billion dollars a year to maintain—unless we do so under the auspices of bilateral negotiations with the Russians.
Thus, the need to have agreement in order to reduce unneeded weapons is the only reason for keeping them around. It is a bizarre situation.
Arms control is essentially a form of centralized regulation and carries with it the usual defects of that approach. Participants will volunteer for such regulation only with great caution, because once under its control they are often unable to adjust subtly to unanticipated changes.
Arms deals can also generate perverse incentives: the strategic arms agreement of 1972 limited the number of missiles each side could have, but it allowed them to embroider their missiles with multiple warheads and to improve missile accuracy, thereby encouraging them to develop a potentially dangerous first-strike capability.
And, as in the present case, talks can actually hamper arms limitations: in 1973 a proposal for a unilateral reduction of U.S. troops in West Europe failed in the Senate because many felt that it would undercut upcoming arms control negotiations—which then ran on unproductively for years.
The Cold War arms buildup, after all, was not accomplished through written agreement; instead, there was a sort of market process in which each side, keeping a wary eye on the other, sought security by purchasing varying amounts of weapons and troops. As requirements and perspectives changed, so did the force structure of each side.
The same process can work in reverse: as tensions decline, so can the arms that are their consequence. It would likely to be chaotic, halting, ambiguous, self-interested, and potentially reversible, but arms can be significantly reduced.
There is a notable precedent. After decades of cold war, tensions between the US and British Canada relaxed in the 1870s, and the ships, forts, and installations they had built to confront each other were gradually removed or allowed to rot away over time without any talks or formal agreements. In present times, France has retired most of its nuclear arsenal unilaterally and without discussing it with pretty much anybody.
Under relaxed tensions, reductions will happen best if arms negotiators keep out of the way, and they will proceed most expeditiously if each side feels free to reverse any reduction it later comes to regret. Formal disarmament agreements are likely simply to slow and clutter the process.
Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
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.
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.
North Korea wants to deal. Or, more likely, North Korea wants to be paid to deal. Washington has reached another agreement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North promises to—again—halt nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the U.S. will—again—provide Pyongyang with food aid. The so-called Six Party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, are—again—expected to resume.
It is better for the U.S. and Northeast Asia if North Korea is talking rather than shooting, as it was two years ago, when it sank a South Korean naval vessel and bombarded a South Korean island. However, Washington should have at most modest expectations: the DPRK has given no indication that it desires to yield the only weapons which allow it to command the world’s attention. Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in Pyongyang makes it unlikely that anyone has either the desire or authority to challenge military priorities.
The U.S. should step back as it encourages resumption of negotiations. Other than following through with its promised food shipments, Washington should leave aid to private NGOs and the North’s neighbors. More important, American officials should inform both the Republic of Korea and Japan that the United States will be phasing out its forces in both countries, leaving them with responsibility for their own security. They should plan accordingly.
Removing America as the focus of regional attention would highlight the roles of other nations. Reaching a peaceful settlement on the peninsula would be primarily an issue between South and North Korea. Encouraging the DPRK to avoid confrontation would be primarily a responsibility of China. Supporting any new security and economic regimes that might result would be primarily a task for Japan and Russia, which are historically involved and geographically near.
The latest U.S.-North Korean agreement is more cause for skepticism than celebration. It could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but is more likely to trigger a repeat of history: interminable talks with only minimal practical results. That would still be better than a war, but still would warrant only minimal effort by Washington.
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.