The current frenzy over Iran began with the International Atomic Energy Agency report released last November, which revealed that Tehran had been doing a number of things that have no explanation other than an interest in nuclear weapons, such as working on warhead design and detonation. (The report also stated, to less attention, that the IAEA had detected no diversion of nuclear material.)
Now, however, some of the righteous and inflamed editorial writers urging America to action have calmed themselves, since the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—known as the “P5+1”—have agreed to a new round of discussions with Iran. The new talks are being touted as the best chance for solving the impasse diplomatically.
It’s not a good chance.
Most of Washington’s policies toward Iran in recent years have decreased the prospect for a diplomatic resolution. In fact, if a computer were programmed with all the relevant information about how international politics works, it would probably conclude that the United States and Israel are not interested in a diplomatic resolution at all.
Bombing Iran is not necessary—not for Israel, not for the United Sates—and American actions are only giving the Islamic Republic further reason to develop nuclear deterrence, while the domestic political forces influencing U.S. policy offer little hope for peace in the long term.
The Poisoned Pill of Diplomacy
The central problem with the proposals for resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is that the demands made by the P5+1—to say nothing of Israel’s efforts to make those demands greater—are almost certain to be unacceptable to Iran.
To be fair, more realistic ideas about what a long-term deal might look like have begun to emerge. Even observers in the Beltway foreign-policy establishment are coming to the realization that a settlement that aims at no uranium enrichment on Iranian soil is a non-starter. The fact that scholars like Richard Haass and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations are making this point is a positive development. But there remain two big obstacles that make a deal unlikely to come together in the short term and more unlikely to work over the long term.
The central dilemma of U.S. policy toward Iran is this: What might work can’t happen, and what might happen can’t work.
In the short term, the problem is with sequencing. The P5+1 have consistently demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment at the outset of discussions, and Iran has consistently rejected this proposition.
Moreover, each side seems to believe that it has created new facts on the ground—sanctions causing great pain to Iran on the one hand; increases in the scale and security of Iran’s enrichment program on the other—that allow it to demand that the other make a substantial concession first. But to do so would take an act of great political magnanimity for either side. This “you first” attitude toward diplomacy seems as likely to undermine this round as it has the past ones.
In the long term, the problem is that it will be very hard for Washington to convince Tehran that it can trust American assurances. If Iran complies with whatever demands are made of it, how can it be sure that the United States will not attack anyway at some point in the future? It is very hard for a unipolar power like the United States to credibly commit to abstaining from doing something in the future because the cost of reneging is relatively low. Leslie Gelb and Vice President Joseph Biden, in an interview for Newsweek, had this exchange:
NEWSWEEK: [A]s you know from Iran’s point of view, they say, all right, Pakistan crossed [the nuclear] threshold. North Korea crossed that threshold. They’re safer now than they would have been otherwise because we can’t attack them anymore.
BIDEN: I understand their rationale. But the fact of the matter is that doesn’t mean it makes sense for the region and the world to yield to their rationale. And we’re going to do everything in our power…
In other words, Biden understands that the Iranians need a nuclear capability to deter us, but he’s not interested in doing anything to change their rationale. President Obama made a similar point inadvertently in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg by using Libya as a case in point for how he hopes diplomacy can produce nonproliferation.
One does not have to be extraordinarily empathetic to see how the prospect of a Libya-style deal might play with Iran’s Supreme Leader. Put bluntly, given the past decade of U.S. foreign policy and the structure of the international system, Iran would be irrational not to want a nuke. Our policy of sanctions and pressure is doing little to change that.
Living with a Nuclear Iran
Much of the anxiety about Iran having a deterrent is fueled by abstractions and inchoate fears. When examined in more detail, there is little to these concerns. A nuclear Iran would pose a number of problems, but the worst behaviors in which Iran might engage can be deterred, and Iran would still be a weak conventional power and therefore would easily be subject to containment.
The reality that a nuclear Iran is no sort of “existential threat” to the United States was highlighted, oddly enough, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently told Israel’s Channel One that “The United States is big and distant, Israel is smaller and closer to Iran.” Big and distant countries tend to have interests in regional-security issues different from those of smaller and closer states. Big, distant powers have a number of advantages, and to the extent American leaders are allowed to squander those advantages, the explanation for why lies in our expansive ideology and the exertions of the Israeli government’s partisans in the United States.
Israel itself is hardly a quivering virgin lashed to some sort of sacrificial altar. A few hundred nuclear weapons of its own; a qualitative military edge at the conventional level over all its neighbors, including Iran; and an array of anxious neighbors would combine to produce significant constraints on Iranian regional ambitions even absent American assistance.
These facts have not prevented some from asserting that a nuclear deterrent would somehow transform Iran into a regional hegemon. Given that nuclear weapons do not aid in power projection or in compellence—as opposed to deterrence—this argument would need Iran to possess significant power-projection capabilities with which it could run amok.
Iran does not have significant power-projection capabilities. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2012 issue of The Military Balance makes clear, an Iranian effort at power projection, if opposed, would face terrible odds. Iran comprises less than 10 percent of regional military spending, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 36 percent and Israel’s 14 percent. Looking at the balance between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of Arab states, IISS throws cold water on fears of
Iran’s conventional forces, which consist mostly of ageing military hardware acquired well before the Islamic revolution. Iranian airpower is operationally limited and cannot compete with the modern air forces of Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Iran’s ground forces have scant expeditionary capacity and cannot realistically threaten GCC territory.
While The Military Balance expresses some concern about Iranian naval threats, these would likely bring about extra-regional opposition, including from the United States, should they cause havoc in energy prices. A nuclear deterrent would not free up Iran to cause much trouble with its conventional military forces for the simple reason that its conventional military forces are weak and defensively oriented.
Indeed, some of the most serious risks posed by a nuclear Iran derive from its weakness, not its strength. The small size of Iran’s prospective nuclear arsenal might make it anxious about the prospect of a splendid first strike in which Israel or the United States attempts to destroy all of Iran’s weapons, producing a “use them or lose them” attitude in the Iranian military. The way to diminish the prospect of a twitchy trigger finger in Iran is to increase communication and to make clearer doctrinal distinctions about what sorts of military developments would cross which red lines for states in the region. These are not happy thoughts, but neither are ones about another preventive war.
The main reason the United States and Israel do not want Iran to obtain a nuclear deterrent is not fear of Iranian regional hegemony, but rather that they do not wish to be deterred from attacking Iran. The Iranians certainly know this and accordingly see the frantic efforts to prevent them from acquiring a deterrent as threatening.
That this reality is tragic makes it no less real. Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University, begins with this kernel of truth and argues that Iran could obtain a veto on any U.S. military initiative in the region: “A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region.”
If one is willing to follow Kroenig in ignoring away the relative stakes involved for Tehran and Washington in these hypotheticals, this argument stands. Without doing so, it collapses. It is absolutely true that “U.S. freedom of action” to, say, change the regime in Iran would be limited by an Iranian deterrent. But it is absurd to believe either that a.) Iran would make nuclear threats over peripheral interests in the region, or that b.) even if it did, the United States should credit such threats. It is difficult to ignore the fact that many of those advancing fears of a nuclear Iran also favor a very ambitious strategy in the region, up to and including preserving America’s option to change the Iranian regime should it decide to do so.
Heroic Eunuchs in Congress
Despite President Obama’s declaration that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable,” there is reason to believe he may not unilaterally launch a war against Iran. He did not accede to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request that he make an Iranian nuclear weapons “capability” the U.S. red line. Doing so likely would have been a political winner for Obama, but it also would have allowed pundits to declare, depending on their definitions of that term, that a war should have begun some time ago. The president has condemned the “loose talk of war” coming from Republicans looking to curry favor with hawkish campaign contributors, demanding that they make clear exactly what they would do in his shoes. These sentiments could change, of course, but should Obama be reelected, Congress may become the X factor.
If Obama were to remain dovish on Iran, the profound moral cowardice of the hawks in Congress might perversely be the biggest bulwark against war. Despite all their chest puffing and rhetorical bravado, there is little chance that Congress will declare war on Iran or force the president’s hand. The reasons for this are complicated but worth explaining.
Traditional conservatives will recall that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. They will also recall that despite the last 60 years of American diplomatic history, the last enemy against whom the United States declared war was Ion Antonescu’s Romania in June 1942.
Part of the reason congressional war-making has fallen out of favor is that in declaring war Congress leaves its fingerprints all over the affair. If the decision is a bad one, legislators might pay a dear political price for having embroiled the nation in a costly or counterproductive war. The Founders’ decision to vest war-making power in the Congress reflected in part a belief that the nation should be reticent to enter conflicts. As enunciated by James Wilson, entrusting the war power to Congress had the advantage that “this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it.”
But as with so many other legislative powers, the war power has been delegated by Congress to the president. To this point, Congress has urged the president to launch a war on Iran while ignoring its own power to do so. Last November, Senator Joseph Lieberman told the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol that there is “a broad, bipartisan base of support if the Commander in Chief comes to a point where he thinks [war with Iran is] necessary.” Lieberman and his permahawk confrère Sen. Lindsey Graham have drafted legislation declaring that the president can do anything he wants to Iran except contain it. And on the heels of the AIPAC policy conference in Washington this March, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell called on the Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the president to bomb Iran—but not forcing him to do so.
By urging the president forward in these ways without exercising its war power, Congress can turn the war transaction into all upside and no downside for itself. By delegating the actual decision to the president, Congress can claim to interested political audiences that it is sufficiently alarmed about the threat posed by Iran without taking responsibility for actually doing anything about it.
Imagine the president used the authority of nonbinding legislation to bomb Iran. If the war turns out terribly, Congress can shrug and say that the resolution didn’t mean the president should really do that. If it goes well, legislators can claim credit. If, on the other hand, the president does nothing and Iran goes nuclear, Congress can complain that they wanted the president to do something but instead he ignored their advice and let Iran get a bomb. As policy, this is terrible. As politics, it’s genius.
Congressional cowardice is not all upside for the rest of us, however. Many of the things Congress has done only push the United States and Iran closer to war. As the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney pointed out after Congress passed sanctions on Iran’s central bank, the legislation makes no demands that Iran could comply with in order to get the penalties lifted. Combined with loose talk of war from high-ranking Republicans and Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin, who recently murmured on C-SPAN about blockading Iran, these sorts of moves are likely to harden the belief in Tehran that the only thing that can satisfy America is regime change—and that Iran needs a nuclear deterrent to prevent that.
And should Mitt Romney or another Republican win the presidency, all bets would be off. Romney’s three counter-proliferation advisors are Eric Edelman, a hawkish official who served in the Rumsfeld Pentagon and has publicly argued for bombing Iran; Robert Joseph, also a hawkish official in the Bush administration; and Stephen Rademaker, yet another a hawkish nonproliferation retread from the Bush administration, one who recently served with Edelman on a task force recommending a naval blockade and/or air strikes against Iran to prevent it from going nuclear.
Stuck on Stubborn
The central dilemma of U.S. policy toward Iran is this: What might work can’t happen, and what might happen can’t work.
To be sure, there is an Iraq fatigue syndrome in Washington and in the country, and this is having a salutary effect on the debate over Iran. In contrast with the groupthink that accompanied the decision to invade Iraq, there are a number of voices opposing war with Iran. The American people are showing increasing cynicism about buying a conflict from the same talking heads who sold them the last one. The intertwined themes of austerity and national decline should further dampen any latent adventurism.
For now the question is whether one believes diplomacy can work. Hope in most quarters that it will makes a war in the near term unlikely. But in all probability diplomacy will not work, and the question of war or not-war will rise again. When it does, Washington may decide to restrain itself. Before rushing to think that it will, however, ask yourself how much money you would bet on that proposition.