A Self-Defeating Iran Strategy

The boundaries between the U.S. and Israeli flags literally blur in the backdrop as Cheney threatens Iran from the podium of the America Israel Political Action Committe

Last September, I noted that “the Bush administration appears not to have gamed the outcome of its effort to challenge Tehran’s nuclear program at the UN Security Council” and noted that “Kofi Annan is said to have warned UN member states against bringing matters to the Security Council when there’s no consensus there over how to respond.”

Now that the matter is on the table in New York, the Security Council is struggling to agree on the text of a statement precisely because its key member states have conflicting agendas when it comes to Iran. And not being particularly adept at diplomacy, the Bush administration may actually be shooting itself in the foot. It’s hard not to giggle when Condi Rice in the same breath urges Iran to do the right thing over its nuclear program and also denounces it as “the cental banker of terrorism.” Bush swears he wants a diplomatic solution but reminds journalists that Iran remains part of his Axis of Evil. Rumsfeld, in that psycho whine he reserves for complaining that the media is not portraying his Iraq train wreck as Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, swears Tehan is behind all the trouble in Iraq, although he won’t really get specific. And then we’re told that the
U.S. and Iran are going to hold talks about Iraq, where they clearly have some very important common interests.

If the conflicting messages do not appear to makes sense — you don’t really negotiate with terrorists and their evil bankers, do you? — but the mixed message comes from conflicting policy goals.
The Washington Post informs us that the Bush administration’s internal debate over Iran has been won by the regime-change hawks — so it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. For the hawks, led by duck-and-cover Cheney with the Bolton the Berserker playing point man, the whole diplomatic thing was never designed to work; it was simply necessary to go through the motions to show Iran’s malfeasance and persuade allies of the need for tougher action. (Don’t hold your breath…) For them, the arrival of the issue at the Security Council is a moment to crank up the rhetoric and throw everything they can at Iran, hoping to escalate confrontation. Suddenly Iran is a grave and imminent threat. It has 85 tons of uranium hexaflouride gas which, if enriched, could make ten bombs. Uh-huh. If it’s enriched to the degree necessary to create bomb material. And that’s no minor if. To do so, Iran would have to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and kick out inspectors, thereby signaling the world of its intentions. And even then it would take them as long as a decade to turn that gas into bomb material. Nobody’s going to bother with a few details like that when the Berserker is going on TV and warning that the “threat” posed by Iran is “like 9-11, but with nuclear weapons.”

The more sober saber rattlers confine themselves to Israel, repeating at every turn that President Ahmedinajad — who does not actually run Iran — has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Much as he’d like to, of course, Ahmedinajad lacks the means. And the fact that Israel has the means to wipe out every major Iranian city within an hour or so may be one of the reasons why the Mullahs in charge of Iran have always been very careful to avoid a direct confrontation. Indeed, we learn from the Forward that Iran and Israel had communicated via back channels under President Khatami, and that even today, the key figure in Iran’s foreign policy establishment, national security chief Ali Larijani who is handling the nuclear negotiations, favors what the Iranians call a “Malaysian profile” on Israel — no formal recognition and occasional criticism, but refraining from taking or backing any action against Israel.

But the Bush administration appears also to have ignored the political warning signs at the February meeting of the IAEA board in Vienna, when Egypt forced Washington to accept language making clear that Israel’s nuclear capability would have to be addressed as part of any comprehensive solution to the issues raised by the Iran standoff. The Arab regimes are hostile to Iran, an old enemy to most, acquiring nuclear weapons. But to join the West in pressuring Iran on this question is politically untenable for them if it appears that the U.S. stance is based on protecting Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. Trying to keep the question of Israel’s nukes out of the discussion, threatening Iran from AIPAC platforms and making Israel the centerpiece of the case against Tehran’s nuclear activities is unlikely to help. The purpose of the NPT is not to maintain the nuclear monopoly of the original five nuclear states and those like India, Pakistan and Israel that subsequently joined the club — its purpose is supposedly to enable global disarmament. So, when the U.S. avoids discussing Israel and makes deals with India that restore its access to nuclear technology despite it having achieved nuclear weapons status, Washington actually provides ammunition for those in Iran who argue that Iran should have the right to pursue the same weapons as its enemies have.

A deeper problem arises, though, when the U.S. goes to the Security Council chanting mantras that sound a lot like the “regime-change” case made against Iraq before the invasion. Because while there is support for the Western position against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, there is no support, even among the Western allies, for another regime-change adventure. For much of the international community, the priority is simply to avoid a damaging confrontation. And for the likes of China, it must be remembered, any action that affects its access to Iran’s oil and natural gas, such as sanctions or military action, are far more threatening to the national interest than anything going on Iran’s nuclear program.

Ask most governments in the world if they support Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and they’d answer no. But ask them whether stopping Iran from doing so is worth launching another war in the Middle East, and I suspect the answer would also be no. Indeed, most of them might be inclined to the view that the more the U.S. threatens regime-change, the more likely it is that Iran will seek nuclear weapons. The consensus of the diplomatic community would far more likely be that they want the U.S. and Iran to settle their differences. Indeed, far from regime-change, the best chance for avoiding the eventuality of Iran going nuclear lies in regime-recognition, i.e. in the normalizing of relations between Tehran and the West.


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