I know it’s a summer news doldrum, despite the morbid antics of the presidential candidates, but all this “war on Iran” speculation seems to be missing some key points. Despite Sy Hersch’s recent revelations of stepped up proxy warfare by the Bush Administration against Iran — which mostly reprised previous reporting he’s done, with the only addition I could see being that congressional Democrats have signed off on this fool-headed business — I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that suggests an attack on Iran is imminent — or even likely.
That the Democrats signed off shouldn’t come as any surprise — even the Obama campaign seems ready to embrace the idea that Iranian progress towards the capacity to build a nuclear weapon is “the most dangerous crisis” facing the U.S. in the next decade. And candidate Obama appears to have signed up to the same broad outlook as Bush and McCain, demanding tougher sanctions on Iran in response to its latest missile test. There’s no reason to believe that Obama sanctions would be any more effective than Bush or McCain sanctions in resolving this problem, and it shouldn’t be difficult to understand the Iranian missile test as a response to Israel’s training for air strikes and the stepped up war talk. After all, the Iranians are explicitly saying that they have no intention of attacking any other state, including Israel, but that if they are attacked, they will hit back in a very nasty way. The idea that the appropriate response is to escalate the confrontation seems, to me, to be very much in keeping with the longstanding self-defeating approach to the Iran question we’ve seen up till now.
But before we get onto the right questions that need to be asked in order to resolve the conflict between Iran and the Western powers, I think David Ignatius nailed it last week when he noted that the covert proxy warfare against Iran is not a product of a plan to attack Iran — or of any coherent plan at all — it’s the sort of incoherent bumbling that reflects an Administration that can’t decide what it wants to do about Iran. The argument against direct military action will almost certainly prevail: The U.S. military is firmly opposed to a confrontation with Iran, understanding that it will bear the consequences in the Gulf — and a shooting war will certainly open a third front, the stress of which, as Joint-Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen recently noted, will seriously damage the U.S. military. Most analysts agree that Israel can’t bomb Iran without U.S. support, and the U.S. is unlikely to provide that support. As Anthony Cordesman told an Israeli audience last week, the consensus in the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran represents no immediate nuclear threat.
And Jim Lobe reminds us that the U.S. economy is in no position to absorb the shock of the oil prices shooting up way past the $200 a barrel mark — a predictable consequence of an attack on Iran.
Rami Khouri also highlights a very important technical issue that militates against military action: It would be a high-risk operation, with potentially disastrous consequences, whose success would amount to no more than locking the stable door after the horse had bolted. He writes: “Iran has already achieved that which it says it seeks: full mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment. Since this is the season for predicting in the Middle East, and given the paucity of hard facts or credible knowledge about the main players’ intentions, I expect the US and Israel to finally accept the reality that a military strike, no matter how punitive, would only temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear capability, because the technological knowledge is already in Iran’s hands and cannot be destroyed with bombs.”
Rami’s point is very important: Bush has always emphasized that his goal is not simply to prevent Iran building a bomb, but to prevent it attaining the “know-how” to build such a weapon — that was the motivation for trying to stop the uranium-enrichment currently underway in Iran, which is being done under international supervision and to a level of enrichment 20 times too low for bomb-grade materiel. The point was that once Iran knew how to enrich uranium, it could cut loose at some point in the future and start building bombs.
But the bad news, as Rami notes, is that the “know-how” has already been attained — a fact that can’t be reversed by military action. As a result, he argues, “the destabilizing consequences for the Middle East, and for global energy and economics, are so massive that it is difficult to imagine [the military] scenario unfolding. The alternative is diplomatic negotiations that would meet the legitimate and reasonable needs of the key parties, namely Iran, the US, Israel, Europe and the Arab neighbors. Iran could continue to develop its nuclear industry, but with stringent international inspections and safeguards under the rules of existing treaties and conventions that prevent the development of nuclear weapons.”
Even as they counter military threat with military threat, the Iranians are also stepping up their diplomatic offensive. Trita Parsi provides a useful explanation of the strategic thinking behind a new conciliatory tone being adopted by key leaders in Tehran. Ali Akbar Velayati, a key adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last week rebuked President Ahmadinejad for his provocative rhetoric, and urged that the Iranian accept the latest formula for negotiations with the West being proferred by the EU’s top diplomat, Javier Solana. There was something classically Leninist in his reasoning: The most bellicose elements in Washington and Israel wanted Iran to isolate itself by rejecting the offer; therefore, Iran should accept the offer in order to isolate the hawks from the Europeans and others in the middle.
Similar thinking has been expressed by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and even President Ahmadinejad popped up in Malaysia last week to make clear that Iran has no intention of attacking any other state, including Israel — which, by the way, has long been Iran’s official position, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Israel notwithstanding.
The Iranians are unlikely to simply accept the demand for an end to uranium enrichment, but they may take advantage of the face-saving potential in the “freeze-for-freeze” formula that accompanies the latest package. The Iranian objective has been to achieve a diplomatic solution that allows it maintain a modest enrichment capability under international supervision, a goal which, as Rami Khouri pointed out, they might be closer to achieving. But Tehran is also intimately aware of the possibilities raised by the U.S. election in November.
The debate in Tehran over this issue seems to have centered on whether to continue defying the Security Council or to consolidate Iranian gains. Those favoring the latter have likely realized the Bush administration itself has helped make Iranian defiance successful. Critics argue that the Bush team’s lack of credibility and incompetence has made it more difficult to assemble a strong international coalition against Iran. Washington’s soft power with the EU under Bush has been negligible, forcing the president to strong-arm his European allies to go along with more stringent economic measures against Iran.
But with Bush out of the picture by January 2009, the utility and risk of the Ahmadinejad line can change dramatically. Whether it is Democratic Senator Barack Obama or McCain, the next commander in chief will begin his presidency with a significantly higher cachet with the Europeans. The hunger for strengthening trans-Atlantic ties and putting the past eight years of bickering behind them is palpable in Europe… In addition, Washington could enjoy much greater pull with non-aligned countries, including Asian nations whose unwillingness to go along with sanctions have provided Tehran with an economic escape route.
Consequently, greater interest in the freeze-for-freeze formula may have less to do with recent Israeli bluster and more to do with the greater political pull [that will be ] enjoyed by the next US administration.
Furthermore, proponents of [accepting] the Solana proposal in Tehran believe that a US-Iran rapprochement can be achieved under the next US administration if diplomacy is pursued. To facilitate the next US president’s decision to negotiate, however, Tehran must help improve the political atmosphere and provide the next US commander-in-chief with a better starting point for diplomacy.
Initiating discussions at this stage could tie both an Obama and a McCain presidency to the diplomatic track. Whoever wins the elections will inherit a less problematic dispute and enjoy greater political maneuverability as a result. This is particularly true for Obama, since the Illinois senator’s willingness to pursue diplomacy may not match his political ability to do so if the nuclear deadlock persists.
Iran will negotiate, it seems, but not on the terms demanded by the U.S. and its allies. But as I argued a year ago
States do not pursue weapons systems as ends in themselves; and states are hardwired to ensure their own survival. It is to that end that they acquire weapons systems, to protect, enhance or advance their own strategic position and even up the odds against more powerful rivals. As everything from the Cold War to the current deal with North Korea demonstrate, the only way to avoid nuclear conflict is to address the concerns and fears on both sides that might spark such a conflict. Weapons systems are dangerous, but not as dangerous as the conflicts that might result in them being used. And we should also get used to the idea that the globalization of technology on the current strategic landscape makes nuclear weapons likely to become the norm among states — after all, the existing eight nuclear weapons states have no intention of relinquishing theirs, so why would any states that anticipate being in conflict with any of them refrain from pursuing those weapons when the opportunity presents itself?
It is the conflicts that fuel the drive for nuclear weapons that are more dangerous than the weapons themselves, and the problem of those weapons can’t be addressed separately from those conflicts. An Iran bombed to destroy its nuclear power plants would likely be far more dangerous to the U.S. and its allies over the next couple of decades than an Iran that had nuclear weapons within reach might be. The only way to diminish the danger of an escalating confrontation with Iran — which is what bombing its nuclear facilities would certainly do — is to address the conflict between it and its rivals directly, and seek a modus vivendi that can manage their conflicting interests. Iran has shown itself to be ready to engage in such dialogue; it is the Bush administration that has demurred.
To this end, I highly recommend Thomas Powers’ excellent piece that makes clear the absurdity of initiating a new war of aggression in the Middle East in the hope of Iran attaining the means to pursue any weapons capabilities. The key question that should be addressed at the very heart of any diplomatic process, he argues, is why Iran might seek nuclear weapons capability. Powers writes:
What US officials say, when they say anything at all, is that Tehran wants a bomb in order to dominate the Persian Gulf region and to threaten its neighbors, especially Israel. This is a misreading of how other nuclear powers have made use of their weapons. As tools of coercive diplomacy nuclear weapons are almost entirely useless, but they are extremely effective in blocking large-scale or regime-threatening attack. There is no evidence that Iran has a different motive, and plenty of reason for Iran to fear that attack is a real possibility.
Indeed, the Bush administration, far from trying to quiet Iran’s fears, makes a point of confirming them every few months. These threats are not limited to words, but are supported with practical steps—the presence of large American armies just across Iran’s borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dispatch of the world’s largest fleet of warships to cruise along Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline. The Bush administration further accuses Iran of “meddling” in the affairs of its neighbors, of supplying weapons and training to Iraqis who kill Americans, and of being the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism. Fear that Saddam Hussein might provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups was the leading American justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the same concern is often cited about Iran.
The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the whole country listens to the administration’s threats with breath held, wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush’s restraint for their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system could do that.
When Bush talks of a “diplomatic solution”, he simply means Iranian surrender under pressure of sanctions. The current administration is simply incapable of achieving a genuine diplomatic breakthrough — or much else — anywhere in the Middle East. But if the next Administration is to avoid the mistakes of the current one, it would do well to get beyond the narrow frame of the questions Barack Obama and John McCain are currently asking and answering. The definition of a serious diplomatic process, then, is one, as Rami Khouri suggests above, that addresses “the legitimate and reasonable needs of the key parties, namely Iran, the US, Israel, Europe and the Arab neighbors.”