The Wrong Questions on Iran – Again

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.

Trita writes:

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.”

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25 Responses to The Wrong Questions on Iran – Again

  1. hass says:

    The “knowhow” is already in the public domain as proven by the Nth Country Experiment. Basically, they’re trying to monopolize nuclear energy and fuel for themselves (and also want to subvert Iran) under the pretext of fighting nuclear weapons proliferation. At a time when uranium fuel prices are skyrocketing and more than a hundred new reactors are being built and uranium mining/enrichment companies like Areva are back in business, Bush insists that no one else learn how to produce uranium fuel. Convenient, eh?

  2. hass says:

    Incidentally, Iran has made offers to place limits on its nuclear program that go beyond its legal NPT obligations (and have not been agreed by other uranium fuel producing countries, such as Brazil and Argentina).

    These offers would address any REAL worry about nuclear weapons proliferation, and have been endorsed by American and international experts (such as by opening Iran’s nuclear program to multinational participation)

    But the Bush administration instead has set a ridiculous demand that Iran totally give up enrichment.

    Why do you suppose that is?

    Obviously they want to keep the “nuclear threat” issue alive as a pretext.

    The “threat” from Iran is trumped-up. It serves an agenda of regime change. No matter how much Iran compromises, the goal posts keep moving.

  3. Morris says:

    Men may not grow up, and wars and egos can be related.
    The pride that Iran (waving a Moslem flag) could display in mastering Nuclear power is quite an affront in itself. And perhaps that is too much to stomach for Washington/Jerusalem. Simply the symbolism of it all.
    While Washington is pressing for a permanent treaty with Iraq, it is probably also feeling Iran’s opposition to this, albeit displayed through Baghdad. This is a big problem.
    Washington is unlikely to have the stomach for direct confrontation. The real real issues are seemingly closely guarded secrets, and could be theological differences. Washington is aghast in shock at any country that will rely on Sharia law (except Saudia), look at Somalia, and the Taliban and the fear that Sharif in Pakistan might have tried to introduce it.
    Islam does not condone speculation nor ascribe so much power to interest rates, there are also family law issues and the role of women. While these issues are rarely addressed, they might in fact be more to the core in understanding the underlying conflict. It would probably be a difficult sell to the public (who are often secular anyway) to be raising these issues.
    And there are the bruised egos from losing to the Islamic revolution, and these bruised egos are the ones that fanned the Iran/Iraq war. And can’t cope with opposition to Israel or with not having a slice of the Oil takings.
    And rarely are the Russian technicians mentioned, surely nobody is going to bomb a facility with officially contracted Russians inside.
    But it does allow for stopping us self examining when we are forever two minutes away from a potential conflict. It’s like the old cold war mentality.
    Thanks for a good article.

  4. Jack Jones says:

    I really wish the US would stop and think, why does Iran want nuclear weapons?
    To attack the US? no that would be suicide.
    To Attack Israel? they have never said they want to, what they did say is they would like to see Israel politicly destroyed, that’s no different to US policies on many countries.
    So why do they want them? Well for a start there is no proof they do want them, but lets say they do, what would be the reason?
    Iran has Israel which without doubt is one of the most aggressive nations in the world at this time, pointing nuclear missiles at it.
    It has the USA in Iraq a country the US invade for a reason we all know and that had nothing to do with WMD, the US makes it very clear they dislike Iran and of cause they would like control of the oil in the country, plus the US is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons.
    So why does Iran Nuclear weapons? SIMPLE DEFENCE.
    How can the US get Iran not to arm?
    SIMPLE stop being a threat to them.

  5. ColinLaney says:

    If all parties are rational, and all parties retain control of their own irrational factions, there will be no war.

    Somehow I don’t find this entirely reassuring.

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  7. FredJ says:

    Tony assumes Iran is rational in a way that Tony likes. This is an irrational assumption.

    The holocaust deniers of Iran are not building ICBM’s to generate electricity. And if the US or Israel wanted to war with Iran they would have attacked any time after the 1979 hostage-taking. That’s 31 years of Iran being unattacked and unmolested. 31 additional years of free money for oil found and made valuable by the West. The idea that the nukes and ICBM’s are for defense is a stupid lie.

    Tony lacks the foresight to see the danger of a terrorist-supporting state building nuclear warheads, missiles, and arming Hezbollah and Hamas. Sees nothing wrong with suicide bombers connecting with nukes.

    “States are hardwired to ensure their own survival”. This is the weakest thought ever uttered. This means that throughout history, no state has started something that has backfired destructively? Did Germany not start 2 world wars in the 20th century? Did the Arab States not fight for the tiny territory of Israel only to see it enlarged? Did Napoleon not invade Russia? Did Japan not attack Pearl Harbor? If this idea were true it would apply to the US and automatically annul all of Tony’s arguments against US policy.

    The Mullahs push the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, discriminate against Jews, and wage proxy war against Israel. Tony wants these violent anti-Semites to have nuclear weapons. Nothing could be more dangerous.

  8. Gene says:


    Your analysis, along with those of Thomas Powers, Triti Parsi and Tom Engelhardt, are absolutetly correct, but your conclusions are wrong. You are all assuming the burden is on Iran, whereas the bad guys are the US and Israel. No one is afraid of Iran’s nuclear dreams, they just want complete hegemony in the region and see Iran in the way. Thus, eliminate Iran!! The attempt will be made. Bush may continue in office. The consequences will be Gotterdamerung!

  9. hass says:

    FredJ says “That’s 31 years of Iran being unattacked and unmolested”

    Really?? Except of course for the 8 years of over warfare with the US- and EU-backed Iraq, who provided Iraq with chemical weapons among other things, resulting in a million casualties.

    Yeah, sure.

  10. No doubt there are many members of the Bush administration and the Israeli government who would prefer to bomb Iran in the hope of stopping the Iranian’s development of nuclear weapons. But, as Mr. Karon says, that’s not enough to actually carry out the threat. What the Bush administration is doing is gaming the oil market. Every time the price of oil starts to slip the administration performs a new fear-inciting action. The price of oil then goes up. It’s the political equivalent of insider trading – and with all the rewards of insider trading. Do you really suppose that this administration is incapable of such corrupt acts? Think again. There will be no invasion of Iran.

  11. Paul says:

    FredJ is clearly an apologist for the arch terrorist state of Israel. Just to remind him, Iran is a signatory to the NPT and has been given largely a clean bill of health by the IAEA. It is entitled under the NPT to conduct nuclear enrichment. By contrast, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT, and is therefore not subject to IAEA oversight.

    The logic of nuclear weapons since their development has always been that if my potential adversary has them, then I have to have them, making the possession of them inherently escalatory. it was Israel that introduced nuclear weapons into the mid east, and given its aggressive prediliction for attacking its neighbours and colonial expansion, in contravention of the 4th Geneva Convention, any sane national leaders of countries potentially in the target scope of Israel, need to acquire all means to defend their country against attack. Israel is like a psychopath in the region, backed unconditionally by a dumb 900 lb gorilla, whose representatives have to swear allegiance to Israel every AIPAC and Herzliyah conference.

    By purusing such insane policies, Israel is ensuring its own demise and an ultimately safer world.

  12. Timmy says:

    There is NO nuclear weapons development in Iran. Stop repeating BS. Even the Bush administration only accuses Iran of seeking the “capability” to make nukes, not actually building nukes. Don’t let the warmongers frame the issue as “either we bomb Iran or Iran will nuke us” – this fake.

  13. bert says:

    Unless you decide to take side with Israel, you can’t deny the right for Iran to try to have nuclear weapons. Israel never signed a single treaty about nuclear weapons, and still conceal all informations about them. It is quite strange to see Israel asking the world community to take actions against Iran, wich signed the treaties. I mean, all other countries inside the treaties can act, but not Israel.
    Iran didn’t attack a country since 250 years. They were attacked by Iraq back in 1980. Iran has no reason to attack any country, especially with a nuclear weapon. But Israel is a very aggressive country since 1948, they defended themselves, allright, but not against Lebanon (2006 for instance), not against palestinians, not against Syria when they decide to bomb the country, or else. And they regularely threaten most of the countries of the region. They’re totally sidelining the US in Iraq. And they have the nuclear weapons. Pakistan has also the nuclear weapon, and they’re an instable theocracy where extremists are at the highest levels. Is it because they’re US allies that they’re not as criticized as Iran?

  14. John Maszka says:

    We should leave Iran an honorable path of retreat. Engaging Iran is the only approach that has merit.

    Regardless of Iran’s size however, we should be careful what we assume about Iran; it has some ten million men of military age.

    Puor bien savoir les choses, il en faut savoir le detail, et comme il est presque infini, nos connaissances sont toujours superficielles et imparfaites.

    Unfortunately, what we do know is that the Bush administration cannot be trusted to do what it says. Iraq taught us that lesson. Many experts have long been predicting that Bush would invade Iran before he leaves office. But of course, the Bush administration would never admit to such a thing.

    “On ne donne rien si liberalement que ses conseils.”

    But it is the man who follows his own counsel, he’s the one that should lead.

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  16. NK+ says:

    My God, Mr. Karon. What the hell was I doing before I discovered your blogs? You might just be one of the most refreshingly accurate analysts of all time!

    I questioned Obama’s stance towards Iran and Middle East policy as well, especially when he took the podium at the AIPAC conference last month. But, despite his statements, I believe that he is doing the smart thing by not going against the grain in the national election. Look at what happened to Ron Paul. That is a battle he should not fight until he is elected, in my opinion.

    What are the chances TIME will run a cover-story interview with Ahmadinejad so that he can unequivocally clear up the mistranslation of his quote and Iran’s stance towards Israel and the United States? I’d hate to prop up the regime that forced my family out of Iran, but for the sake of what is right, it should be done.

  17. NK+ says:

    To clarify, I mean, when will a major publication make the following clear instead of sweeping it under the rug in true William Randolph Hearst fashion?

    “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.”

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  21. John Maszka says:

    Nous Tenons Á Notre Avis

    It is in our nature to believe that our opinion is the right opinion. But everyone, be they liberal or conservative, understands that another war will break the back of the American economy.

    Add to this the fact that Iran has over ten million men of military age, and it becomes an issue of both blood and treasure. The only way that America can stand against such an opposition is through a prolonged campaign of lethal air strikes, which will involve the slaughter of innocent civilians and bring the rightful outrage of the entire world upon our heads.

    Not only would an attack against the sovereign state of Iran be wrong, it would be extremely foolish.

    President Bush-
    Il ne desire pas paix
    Il ne desire rien mais guerre.
    Il tient un livre de douleur et larmes
    Il tient á ouvrir.
    Il ne parait pas que il comprend
    Il ne s’agit pas de legs…
    Il ne faut pas ouvrir ce livre
    Il ne contiennent que mort.

  22. Rose says:

    I wanted to comment and thank the author, good stuff

  23. Simon says:

    If all parties are rational, and all parties retain control of their own irrational factions, there will be no war.

    Somehow I don’t find this entirely reassuring.

  24. Andy says:

    This is not what i was looking for an afternoon read. Ruined my mood.

  25. Unfortunately, what we do know is that the Bush administration cannot be trusted to do what it says. Iraq taught us that lesson. Many experts have long been predicting that Bush would invade Iran before he leaves office. But of course, the Bush administration would never admit to such a thing.

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