Iran: Going through the Motions

The United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany agreed today to face-to-face talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program. While I am confident the talks will lead to nothing, they are a necessary component of the United States’ coercive strategy against Iran before American conducts an overt attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Of course, the Iranians might magnanimously agree to give up their nuclear ambitions. However, the chance of that happening is about as likely as the Israelis abandoning the Holy Land to the Palestinians.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Iran will give up almost a half-century’s worth of nuclear ambitions and a program that is in its vital national interest to pursue. It is also naive to assume that Iran will not be able to skillfully play six countries with widely divergent interests against one another to stall for more time. For instance, Russia has an interest in protecting its nuclear industry, which it considers to be a strategic one. As such, any agreement that Iran halt uranium enrichment might face Russian resistance. The Chinese are very interested in increasing their access to Iranian oil and gas. Therefore, it might be relatively easy for the Iranians to persuade the Chinese to support Iranian interests.

That said, it is critical that the United States create the impression that it has exhausted all possible diplomatic avenues to avoid a war. These talks are kabuki theater on a grand scale involving six nations with diverging and conflicting interests. These negotiations will ultimately fail. However, it is how the United States choreographs this inevitable failure that is of critical importance.

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About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Conservative clean energy crusader, national security hawk, financial analyst, engineer, and former military officer.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, International Security, Middle East, Nuclear proliferation, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Iran: Going through the Motions

  1. Scott Erb says:

    I’m just not reading the situation as all as you are. In any event, almost everyone agrees that if the US struck Iran before the election President Obama would lose. That’s because even a successful strike would cause a crisis and oil price increase that would thwart the recovery. Moreover, information seems to indicate the US thinks Iran is quite aways a way from a bomb, and that a strike is unlikely to deter Iran – we couldn’t know if we eliminated their capacity or how much we eliminated it. At this point, I’m convinced that the US has decided it can live with a nuclear Iran and the goal now is to convince Israel that we will make sure Iran realizes the folly in threatening Israel. The US has to make it look like it might strike in order to pressure the Iranians, but I think a conflict is increasingly unlikely.

    • “I’m just not reading the situation as all as you are. In any event, almost everyone agrees that if the US struck Iran before the election President Obama would lose.”

      Scott, if defense policymakers are thinking about the election when they make national security policy decisions, President Obama should fire them. In fact, I remember in my classes that students who included domestic political considerations in their rationale for national security policy didn’t tend to earn very high grades under Dr. Carter.

      The key decision factor here is when Iran will cross the nuclear threshold. If they could do so before the election, the President should conduct an air strike before the election. If not, he should wait and pursue more diplomacy.

      If we decide to live with a nuclear Iran, the Israelis should attack and drag us into the whole mess. That’s frankly what I would do. Plus, the Israelis have already done it twice, and done it successfully (Syria in 2007, Iraq in 1981).

      • Scott Erb says:

        It is a truism in foreign policy analysis that political and personal factors matter — they are taken into consideration both overtly and subconsciously. Memoirs bear this out, it would be naive to think otherwise. I’m not saying Dr. Carter was naive — he’s no doubt trying to instill the best values in his students — but that’s the way the world works (moreover, you do need to keep public support – the Powell/Weinberger doctrines make sense).

        Here there is complexity because this isn’t an open and shut case. There are arguments on each side — I just posted a link from a former head of Mossad who does NOT think a strike to be a good idea. That makes it easier for domestic considerations to become the decision point. There is no comparison between Iraq and Syria with Iran no – the differences are immense. In fact, there are strong arguments that the lessons from 1981 argue AGAINST striking Iran: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-israeli-attack-against-iran-would-backfire–just-like-israels-1981-strike-on-iraq/2012/02/28/gIQATOMFnR_story.html

  2. You can’t take Iran’s desire to nuclearize as a fait accompli. You have to do some work to get there. As Juan Cole– who’s been right about the big things in the Middle East & Central Asia the past decade– recently pointed out:

    A week and a half ago, Khamenei gave a major foreign policy speech in which he said,

    “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

    Now, you could maintain that Khamenei is lying when he says he holds that possessing nuclear weapons is a grave sin. … But even if you think it is a lie, you have at least to report what he says.

    That’s not to say there aren’t many genuinely alarming things that the Iranian regime has done– Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently said, “What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons.” I don’t mean to argue that you’re just making stuff up. But you haven’t done the work to get to your ultimate conclusion here, that Iran wants & is pursuing nuclear weapons.

    I agree with you, though, that “going through the motions” is important here. The model, to my mind, is Pres. Bush Sr. in the run-up to Gulf War I. The sanctions on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait were part of the buildup to our attack. It showed that war was truly not a first resort. That certainly was a great deal more legitimate– and, not unrelatedly, successful– than our invasion of Iraq in 2003. That time, the weapons inspectors the Bush administration had done a great job to get back into Iraq had to flee… because we started bombing before their work was complete.

    • “You have to do some work to get there.”

      To be fair, I’ve actually done a ton of work on this: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/2128/plan_b_for_persia.html.

      Though I think you are right to suggest that you cannot assume that Iran’s desire to nuclearize is a fait accompli. Though I think it is fair to suggest that Iran giving up its nuclear program could be classified as a black swan or a six sigma event.

      Khamenei has actually been saying the same thing for years. He may even be saying the truth because Iran’s leadership is somewhat fragmented from a consensus point of you. In other words, the right hand might not know what the left hand is doing. That said, the Iranians have been doing very suspicious things for quite some time now. You can reference the Green Salt project in my thesis for more information.

      Either way, I think we both agree that “going through the motions” is important.

      • Well, by saying that their abandoning all nuclear programs would be a black swan, you’re treating their weaponizing as a fait accompli. And we can’t do that. In that 2006 paper, you appeared to be of the view that Iran would be building a nuclear weapon as soon as 2007 (“Other more recent estimates range from one to four years.”). I am very much “once bitten twice shy” on launching attacks and invasions to prevent countries from nuclearizing. We really need to do our homework here as to what Iran is doing, and we haven’t gotten there yet. Here’s a recent Washington Post article on the subject:

        But the IAEA report does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.

        Iran steadfastly denies it is aiming for a nuclear bomb and says its program is aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research. Of course, Tehran could be lying. But no one knows for sure.

        This is what the U.S. director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March: “We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

        We need inspections, we need to be planning in detail for what to do if inspections fail. We need to be very clear eyed about what Iran is doing. So we can’t take it as a given that Iran is building a bomb. They have lots of reasons not to– membership in the NPT, desire to avoid a costly & destabilizing arms race, internal political problems (that may lead to Ahmedinijad’s impeachment).

        What would you be doing if you were Iran? Personally, I’d be trying to get right up to the brink of weaponizing. So the US needs to work to bring Russia & China on board for multilateral sanctions if Iran fails to allow inspections. (Easier said than done, I know).

        Incidentally, Israelis don’t favor attacking Iran at the moment either. From Ha’aretz: “58 percent of those polled opposed an Israeli strike on Iran, without U.S. backing. Thus it seems Netanyahu has not convinced those for whom he has been repeatedly threatening Tehran.”

        • “We really need to do our homework here as to what Iran is doing, and we haven’t gotten there yet.”

          But that’s the fundamental problem with intelligence. You will rarely, if ever, have a smoking gun. We didn’t have it at Pearl Harbor and we won’t have it with Iran. At some point, you have to weigh the preponderance of evidence and make a decision. Did we screw that up in Iraq? Absolutely. Do we need to be more careful? Of course. That said, I think we still need to pursue diplomacy and think more evidence would be nice, but if the CIA, DIA or other intelligence agencies assessed that Iran was several months away from getting the bomb, I would take out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The other important piece is that we likely have more detailed, classified intelligence that both you and I are not privy to.

          And yes, they do seem to always be 1-4 years away from a bomb. 😉 Fair point.

          “What would you be doing if you were Iran? Personally, I’d be trying to get right up to the brink of weaponizing.”

          You and I agree here.

          • It just might be that you & I disagree more over tone than substance. Because I don’t think that I disagree with any of your generalities here.

            But I think that it’s jumping the gun, in a dangerous way, to denigrate diplomacy as a “pipe dream”, and hypothesize about what “if the CIA, DIA or other intelligence agencies assessed that Iran was several months away from getting the bomb”.

            Well, that certainly would be noteworthy, but that would also be quite a different planet than this one we’re living on. As I pointed out at my place, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the former head of the Mossad both warn against attacking at this point, and both call Iran “rational.” As mentioned above, the DNI says that Iran has not yet decided whether to develop a nuclear weapon.

            So you’re stealing a few bases and skipping a few steps when you claim that it’s a “pipe dream” to wonder if Iran might not pursue a nuclear weapon. You’re imagining that our military and intel leaders might say things that make an attack seem like a good idea, putting your thumb on the scale in a way that’s unwarranted.

            I believed Dick Cheney, over ElBaradei, when he made claims about Saddam’s nuclear program, in some measure because I thought he “likely [had] more detailed, classified intelligence that both you and I are not privy to”. So: not again. I won’t support a war without a serious demonstration of why we’re invading or bombing. (Incidentally, it’s not that “we screwed up” reading the intel re: Iraq; it was centrally a leadership failure and a policy failure, not an intel failure).

            Now, as I’ve stressed here, I’m not saying that Iran’s leadership are lovely people, I’m not saying that it’s stupid to think they might pursue a nuclear weapon, and I’m not saying that a US attack should be unthinkable. But diplomacy isn’t just “going through the motions” en route to the fun part of bombing. It’s something that we have to make a serious effort at. We’re not at the point where war is a rational course.

            Diplomacy will help us earn support & legitimacy, it will prevent unwarrantedly risking the lives of servicemen & servicewomen, and it would be a much better world if we can resolve this without war.

            I don’t much like China’s leadership, either, but nor do I want to be in a war with them. It’s a happier world for everyone if we’re buying stuff from their factories instead of killing each other. We should try really hard to have things work out that way. War should be a last resort. Diplomacy can help us stay in the happier world of not-at-war.

            You’re assuming the uselessness of diplomacy (“I am confident the talks will lead to nothing”). That’s a very dangerous and unwarranted mindset. The NPT has worked very, very well. Countries like Brazil & South Africa have agreed to give up nuclear programs– success of diplomacy. If Nixon can normalize relations with the much more deeply irrational Mao, then we can at least make a serious run at negotiating with the autocratic, but less erratic & less maniacal Khamenei.

            • “It’s something that we have to make a serious effort at. We’re not at the point where war is a rational course.”

              I think we agree here to varying degrees. I think we have to make a serious effort, not because diplomacy will ultimately work out, but because as you said, “Diplomacy will help us earn support & legitimacy.”

              “If Nixon can normalize relations with the much more deeply irrational Mao, then we can at least make a serious run at negotiating with the autocratic, but less erratic & less maniacal Khamenei.”

              Ah, yet the Chinese still developed nuclear weapons, and their development led to a mini-proliferation spiral that led to Pakistani and North Korean possession of nuclear weapons. I don’t think the Iranians are irrational at all, which is precisely the reason I think diplomacy will fail. In a game theoretic analysis, their dominant strategy is to develop a nuclear weapon regardless of what actions the United States takes.

              • I might be missing your larger point here, but China was a nuclear power well before Nixon went to China. They tested in like 1962. Yes: we want Iran, like we wanted Brazil & South Africa, to avoid nuclearizing at all. So: you’re right. It is different. But I believe that the larger point– of whether we can talk to these people– stands.

                It’s legitimate to believe that diplomacy will not work; but in light of other experiences, I don’t see the argument for treating it as a foregone conclusion.

                I guess I see your view as totally legitimate, but unduly pessimistic.

                And that’s not really much of a disagreement.

                • Just a clarification on China. The United States also considered bombing the Chinese when they were developing a nascent nuclear program as well (as you said, in the 1950s or 1960s). My Masters thesis discussed a bit of it in the Appendix. It’s been about six years, so I don’t remember all the details. Nixon obviously opened relations with the Chinese long after that. My apologies for the confusing response.

  3. ericffp says:

    Hasn’t Iran already been found to have violated the safeguards of the NPT? How is being in NPT (on paper) but ignoring its provisions a point in favor of not developing the bomb?

    • Fascinating interview. I agree with him that an Israeli strike on Iran is a really bad idea. I also agree that all options should be pursued before executing a strike. I also agree that Iran is a rational actor.

      Where I don’t agree is that Dagan advocates regime change over a precision strike. Good luck with that one.

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