We’re slowly reaching a critical point in the nuclear impasse with Iran.
If you listen to Iran hawks on the right, Iran is hell bent on getting a nuclear weapon. They just know that’s what Iran wants, despite, as Roger Cohen suggests, no evidence or logical basis supporting their conclusion.
Unfortunately, there’s been little to no push back against what sounds eerily familiar to the rhetoric coming out of neo-cons in 2002, pre-Iraq invasion.
Keeping quiet could lead us beyond the point of no return, where no matter what we do or say or what calculus we use, the end result is a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Of course, many Iran-hawks will portray this as a “limited strike” sortie, where only nuclear facilities are attacked. But if “limited strike” doesn’t sound a whole lot like “slam dunk” or “cake walk,” you might not be listening closely enough.
For us to assume Iran would not respond to “limited strikes”, that Iran would slow or end its enrichment of uranium, that Iran would somehow become more pliant in its reporting, and that the rest of the Middle East would remain quiet, is recklessly naive at best.
I want to be clear before I go forward. I don’t support an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. But the fact is Iran has not decided to actually begin a nuclear weapons program. The only conclusion we can draw from a new IAEA report is that they are still in the investigations phase, despite attempts to suggest otherwise. And Iran still hasn’t decided if they actually want a program, and, if they do, what will it look like. As I’ve written previously, all major intelligence analysis points to this conclusion as well.
Unfortunately, some have decided, despite the fact Iran is within boundaries of international law circumscribing uranium enrichment and despite the fact Iran remains operating within the framework of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the US needs to threaten Iran for its transgressions—as Senator Lieberman’s questioning of Leon Panetta at his recent confirmation hearings would suggest. What we have to understand is that, in many ways, the policy coming out of Tehran is in large part a response to such threats. (Disclaimer, this doesn’t mean that Iran is helping its cause by being evasive regarding their program.)
This means that they could decide they are safer with nuclear weapons, or with people thinking they have nuclear weapons. We have to refrain, however, from accelerating any decision by Iran to seek nuclear weapons. Far worse, however, would be a self-fulfilling prophecy–an attack on Iran that drives them to decide to weaponize. As my former professor Dr. Robert Farley, at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and Commerce says, “Angels weep when we mistake pre-emptive strikes with preventative strikes.”
This is a problem because, first, Iran’s nuclear facilities are spread throughout the country. Multiple facilities make for multiple targets. We can’t forget all the anti-aircraft instillations that need neutralizing. Already, a “limited strike” is starting to take on more than limited dimensions. Would we get every target? Would there be more than one sortie? What about the unknown targets? What if a plane gets shot down? What if civilians are killed in the strike? Will one sortie knockout the necessary facilities to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program?
Second, despite what some would have us believe, Iran is a very nationalistic country. At a recent forum, Green Movement spokesman Ardechir Amir Arjomand, said the population would rally around the government–ending any hope of democratic change or reform–to protest the attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. Remember Iraq’s invasions of the Arab dominated areas of Iran in 1980? The popular thought was that the Arabs would join Iraq against Iran’s new revolutionary government. What happened was the exact opposite, except for the Mujahedeen al-Khalq (MEK), everyone rallied around Khomeini to fight off the invaders. As a direct result of the invasion, Khomeini was able to solidify his revolution. Thus, any attack would breathe life into a dying regime. We’d give them exactly what they want.
Third, the US economy would be affected by the subsequent sharp rise in oil costs. This would stem from the natural tendency of prices to rise during times of instability, but also from a likely Iranian response of harassing and possibly even sinking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. So, the cost to American families would still be drastic, possibly plunging the US into a second recession. A recent poll from Pew Research Center suggests that there won’t be many Americans pleased by steep rise in prices due to another military engagement in the Middle East. How anyone can think attacking Iran is a good thing is beyond me. Additionally, high oil prices would allow the Iranians to continue filling their coffers.
Fourth, likely responses from Iran, its allies, and the Arab Street would destabilize the region even further. More than likely, Iran would mobilize Hezbollah, and its allies in the occupied territories of Palestine, to attack Israel. And all the revolutions we’ve witness this spring—ones that overthrew tyrants—will immediately distance themselves from US sponsorship.
So, what should we do?
First and foremost, we have to be patient. As a recent piece by John Limbert says, thirty years of virtually no communication between the US and Iran means that rapprochement and trust building won’t happen overnight, but instead will take time. This means the best approach will be moving forward with incrementally small steps. Also, as Hooman Majd beautifully points out in his most recent book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Iranians don’t adhere to a strict timeline, much less one imposed by Western Powers.
Second, keep the focus on engagement. Despite Iran’s diffusive political talk, the more we engage Iran, the more we learn. Each meeting can be a learning experience; after 30 years of no engagement, the US has no cadre of diplomats with experience in Iran. Not to mention each meeting can be used to build trust.
Third, stop focusing on the nuclear program. Shift the focus to human rights. This is something around which we can build a consensus. Evidence is not lacking proving Iran’s poor human rights record, pushing this instead of the nuclear program may also change Iran’s calculus regarding weaponization.
Finally, stop talking about “the military option.” Maybe, it remains on the table, but so far away from the center of the table—almost falling off—that we, and the Iranians for that matter, actually forget it as an option.
The illusion that the US can use its military might to get its way has narrowed our options regarding the Iran issue. Instead of asking whether military strikes will work, the real question is, can we use diplomacy to solve our problems?