February 4, 2011

Experts Debate Iran Options, Reject Military Confrontation

Paul Pillar

Washington, DC – Foreign policy and non-proliferation experts convened yesterday to discuss “principled and pragmatic” solutions to dealing with Iran and agreed on one thing—going to war with Iran would be disastrous. The conference, sponsored by the National Security Network and the Center for American Progress, focused on evaluating the best path forward for US Iran policy, and whether the US should seek to build on containment efforts or if the ultimate solution will require strengthened engagement efforts.

In evaluating the efficacy of containment, Center for a New American Security senior fellow Marc Lynch warned that the “sanctions regime can become an end unto itself,” and offered the US policy on Iraq leading into the 2003 invasion as a cautionary tale. “You look back at the experience of the 1990s and it does give you a sense of what Iran might end up looking like if we maintain strategic patience indefinitely,” said Lynch. “Patience is good for a while, but don’t lose sight of the idea that you are trying to get to a negotiated agreement, not maintain the sanctions simply for the sake of maintaining sanctions.”

Kenneth Pollack, Director of the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center, argued that the US needs to “ramp up” pressure on Iran, including by increasing financial sanctions, and needs “bigger carrots and bigger sticks.” Pollack warned that it is a “mistake, as some in the administration are suggesting, to go after the Iranians on trade, to go after them on oil and gasoline.” Pollack, a former advisor in the Clinton Administration, warned, “my experience with Iraq is that you start going after trade and people will die. Ambulances will not be able to get people to hospitals, food won’t get delivered, whatever it is, people will die. And over the course of time, that will make the sanctions absolutely unsustainable. The world will turn against the country enforcing the sanctions, not the country being sanctioned.”

Many of the panelists discussed how US engagement efforts could be strengthened. Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, argued that the specific benefits of successful engagement must be more clearly articulated to Iran, instead of just the costs. Arms Control Association expert Greg Thielmann warned that demands for Iran to terminate its nuclear program were unrealistic, but that instead the US should focus on the goal of implementing robust inspections that ensure Iran lives up to its obligations to maintain only a peaceful nuclear program.

NIAC President Trita Parsi criticized Iran’s posture in the most recent talks in Istanbul, saying that Iran perceives that its leverage has increased and so it dismissed an opportunity for serious talks. He noted that this is a posture similar to that formerly adopted by Bush Administration when it perceived US power in the region to be ascendant. Parsi assessed that, while sanctions have left Iran more isolated internationally, their regional influence has increased and sanctions may have actually enabled Iran to eliminate costly subsidies and free up more funds for other government priorities.

Paul Pillar, a former intelligence analyst at the CIA, debated with Ken Pollack on the issue of US covert operations. Pollack stated that the US should “explore” opportunities to increase pressure on Iran by supporting opposing groups and that “having a bunch of meetings with a bunch of Kurds and a bunch of Buluchs to sound them out will be enough to provoke the paranoia of the regime.” Pillar sharply disagreed, saying this would be “a barrier to bilateral talks.” Responding to similar concerns voiced by Ambassador Bill Leurs in the audience, Pillar said that, while covert action might be useful in some circumstances, the US is still paying the cost of the 1953 Mossadegh coup. “If Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian establishment is hardwired to believe that we are determined to overthrow them no matter what,” Pillar said, “then we might as well forget most of what we discussed because there is zero incentive for them to cooperate.”



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