Blink, or else
I am speaking tomorrow at the Italian International Affairs Institute (IAI) on Iran, the United States and Europe. Here are the speaking notes I’ve prepared for myself.
1. This year’s biggest foreign policy puzzle is how to handle Iran and its nuclear program. The piece of this puzzle I would like to talk about is Washington. What have the Americans got in mind? What are they trying to achieve? What will they do to achieve it? What happens if they fail?
2. The objective is clear: President Obama aims to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He rejects containment. He has broad support in the Congress and beyond for this position.
3. There should really be no doubt about American willingness to use force to achieve this goal. If diplomacy fails to stop Iran from moving toward nuclear weapons, the Americans will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and possibly much more.
4. This would not be a one-time decision. It would only set back the Iranian nuclear effort a year or two. We will have to repeat the attacks, likely at more frequent intervals. I don’t agree with Marvin Weinbaum that the Iranians will welcome military action, but it offers only a temporary and unsatisfactory solution. That may be enough for Israel, as Richard Cohen suggests, but it is not good enough for the U.S., which has other priorities in the world and needs to tend them.
5. Karl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, are also wrong to suggest diplomacy is the only option. But it is a preferred option. In a little noted passage in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month, the President outlined what his preference:
…the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.
6. David Frum misinterprets this passage as meaning that the president is bluffing on the use of force. That is a mistake. But Obama is clearly saying he prefers a diplomatic solution, because it has the potential to be longer-lasting than the military one.
7. From the Washington perspective, Iran is in diplomatic, political and economic isolation. The P5+1 are united. Sanctions are biting. The Sunni Arab world has come to the realization that Iranian nuclear weapons will require a response, one that will make the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it has been even in the past several decades.
8. Many countries have made the commitment that the President is referring to. They usually do it by signing and ratifying the Non-Proliferation Treaty (or in Latin America the Treaty of Tlatelolco) and agreeing to strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Brazil and Argentina made this commitment in the 1990s.
9. The trouble is that Iran, a state party to the NPT, has violated its commitments by undertaking uranium enrichment outside the inspection regime and also working on nuclear explosives. So President Obama will be looking for verifiable commitments reflecting a genuine decision not to pursue nuclear weapons, based on the calculation that Iran will be better off without them.
10. How could that be? Acquisition of nuclear weapons creates security dilemmas for Tehran. The United States will target a nuclear Iran (we have foresworn first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, but not against nuclear weapons states), Israel will not only target Iran but also launch on warning, and other countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt?) are likely to begin seriously to pursue nuclear weapons, greatly complicating Iran’s situation.
11. Keeping its enrichment technology but giving up on nuclear weapons would provide Iran with a good deal of prestige without creating as many problems. U.S. intelligence leaks claim that Iran has not in fact made the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, leaving the door open to an agreement along the lines the President suggests.
12. Such a diplomatic solution would require Iran to agree to rigorous and comprehensive inspections as well as limit enrichment to well below weapons grade, which is 90% and above.
13. The question is whether the internal politics of the three countries most directly involved (United States, Iran and Israel) will allow an agreement along these lines. As Martin Indyk points out, they are currently engaged in a vicious cycle game of chicken: Israel threatens military action, the U.S. ratchets up sanctions to forestall it, Iran doubles down on the nuclear program, causing the Israelis to threaten even more….
14. Can Obama deliver on such a diplomatic solution? The Americans are hard to read. Best to listen to is Senator Mitch McConnell, who as Senate opposition leader represents the anti-Obama position. He declared earlier this month:
If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program.
15. This was generally read as a belligerent statement, since it makes explicit the American willingness to use military force if its red lines are crossed. But in fact it is consistent with the kind of diplomatic solution Obama has in mind.
16. But this Obama/McConnell proposition asks of Iran considerably less than Israel would like. Israel wants to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. This means giving up the technology required to enrich uranium to weapons grade or reprocess plutonium.
17. No country I know of has given up uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technology, once acquired. It isn’t even clear what it would mean to do so, since the know-how resides in scientists’ brains and not in any given physical plant.
18. If war is to be avoided, someone has to break the cycle Indyk refers to, putting a deal on the table. Daniel Levy suggests that Netanyahu is not really committed to Israeli military action but is trying to stiffen Obama’s spine. He is unlikely to blink. Obama is constrained because of the American elections from appearing soft on Iran. He has to appear ready and willing to use military force.
19. This leaves a possible initiative to Tehran, which is free to move now that its parliamentary elections have been held. They marked a defeat for President Ahmedinejad, who has appeared to be the Iranian official most willing to deal on the nuclear program. Supreme Leader Khamenei is more committed to the game of chicken. He may even think nuclear weapons necessary to his regime’s survival, a conclusion Indyk thinks rational in light of what has happened with North Korea on the one hand and Libya on the other.
20. It is really anyone’s guess what Khamenei will do. But at least he has an undivided polity behind him. My hope is that either he or Obama–better both–decide to blink and cut a deal that ends Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions definitively and avoids a military effort that will have to be repeated at shorter intervals for a long time to come.