In a recent remark that has stoked considerable controversy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that it is. Dempsey underscored the importance of this assertion when he said that it was based on this conclusion -- that the regime is a "rational actor" -- that he felt the current U.S. approach to Iran "is the most prudent path."
To determine whether Gen. Dempsey is right or wrong, it is important to understand what it means for a government to act rationally. It does not necessarily imply that the government sees the world the way we do, or makes the decisions we would make. Simply put, there are two essential criteria for rationality -- first, that decisions are arrived at through a process of logical reasoning; second, that the decisions made are the best ones given the choices available.
Most discussions of whether the Iranian regime is rational focus on the first criterion. Does the regime make its choices by weighing costs and benefits, or through a capricious process guided by whim and claims of divine revelation? The U.S. intelligence community believes that it is the former: for all of the regime's unhinged rhetoric, the regime is calculating in its decisionmaking. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program puts it this way: "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."
However, this conclusion raises a critical question -- what does the Iranian regime see as costly, and what does it see as beneficial?
This leads to the second criterion for rationality: a rational actor makes the best decision given the choices available. But "best" according to whose interests, and whose values? Whether an action is costly or beneficial, and thus whether a decision is best, depends vitally on the answers to these questions. Our own domestic political experience -- witness the Democrat-Republican divide over the national debt -- demonstrates that two rational actors, faced with the same sets of facts and circumstances but holding different interests, philosophies, or values, can reach very different conclusions about what to do.
So for a conclusion that the Iranian regime is rational to be useful in predicting its behavior -- not to mention making and judging our own policy -- we must assess how the regime perceives its interests. Otherwise the "costs" we impose may not be viewed as costly by the regime, and the "benefits" we offer may not be seen as beneficial.
All indications are that the regime values its own survival above all. This likely fuels its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon, which it may see as a guarantee against external foes. To the extent the regime defines its interests parochially rather than as national interests, it may also discount the economic suffering of the Iranian people except to the extent it leads to political turmoil. Thus, to be perceived as truly "costly" by the regime, any sanctions or other measures imposed or threatened by the U.S. and our allies must place at risk the regime's interests, including its prospects for survival. What's more, they must threaten those interests so much that the regime is willing to sacrifice something it apparently values greatly -- a nuclear weapon.
Likewise, any benefit offered by the U.S. and our allies, if it is to affect the regime's calculus, must be seen by the regime as advancing its interests. Many things the U.S. sees as "carrots" -- for example, free trade or normal diplomatic relations -- may in fact be seen as threatening to an authoritarian regime which is leery of the West. Conversely, what the regime would see as beneficial -- for example, assurances that the U.S. would cease its support for human rights or democracy in Iran -- we are unlikely to be willing to offer.
There are two other important points to consider about how the regime decides which option facing it is best. First, we must be aware that there are other costs and benefits at play than simply the ones we generate through sanctions or diplomatic appeals. Individuals in the regime face their own incentives -- for example personal wealth generated in the black markets that sanctions give rise to -- as well as disincentives -- for example the possibility of ending up imprisoned or worse for too vocally bucking the regime's line.
Second, we must also be aware that the regime likely lacks complete information or anything close to it. This is where the assumption that Iran acts rationally runs into the most trouble. Decisions in Iran are made by one man -- Ali Khamenei. By all accounts, he has not traveled outside Iran since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, is likely insulated by his aides from bad news or criticism, and depends on an increasingly narrow and homogenous power base which may not expose him to alternative opinions. One is unlikely to make a good decision if ill-informed or unaware of all the options. Nor can the regime make accurate judgments about U.S. intentions if we do not clearly communicate our policies or red lines.
There are indeed examples that suggest rational cost-benefit decisionmaking by the Iranian regime, including the one cited in the 2007 NIE -- the regime's apparent decision to suspend its nuclear "weaponization" research in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But other Iranian actions seem untethered from cost-benefit considerations. For example, why would Iran try to blow up a restaurant in Washington in an effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, when such an action could spark a war that Iran would surely lose? Or, why would Iran not make a show of cooperation with the IAEA delegation that recently visited Iran, if for no other reason than to delay an Israeli military strike that seems increasingly likely?
More importantly, even if we were to conclude that the Iranian regime is a rational actor, we would not necessarily be able to predict its decisions or behavior. We have a poor understanding of how the regime sees its interests, what it perceives as costly and beneficial, what information is available to its leader, and therefore what it would consider the best decision in a given circumstance. And of course, even otherwise rational actors are prone to the occasional -- and sometimes very consequential -- irrational decision. And in an authoritarian state with an aging and increasingly isolated leader, this risk goes up exponentially.
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Dennis Ross has made an interesting appeal for talks with Iran. He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran's cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain. Since there is evidence that the Iranians are experiencing the kind of pain the strategy called for, Ross says it is worth testing whether this has adjusted Iran's cost-benefit calculation enough to make a deal possible.
Ross is clear-eyed about the modest prospects for success. Given the costs of the alternatives, I find Ross pretty compelling. But he buries the weak link in the strategy inside these two sentences: "Of course, Iran's government might try to draw out talks while pursuing their nuclear program. But if that is their strategy, they will face even more onerous pressures, when a planned European boycott of their oil begins on July 1."
As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face. It involves offering negotiations, but then insisting that the sanctions be lifted as a show of good faith or as a way of creating conducive conditions for fruitful talks or simply as a precondition for getting the Iranians to the table. The Iranians have been fairly adept at making it look like it was Western pressure that was hobbling diplomacy, thus creating pressure on our side to ease the sanctions. Even when the United States has stood firm, sometimes our allies and partners have wobbled. By and large, the Iranians have been more effective at using the prospects of negotiations to improve their chances of wiggling out of sanctions than our side has been at using the sanctions to improve the prospects for negotiations. And while the dynamic plays itself out, Iran has kept marching toward the nuclear threshold.
So I would endorse Ross's call for yet another round of negotiations, but only with certain provisos which are prerequisites for the strategy to succeed:
A friend closer to the action than I am tells me it is "inconceivable" that a new diplomatic push would not undermine sanctions pressure. If he is right, it is also nearly inconceivable that diplomacy would work. But, as they say in the business, this is an empirical question. We can find out.
If the Obama team can pull off this delicate diplomatic maneuver -- negotiating with Iran without simultaneously undermining our negotiating leverage over Iran -- that would be quite an accomplishment. Even then, it might not be enough to secure a deal. And it still leaves an exceptionally complex part of the problem underdeveloped, for I have buried another weak link of this strategy in my description of the deal: "…will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
But, as Ross suggests, it is the only way diplomacy stands a chance of succeeding. And this part will be fairly easy to monitor. If we ease up our pressure while negotiating, we will know that the negotiations are probably doomed.
People who believe negotiations will fail and believe that the military option is the only remaining recourse should not oppose one last diplomatic push. The political predicate for the military option is a consensus that all reasonable nonmilitary options have been tried and found wanting. It is unlikely President Obama would believe that predicate was met without another test of the diplomatic waters.
There is yet one other weak link in the strategy. If there is a genuine window of opportunity after which the military option is pointless -- as claimed by the Israelis in the "zone of immunity" -- and if negotiations are strung out beyond the closing of that window, that would dramatically increase the costs of pursuing another round of diplomacy. I do not know enough about the operational details to adjudicate this. Perhaps no one, not even the Israelis and the Iranians themselves, know for sure. But if I am right about the political predicate for military action, then the hawks should be the ones pushing most urgently for diplomacy, albeit on a very short deadline.
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First, he objects to my observation that Republicans need not fear crediting Obama when it is due because his foreign policy successes have mostly come from following Republican (specifically his predecessor's) policies. Tom's rebuttal appears to be that Bush invaded Iraq and Obama did not. I'm sure Tom knows that the issue is more complex than that, but if we are going to keep it at that level of first-cut analysis, what about this table?
I am sure there are items that could go into the emptier cells, just as I am sure we could easily find more examples to reinforce the pattern displayed above. My point, which others besides Tom missed, is that it is possible to acknowledge instances where Obama has succeeded without simultaneously undermining the case for a Republican alternative.
Next, he objects to my observation that containing Iran would be a daunting challenge and that sometimes opponents of the military option are cavalier about the difficulties. His rebuttal appears to be that containing Iran would not be harder than containing Stalin's Russia.
The pedant in me -- and every professor has a little pedant inside yearning to seize the microphone -- is tempted to point out that this is a textbook example of sloppy analogizing.
But setting pedantry aside, let me make three quick points.
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Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran's growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of Iran's openness to inspections and negotiations. Pessimists can point to Tehran's blustering defiance, continued enrichment activities, dispersal and hardening of nuclear sites, endurance of tremendous economic hardship (and even willingness to self-inflict further hardship by cutting off petroleum exports to fragile European economies), activation of its global terror networks, continued ambivalence from Russia and China, and Israel's heightened anxieties.
Both camps also invoke history to support their judgments. Yet just how history can actually guide U.S. policy towards Iran is less clear. Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg have a very insightful article addressing this question, and their answer is as true as it is unsettling: history can't help as much as we might hope, at least in the sense of offering prescriptive "lessons." Describing the tendency of policy-makers to cherry-pick historical analogies in support of pre-existing positions, Gavin and Steinberg show how the misuse of history can distort more than enlighten. Yet they also explain that the fact that the "lessons" of history do not produce a clear answer on the "to bomb or not to bomb" question does not mean that history has no insight to offer. Rather, history reminds us that plans and predictions are frequently confounded, that actions taken -- or not taken -- almost always have second, third, and fourth order effects, and that the consequences of such choices are often not known until decades after. Just as history's guidance may be uncertain, history's verdicts can be unforgiving.
Along with the Gavin and Steinberg article, Peter Feaver's post below discusses another frustrating facet of the prevailing Iran debate: the tendency of advocates on all sides to maximize their optimistic assumptions while minimizing the risks and uncertainties of their preferred position. As intellectual critiques, the points made by Gavin, Steinberg, and Feaver are serious and well-taken. Moreover, neither article represents a case of armchair quarterbacking. Each author knows that policy choices will need to be made amidst these uncertainties, with the attendant trade-offs and risks and potentially grave consequences.
To indulge in some unseemly disciplinary chauvinism, one thing that history can tell us is how relatively unique the Iran situation is, with no clear historical precedent or analogy. This contrasts with the limited predictive value of political science modeling that substitutes parsimony for complexity. For example, this article runs a quantitative analysis of the previous behavior of states that acquire nuclear weapons, and essentially concludes that nuclear states don't show a greater propensity for international mischief and disputes. Unfortunately the model treats all nuclear states as the same monolithic actors, and ignores other complicating factors such as changes in the international system, nuclear safeguards, ties to non-state actors such as terrorist groups, and especially regime type.
In contrast, history can tell us just how unprecedented the current Iran situation is: a potentially nuclear-armed state that combines support for terrorism, existential threats to neighboring states, an apocalyptic religious ideology, substantial energy reserves, and ambitions for regional hegemony. Yet history also reveals that the current international campaign to pressure Iran may also be unprecedented: extremely tight economic sanctions imposed by the world's two largest economies (the US and EU), escalating defense counter-measures by most regional powers, a vigorous sabotage and covert action campaign, and a brittle regime desperately afraid of further mass protests by its own citizens. Finally, history shows that our plans, assumptions, and actions rarely turn out as we hope, and so whatever course of action the Obama Administration takes -- whether attack or not -- robust contingency plans will need to be in place to deal with the unexpected.
Finally, as Gavin and Steinberg describe, there remains a pressing need and opportunity for more rigorous training across disciplines on how historical consciousness can be brought to bear on strategy and statecraft. To that end (shameless plug alert!), here at the University of Texas-Austin we're putting together a program to do just that. Aspiring grad students take note: If great college football, delicious BBQ, and studying history and security policy appeal to you, then keep us in mind.
Meanwhile, as history continues to unfold, its wisdom remains available to policy-makers -- if they listen and ask of it the right questions.
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It is almost banal to observe that the Iranian nuclear challenge is a hard policy problem. Back in the day, even during some dark periods on Iraq, Bush insiders tended to view the Iranian nuclear file as the more vexing problem. I remember vividly President Bush authorizing a fresh zero-based look at our Iranian policy in late 2005 even while the White House's public posture was focused on the Iraq problem. Bush's term ended with a sense of greater progress on Iraq than on Iran. And, measured differently, I suspect Obama's national security team would likewise believe they have accomplished a greater proportion of their objectives regarding Iraq than Iran. It is just that thorny a problem.
Which is why I do not fully understand the arguments of the vocal and energetic anti-war faction. Perhaps I am reading the critics the wrong way, but it seems like they make the Iranian challenge an easier policy problem than it really is by arguing that all of the relevant considerations point in the the same direction. Thus, the use of force is a bad option, they say, because the costs of attacking Iran are high:
So far, these are all logically plausible, reinforcing, and perhaps even co-related, points. Experts can debate them, but where I have a problem is the next phase of the argument, where they argue that the costs of not attacking Iran are low:
Again, it is logically possible for (almost) all of these to also be true at the same time. But it is not as plausible, which may be why it is rarely people with actual responsibility for policy making arguments like this. In the real world familiar to policymakers, the choices often involve unpalatable lose-lose options, especially on issues like the Iran nuclear case that have commanded decades of attention. The further one moves away from actual responsibility for the consequences of decisions, I suppose the easier it is to make the call. (For a persuasive take on a related policymaking conundrum -- the interconnectedness of policy choices -- see Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg's simultaneous defense of "muddling through" and appeal for more analytical rigor here.)
Put another way, why do people who say military action to destroy the Iranian nuclear program is too hard also insist that it will be easy to contain Iran? Why can't they acknowledge that it would be quite a daunting challenge to contain Iran? This would not preclude them from making the tough call in favor of containment over preventive strikes, though it might undermine the dogmatism of the argument.
Political psychologists would point to that as the reason: The tendency in hard choices for individuals to bolster, seeking and seeing ever more reinforcing arguments for the choice they have adopted. It is something like a confirmation bias and it is very hard to resist. And I do not think it is a problem only affecting one side in the debate. It is not too hard to find examples of advocates of a military option doing much the same thing (air strikes will be easy; Iranian retaliation will be manageable; containing Iran will be impossible; etc.).
The analysts I find most compelling, especially when dealing with hard problems that have bedeviled the policy community for a long time, are those who concede that not all of the logic and evidence stacks up on their side of the argument. The Iran debate needs more analysts like that.
In some cases, the same critics who pride themselves in their capacity to spot such cognitive pathologies when policymakers commit them seem to be the ones the most afflicted now. Perhaps this a function of the Iraq experience. Perhaps this what the Iraq syndrome looks like.
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Over the past five years, five scientists and engineers associated with Iran's nuclear program have died violent deaths, and one survived a bombing attack. The latest incident took place last week. While news reports of such attacks are incomplete, and perhaps inaccurate, there is little doubt that someone has mounted an assassination campaign against Tehran's nuclear scientific community. I've reviewed the history of attacks on scientists involved in nuclear programs, detailed reasons why a state might undertake such a campaign, and assessed the odds of its success in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Very likely, an existential imperative is driving the attempts to kill Iranian nuclear scientists; a group or a state feels that its very existence is threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, and is willing to undertake significant risks for a payoff that may well be quite limited, even by its own lights. Delaying a nuclear weapons program might be possible through such attacks, but stopping one is not. It is difficult to imagine a state with a scientific and industrial base large enough to sustain a nuclear weapons program, but so small that killing a few individuals would cripple the effort. Moreover, without detailed and intimate knowledge of such a program (which is very hard to come by and might be put to better use in other ways), it is impossible to know whom to target.
On the other side of the ledger, the assassination campaign has reportedly already increased Iran's operational security, may well limit visibility into Iran's illicit nuclear activities, and could provoke retaliation. Moreover, the head of Iran's nuclear program, himself a target of an attack, bitterly demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency deny complicity in the violence in a speech to the Agency's General Conference-not auspicious for access by international inspectors.
Given the limited probable payoffs and the significant likely costs, an assassination campaign can only be interpreted as an act of desperation, driven by an Iranian nuclear program that has now operated for years in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Acts of desperation are often an ominous sign that things will soon get worse.
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The Persian new year falls on the vernal equinox, but the government of Iran set off some fireworks to start the Julian year: announcing it had manufactured a nuclear fuel rod, test-firing three new missiles, threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, and warning the U.S. not to return the Fifth Fleet's aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
The Obama Administration has got the response -- a very difficult balancing act -- almost exactly right: not giving Iran the lift of a high-level political statement, instead quietly proceeding on sanctions, letting the economic arguments speak for themselves, reassuring allies in the region, and having our military refute Iran's claims with our obvious superiority and the unambiguous statement that "interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
Preserving freedom of navigation through the Straits would play to our military's strengths and showcase the increased political resolve and military capabilities of Gulf allies in recent years. The Obama administration has advanced cooperation with friendly governments in the region, Iran's own truculence producing closer involvement with the U.S.
I agree with Michael Singh that assertive military operations are a valuable deterrent and should be pursued, although it looks to me as though we've been doing that pretty well for the past few years: while our military leadership has mostly played down the likelihood of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, they have pushed back on Iranian maritime harassment, conducted operations near Iran's shoreline, arming and exercising with regional allies, and (as the recent drone capture by Iran demonstrates), extending surveillance and intelligence operations into Iranian territory.
One of the few missteps so far is the White House attempting to forestall Congressional furthering of the very means the administration has advocated for in limiting Iran's choices. Sanctions have been biting since the United Arab Emirates began compliance last year, and are set to tighten further with Congress' action to extend prohibitions to Iran's central bank. President Obama signing the legislation over the weekend may well have precipitated this round of bellicose posturing: Iran's currency promptly lost 12% of its value (continuing a plunge of 50 percent from a year ago).
Another potential wrinkle in the strategy is Israel's isolation. An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is more likely due to the friction between the Obama and Netanyhu governments; in making settlements the centerpiece of its peace proposals, Obama made cooperation between Israel and others more difficult and promises from us less reassuring. Secretary Panetta's comments don't help, either.
But still, President Obama has come a long way since the stolen elections of 2009, when he put potential relations with Ahmadinejad's government ahead of condemning the government's repression. The domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime faces a new challenge because reformists are refusing to participate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections, stripping away even the pretense of representative government.
Ayatollah Khameni and his wayward protege President Ahmadinejad claim that Iran is the inspiration of the Arab Spring. And they're right -- just not in the way they mean. The uprising of Iranians against their government rigging 2009's election was the first flowering of Spring, the first middle eastern populace brave enough to stand up to tyranny. Their demands for political rights were crushed by a government that has more in common with despots overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen than with the people overthrowing them.
As the new year dawns, we should continue to tighten the screws on this Iranian government and wish the Iranian people well in ending the tyranny that has repressed and impoverished them. We will have less to fear from a democratic Iran, even if it continues its nuclear programs, than we will Khameni's repressive Iran.
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Iran's bellicose rhetoric and Gulf wargames in recent days have given rise to the question of whether Tehran could close the Strait of Hormuz. As many analysts have observed, the answer is no -- not for a meaningful period of time. Less frequently addressed, however, is whether Iran would even try. The answer to that question is also "no" -- even the attempt would have devastating strategic consequences for Iran.
The presumable target of an Iranian effort to close the Strait would be the United States. However, while we would of course be affected by any resulting rise in global oil prices, the U.S. gets little of our petroleum from the Gulf. The U.S. imports only about 49 percent of the petroleum we consume, and over half of those imports come from the Western Hemisphere. Less than 25 percent of U.S. imports came from all the Gulf countries combined in October 2011 -- far less than is available in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, were Gulf supplies to be interrupted.
China, on the other hand, would find its oil supplies significantly threatened by an Iranian move against the Strait. China's most significant oil supplier is Saudi Arabia. China also happens, however, to be Iran's primary oil customer and perhaps its most important ally: Beijing provides Iran with its most sophisticated weaponry and with diplomatic cover at the United Nations. Thus a move to close the Strait would backfire strategically by harming the interests of -- and likely alienating -- Iran's most important patron and cutting off Iran's own economic lifeline, while doing little to imperil U.S. supplies of crude.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that China quickly dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to Tehran in the wake of Iran's bellicose statements. In typically opaque fashion, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said only that "China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the Strait;" this is essentially diplo-speak for "Cool it."
Even if Iran ignored these considerations and proceeded with an effort to close the Strait, the U.S. and others would move to keep it open, and would be unlikely to stop there. As Iran has crept closer to a nuclear weapons capability, the possibility of military action against Iran has also become more imminent. President Obama has been reluctant to threaten Iran militarily, and any U.S. president would think long and hard before engaging in another armed conflict in the Middle East.
An effort by Iran to shut down the oil trade in the Gulf, however, would make such a decision straightforward. The U.S. would react with force, and once engaged in hostilities with Iran, would likely take the opportunity to target Iran's nuclear facilities and other military targets. It is difficult to envision any scenario beginning with an Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz that does not end in a serious strategic setback for the Iranian regime.
Recognizing that Iran is neither able nor likely to try to close the Strait, the U.S. could simply sit back, confident in our superior firepower. This would be a mistake. The real danger in the Gulf is lower-level activity by Iran to harass shipping and confront the U.S. Navy. Iranian commanders in the area are increasingly brazen. If not deterred, Iran's sense of impunity -- rather than its nuclear progress -- may be the spark that ignites a conflict in the region.
Iran's navy -- especially the naval arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards -- has invested in vessels and armaments that are well-suited to asymmetric warfare, rather than the sort of ship-to-ship conflict which Iran would surely lose. Thus, they have purchased, with Chinese and Russian help, increasingly sophisticated mines, midget submarines, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and a fleet of small, fast boats. In addition, they have reportedly sought to develop a naval special warfare, or frogman, capability.
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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) circulated its latest report on Iran's nuclear program to member states yesterday, in preparation for an upcoming meeting in Vienna. We learned several important things from the leaked report and the immediate reactions to it.
If the information cited by the IAEA is correct (and the IAEA rarely errs by commission), two points are inescapable:
1. "Iran has carried out activities relevant to development of a nuclear explosive device."
Prior to the end of 2003, Iran pursued a "structured program" of these activities and there are indications that some of them "continued after 2003" and "may still be ongoing."
The report details specific examples including, procurement of equipment and materials by individuals and organizations associated with Iran's military, efforts to develop undeclared means to produce nuclear material, acquisition of weapons development information from a clandestine network, and work on an indigenous nuclear weapon design, "including testing of components." The reported detail extends to fast-acting detonator development useful for fabricating an implosion device, efforts at hydrodynamic tests to evaluate weapons designs without fissile material, and work to manufacture neutron initiators.
2. The report discredits Iran's protestations that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful.
The IAEA released the additional details on Iran's program, which had long been known to the Agency, out of frustration that Iran has been stonewalling. Repeated requests for more information, clarification, or explanation have been ignored by Tehran for years. Now Iran is confronted publicly with details that it can neither persuasively explain away nor ignore.
At least provisionally, we learned two additional points from the reaction to the IAEA report:
1. Russia is intent on shielding Iran from any additional pressure to halt its nuclear weapons-related activities
The immediate Russian reaction was not to criticize Iran, but rather to scuttle the notion of additional sanctions. According to the New York Times, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadi Gatilov said "This approach is unacceptable to us, and the Russian side does not intend to consider such a proposal." Russia can enforce its position by wielding its United Nations Security Council veto. Absent action by the Council, Russia, China, and others will be free to relieve Iran from whatever additional pressures the United States and the European Union might attempt to apply.
2. Iran is intent on its current course, and shows little interest in a negotiated solution.
Iran's reaction to the report, offered by its president and its representative to the IAEA, was to criticize furiously the Agency and its director. The former reportedly said, "The Iranian nation does not fear you if it wants to make a bomb, but it does not need a bomb."
Dismal is the product of these lessons. Iran is proceeding along the path to a nuclear weapons capability. Russia will block any attempts to pressure Iran to desist. Tehran evinces little interest in negotiation. As others have observed before, Iran is a land of bad and worse options, and even those options are dwindling with the passage of time and the spinning of centrifuges.
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Iran's alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was brazen, sloppy, but, regrettably, entirely plausible. While its tactics vary, the Iranian regime has engaged in direct terrorist attacks in the past, and recent events in the Middle East and changes to Iran's own military command and control structure have raised the likelihood of such attacks. The Obama Administration will be careful to avoid a war of escalation with the regime, but should resist the temptation to confine its response to sanctions.
On its face, the details of the Iranian plot seem amateurish and provoke deep skepticism. An Iranian-American who claims his cousin is a "big general" in Iran makes contact with what he thinks is a Mexican drug gang to blow up a Washington restaurant in a frantic effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, heedless of the innocents who will surely perish or the risk of US retaliation. This hardly seems to fit the modus operandi of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force has recently tended to operate below the radar, through trusted proxies such as Hezbollah, and while its activities are global, it concentrates its most nefarious activities in Iran's immediate environs, most notably Iraq.
Nevertheless, this conventional wisdom glosses over a significant variability in the IRGC's tactics. In Iraq, Quds Force commanders have been caught red-handed aiding militants. This includes Mohsen Chizari, the Quds Force operations chief who was caught and released by US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad in 2006 and was more recently designated by recent US sanctions for aiding the Assad regime's crackdown. Further in the past, the IRGC did the dirty work itself in bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. One of the Iranians wanted for that attack is Iran's current defense minister, and another ran unsuccessfully against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2009.
Recent developments may have spurred the IRGC to return to such tactics. While Iran initially seemed buoyed by the uprisings in the Arab world, which it touted as anti-American, Islamic revolutions, the regime was stung by events in Bahrain. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, successfully intervened in Bahrain to shore up the Khalifa monarchy against a largely Shiite uprising, while Iran -- which sees itself as defender of Shiite communities worldwide and occasionally asserts an old Persian territorial claim to Bahrain -- stood by impotently. This humiliation may have convinced the regime of the need to act. And the Saudi ambassador may have been seen in Tehran as a fitting target, as he is a close confidant of King Abdullah and a key conduit between Saudi Arabia and the United States, two powers whose hands the paranoid Iranian regime sees in all of its troubles.
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Much of official Washington has been stunned by the Justice Department announcement this week that an Iranian-American, acting on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been arrested for allegedly conspiring with an individual he believed was tied to a violent Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and carry out other possible terrorist activities.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, remarked, "The idea that [Iran] would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?"
But as outlandish as it may seem, it can also be seen as the fruits of Iran's steady expansion into Latin America and attempts to make common cause with transnational criminal operations in its global conflict with the United States.
Last week, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and I co-authored a paper, The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America, for the American Enterprise Institute, in which we establish that, over the last several years, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major diplomatic and economic push into the Western Hemisphere. Their goals are three-fold: to break down their international isolation and gain access to strategic resources; undermine U.S. influence in the region; and establish a new platform from which to wage their war against the United States.
That effort has been largely facilitated by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran's behalf with other like-minded governments in the region, primarily the Rafael Correa and Evo Morales governments in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, who themselves have established dubious networks with criminal groups.
What experts say is new, however, and indicative of a deepening relationship, is Mexican drug traffickers' increasing use of small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs in waging their mayhem in Mexico, an expertise for which Hezbollah is particularly known; and, secondly, the ongoing discovery of increasingly sophisticated narco-tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, which experts say resemble the type used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Frankly, from their own warped perspectives, it would be more surprising if there was no cooperation between Iran-Hezbollah and Mexican cartels, given the obvious benefits to both criminal enterprises. The cartels are able to access Hezbollah's smuggling and explosives expertise and links with drug trafficking networks in the Middle East and South Asia (the alleged Quds Force operative also reportedly offered opium shipments from the Middle East to Mexico). In turn, Iran and Hezbollah are able to establish a presence and develop assets in a lawless environment with ready access to the U.S. border that can go operational when the need arises -- as it apparently did in this case.
To be sure, trying to arrange the assassination of a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil represents an ominous turn in Iranian strategy against the United States. In any case, the stakes are clear. In a May 2011 visit to Bolivia, Iranian Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi proclaimed that in the event of any military confrontation between Iran and the United States, "The strong Iran is ready for enemy-crushing and tough response in case of any illogical and violent behavior by the U.S." It seems we now have a pretty good idea on how Iran will rely on its new-found friends in the Western Hemisphere to carry out that threat.
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The Iranian regime regularly serves reminders of its malevolence: its support for Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism, its killing of American troops in Iraq, its support for Bashar al-Assad's massacres of Syrian dissidents, its brutality to its own citizens during the Green Movement protests, or its persecution of religious minorities such as Bahais, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians.
In the latter category is the urgent case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian pastor in the city of Rasht who this week was found guilty of the "crime" of apostasy for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Under shari'a law apostasy is a capital offense. Knowing this, Pastor Nadarkhani on three consecutive days this week still refused before the court to renounce his Christian faith and return to Islam. Many reports indicate that Pastor Nadarkhani faces the very real possibility of execution. Even if the court releases him, he would not be spared danger. Religious freedom advocates remember the cases of Iranian pastors such as Mehdi Dibaj (also a convert from Islam), Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, Tateos Michaelian, and Mohammad Bagher Yusefi who were all abducted and murdered in the 1990s, very likely by Iranian intelligence agents.
The White House, State Department, and Speaker of the House Boehner have all issued statements calling on the Iranian Government to spare Pastor Nadarkhani's life, as have other Members of Congress and world leaders such as British Foreign Minister William Hague. These are welcome steps and serve notice to Tehran -- which does care about its international image - that its oppression does not go unnoticed. There are several additional diplomatic measures that can be taken. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice should remonstrate with her Iranian counterpart at Turtle Bay, Mohammad Khazaee. Related, the Obama Administration can demonstrate the utility of America's renewed membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council by pushing in Geneva for an emergency Council resolution condemning Iran's treatment of Pastor Nadarkhani and calling for the preservation of his life and his immediate release. And though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the State Department can work to mobilize other nations that do -- such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- to issue protests through their embassies in Tehran. Finally, Obama and Clinton can speak out publicly and in person to call for Pastor Nadarkhani's release.
The Iranian Mission to the U.N.'s website rather audaciously proclaims that "as a founding member of the United Nations, Iran believes deeply in the ideals of the organization and the purposes and principles of its Charter." Would that it were so -- especially since Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."
Though he is just one man, Pastor Nadarkhani's case exemplifies the situation faced by many other Iranians of all faiths, who desire only to believe, worship, and live peaceably without the oppression of the state. As the world watches, will the regime in Tehran do right?
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On Sept. 22, I testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the abuse of human rights in Iran and Syria. The wide-scale human rights abuses we are witnessing in these countries are atrocious, but they are certainly not new. The abuses perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad's Syria and Ali Khamenei's Iran stretch back for years and are a key element in those regimes' system of authoritarian control over their people. The Iranian and Syrian regimes have, in an effort to establish and maintain this control, cultivated illusions of democracy, prosperity, and stability which are belied by the underlying realities of these countries. The great achievement of both the Iranian and Syrian opposition is to have shattered these illusions, which neither regime will easily be able to reconstruct. Looking ahead, the U.S. should do all it can to assist opposition activists in both Iran and Syria to break the control exerted by their regimes. Whether in Iran or in Syria, preventing human rights abuses necessarily means supporting democracy.
You can read my entire written testimony here.
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Last month, three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) -- Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (R- FL), and freshman member David Rivera (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their concern over information they had received on suspicious activity involving Argentina, Venezuela, and Iran and asking the State Department to investigate whether any nuclear cooperation is at play between the three countries.
Rather than making any serious effort to look into the matter, however, State dismissed the legislators' queries within a matter of days with a perfunctory: "We have no reason to believe that Venezuela serves as an interlocutor between Iran and Argentina on nuclear issues, nor that Argentina is granting access to its nuclear technology."
Well, the members didn't have any reason to either -- until information started to coming to light that has raised disturbing questions.
Argentina-Iran nuclear ties are nothing new, dating from the 1980s. The reactor in Tehran is largely of Argentinean design and Argentina was shipping highly enriched uranium to Iran as late as 1993. That relationship, however, ended under intense U.S. pressure in the early 1990s and seemingly was severed forever as Iran's role in the terrorist bombings against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 came to light.
Still, Tehran never lost hope about restoring nuclear ties with Argentina and has made it a priority since. In 2009, the Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly reaffirmed, "We are interested in buying [nuclear fuel] from any supplier, including Argentina."
Enter Hugo Chavez.
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A word about Lebanon. Given everything else happening in the Middle East, it's easy to lose track of that country's plight. The last time most Americans tuned in back in January, Hezbollah -- backed by Syria and Iran -- had successfully engineered a bloodless coup, using threats of violence and intimidation to collapse the democratically-elected government of Saad Hariri and nominate its own candidate for prime minister. The fact that they chose to do so at precisely the moment that the pro-Western Hariri was being hosted in the Oval Office by President Obama only underscored the extent to which the maneuver was not simply an assault on Lebanon's democracy and independence, but a calculated effort to undermine U.S. interests and power in the Levant. For many, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising in 2005 that ended three decades of Syrian military occupation and brought Hariri's March 14th coalition to power. Lebanon, it appeared, had truly gone dark.
But not so fast. Bloodied and bruised, March 14th is not yet cowed. In mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing that killed his legendary father, Hariri strongly denounced Hezbollah's coup and declared that March 14th would re-constitute itself as a full-fledged opposition to the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah project in Lebanon. He vowed to fight their effort to derail the international tribunal investigating his father's murder, which is widely expected to unveil indictments in the near future fingering Hezbollah's central role in the conspiracy. Even more daringly, Hariri recently doubled down when he announced that the disarmament of Hezbollah would be resurrected as the centerpiece of March 14th's political program to save Lebanon's democracy, sovereignty, and independence. True to his word, March 14th yesterday released "Independence 2011," a new political manifesto aimed at securing Lebanon's freedom by bringing Hezbollah's arms under state control and bringing Hariri-père's killers to justice.
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Analysts here in New Delhi, as everywhere, are consumed by the unfolding developments in the Middle East. There is confusion over what might happen next, and how developments will affect U.S. standing in the region. Many have concluded that Iran, simply by standing pat, has emerged the winner yet again.
They take seriously the notion of a "Shia arc", first identified by Jordan's King Abdullah over a decade ago. They fear that even if the Saudis bail out Bahrain's chestnuts, the Shi'a on both sides of the causeway that links the two states will feel emboldened and empowered, and will provide Tehran still new opportunities to make mischief. They worry that Syria is the one presidential dynasty that looks secure, while Hezbollah's ascendancy in Lebanon adds to Iran's increasing footprint in the Mediterranean -- most recently underscored by the first deployment of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal since 1979. India retains decent ties with Iran -- the cultural and economic relationship goes back centuries, if not millennia--and there can be little doubt that what Indian analysts are asserting in New Delhi is what Iranian policy makers are concluding in Tehran. With the United States seen as poised to depart Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby both expanding and deepening the Shia arc, it is no wonder that the ayatollahs seem to be sitting pretty.
The Obama administration has done little to convey a different impression to the mullahs, much less to make them recalculate their strategic position in the region. The administration has not exactly been assertive in the face of the upheavals that are shaking the region. Its policies seem more the product of bureaucratic consensus, invariably conservative and risk-averse, than of real leadership, which calls for bold decision making. While it may perhaps be possible -- if one is exceedingly generous -- to excuse Washington for its inconsistent responses to the jasmine revolutions in Tunisia in Egypt, there is no excuse for the inaction that has marked its response to Qaddafi's brutality. It seems as if unless the United States can deploy troops on the ground to the Middle East, there is not much else it can do to influence events in the region.
As one senior U.S. diplomat recently put it to me, "we are increasingly being perceived in the region as the Soviets once were -- all we have to offer are military solutions, nothing more." There appears to be no creativeness coming out of the Obama administration, only words. Yet as he fires on his own people, it is highly doubtful that Qaddafi worries terribly much about whether the United States, or for that matter, the European Union or the U.N. Security Council, "condemns" his actions or merely "deplores" them. Moreover, imposing sanctions will have little effect on the mad dictator, especially in the short term, when it is short term results that are urgently required.
In fact, the administration seems hamstrung even when it comes to military action. When Qaddafi's stooges bombed a nightclub in Germany, the Reagan administration did not hesitate to launch an air strike in the Gulf of Sidra, targeting Qaddafi's home in the process. Today, claiming that it might endanger Americans seeking to escape Libya, Washington hesitates to mount a no-fly zone that would both prevent Qaddafi's ability to call on his air force and encourage further defections from all branches of his military. And it is not as if the U.S. Navy and Air Force's resources are consumed by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem isn't a shortage of aircraft; it is a lack of U.S. will.
So Qaddafi continues to kill his people, and the ayatollahs sit back, and watch, and wait. And, apart from issuing "strong statements," the Obama administration continues to do nothing to persuade them that they are wrong. No wonder Iran believes that time in the region is on its side.
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Last October, Ambassador Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush Administration, exposed Hugo Chávez's efforts to aid and abet Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program, including its efforts to obtain strategic minerals such as uranium and to evade international sanctions.
Documentary evidence now suggests that Hugo Chavez's junior partner in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, is apparently forging his own dangerous alliance with the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, raising troubling questions about whether Iran continues to expand its global efforts to obtain uranium and other strategic minerals that are critical to Teheran's rogue nuclear program.
According to sensitive official documents provided to me by knowledgeable sources in Ecuador and other countries and published here for the first time, Iran and Ecuador have concluded a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador that appears to lay the groundwork for future extractive activities. The deal, which was apparently finalized in December 2009, "expresses the interest of the President of the Republic [of Ecuador] and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology."
The deal calls for the establishment of a jointly run Chemical-Geotechnical-Metallurgical Research Center in Ecuador [Laboratorio Químico-Geotécnico-Metalurgico] and "to jointly implement a comprehensive study and topographic and cartographic analysis of [Ecuadorean territory]."
What is most concerning about developing Ecuadorean-Iranian ties in the mining sector is that, like Venezuela, Ecuador is known to possess deposits of uranium. In August 2009, Russia and Ecuador signed a nuclear agreement that included joint geological research and development of uranium fields, as well as building nuclear power plants and research reactors. In March 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency also unveiled plans to help Ecuador explore for uranium and study the possibility of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
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Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
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In a four-day journey at the beginning of November that took him through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki asserted that the United States was "displeased with the expansion of relations between Iran and African countries," and opined that while the U.S. had a "thirst for power," Iran practiced the subtler "power of logic." He described his top priority in Africa as "the exportation of technical and engineering services."
Less than two weeks later, Mottaki had to hastily return to West Africa to deal with the exposure by Nigerian authorities of another, more nefarious export: rocket launchers, grenades, and other illicit arms disguised as building materials and accompanied, apparently, by two members of the elite "Quds Force" unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The contrast between Iran's public campaign to drum up diplomatic support and build economic ties to stave off increasing isolation and its shadowy network of arms smuggling, support for terrorism, and subversive activities serve as a stark reminder of the nature of the Iranian regime and the dangers it poses well beyond its own borders, and well beyond the nuclear issue.
This latest revelation of Iranian malfeasance is hardly without precedent. Whether using the Quds Force -- described by the U.S. Department of State as "the regime's primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad" -- or proxies such as Hezbollah, the regime since its founding in 1979 has sought to project its power and influence far afield, often with lethal results.
The examples are manifold. In January 2009, Israeli forces bombed a convoy in Sudan allegedly containing Iranian arms bound for Hamas fighters in Gaza. That same year, at least three cargo vessels were found to be carrying weapons from Iran, likely bound for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, in violation of UN sanctions prohibiting Tehran from exporting arms. In 2007, a derailed train in southern Turkey was found to be carrying Iranian arms, also likely destined for Hezbollah arms caches. And for several years, the Quds Force has been supplying militants in Iraq and Afghanistan with weapons, training, and funding.
Iran's activities are not limited to arms smuggling. Earlier this year, Kuwaiti authorities uncovered an alleged Iranian "sleeper cell," souring what had been one of Iran's calmer regional relationships. Morocco in 2009 severed its diplomatic ties with Iran amid accusations that Iran was engaged in subversive activities there. The same year, Egyptian authorities broke up a Hezbollah cell reportedly planning attacks against tourism and infrastructure targets.
The list goes on, geographically and chronologically. U.S. authorities have targeted Hezbollah networks in West Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. INTERPOL has issued warrants for high-ranking Iranian officials -- one of whom ran for Iran's presidency in 2009 -- in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina. And Iran's complicity in assassinations in Europe and the 1996 terrorist attack on U.S. servicemen in Riyadh stymied EU and U.S. initiatives to repair relations with Tehran in the 1990s.
These activities, taken together with Tehran's refusal to cooperate with the IAEA on its nuclear activities and callous violations of its own people's human rights, paint a picture of a regime which pursues its own security by flouting international rules and norms of acceptable behavior. The recent revelations of Iranian arms smuggling are not an isolated incident, as the list above makes clear, but part of a consistent strategy utilizing terrorism, intimidation, and destabilization to enhance the regime's own power and influence.
As the United States and its allies try to restart negotiations with Iran, the regime's support for terrorism and other troubling activities counsel vigilance and realism. It calls for vigilance, because even as Western officials seek new points of pressure and avenues for outreach to bring Iran to the negotiating table, existing sanctions designed to constrain Iran's ability to sow violence and instability beyond its borders must be vigorously enforced. And it calls for realism, because it demonstrates that even a resolution of the nuclear issue would only begin to address the far broader concerns about the regime and its activities, making a true U.S.-Iran reconciliation far away indeed.
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NATO's 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system -- the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey's about to spoil the party.
The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this weekend's NATO summit, which will otherwise be consumed with attempts to wring commitments to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 and the approval of a new strategic concept (a topic which none but the most tenacious NATOphile has any interest in). Without missile defense, the news will be about President Barack Obama hiding behind NATO to walk away from his July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal commitment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already set two conditions that must be met for Turkey to host essential missile defense radar components: any system must cover all of Turkish territory (a demanding operational standard), and all references to Iran as the threat must be eliminated (what should be an easy hurdle for the alliance, given its history of "dual track" decisions of deploying nuclear forces while negotiating their removal). But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has upped the ante, stating that Turkey should have command of the system. Turkey commanding NATO's missile defenses is surely a deal breaker, not least because of questions about the political reliability of their government. There are alternatives to sitting the radar in Turkey, but there will be a messy dispute and another international disappointment for the Obama administration if a different site must now be chosen. It sounds as though what the Turks are actually asking for is a visible role in a defense system that will be based on their territory. Surely an alliance with NATO's celebrated history of chimera can find a way to accommodate Erdogan's sensitivities.
The new demand will no doubt aggravate an Obama administration -- which was looking forward to a celebratory NATO summit -- already short-tempered by the frustrations of dealing with Turkey. Administration officials have apparently mythologized a pre-democratic Turkey, when its military ran the country and was compliant to U.S. wishes. It is one more verse in the hymn about the unbearable difficulty of problems they inherited. This narrative not only neglects that Turkey has always been a difficult ally (ask anyone involved in the 1992 NATO exercise accident, or Iraq in 2003, it also neglects that the Obama administration volunteered for the job.
Math class is hard and it always has been. While the Turks are behaving badly, we are giving them no positive agenda to work with us on. The Obama administration needs to think anew about how to make this ambitious and difficult Turkish government successful in foreign policy. Give them constructive roles that capitalize on their desire to be seen as the Brazil of the Middle East, find terms on which we can support them, and showcase their successes. In other words, polish up on alliance relations.
This post has been updated.
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President Barack Obama and his advisors formulated their Afghan policy almost exclusively to achieve one goal: deny safe haven to al Qaeda, according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars. Counterterrorism is an important goal, but the administration seems to believe it is the only goal. This is a seriously myopic vision of U.S. national security interests. We have a much broader range of interests at stake in Afghanistan and South Asia. The administration's failure to understand them goes a long way to explain why it settled on a half-hearted strategy in Afghanistan.
So why are we fighting?
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The New York Times is highlighting the Iran angle in the latest dump from Wikileaks. That doesn't appear to be generating as much commentary as the question of civilian casualties but I think it may be more important for shedding new light on the war.
In particular, the Iran reports draw attention to an underappreciated part of the surge in 2006-2007: the ratcheting up of efforts against the Iranian-backed Jaysh Al Mahdi (JAM) terrorist cells and, indeed, on the Iranian agents themselves who had been operating with near impunity inside Iraq for much of 2006. The surge was designed to buy time to accomplish five tasks: 1) pruning the accelerants of the sectarian violence, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on the Sunni side and the Iranian backed rogue militias on the Shia side; 2) building a larger and more reliable Iraqi security force (ISF) -- in the language of Jaws, building a bigger boat; 3) fostering local, bottom-up accommodation (as with the Tribal Awakening -- a marked departure from the top-down, Green Zone centric approach that preceded the surge); 4) connecting these localized, decentralized efforts to the central Iraqi government, making the Iraqi government relevant to the regions; and 5) pushing the top-down reconciliation steps, the famous "benchmarks."
The first were two sides of the same coin: no one expected the surge to "win" the war, but it was designed to beat the problem down, while building the solution (Iraqi forces) up, until the two were matched again, permitting an American withdrawal. Beating the problem down involved significantly ramped up kinetic operations by "Stan McChystal's guys" against these groups.
Most of the attention of outside commentators focused on the Sunni accelerants of the violence -- how the Tribal Awakening and accelerated raids reversed AQI's momentum. But those inside the administration with responsibility for this issue were just as concerned about the Shia side, especially the Iranian connection. The trove of intelligence reports about rogue Shia and Iranian operations helps explain why.
There is a cottage industry among academics and some pundits attempting to discredit the surge as either a total failure or as irrelevant to what progress there has been in Iraq. The latest Wikileaks dump poses a real problem for them, and I haven't seen any of them yet adequately rise to the challenge: how would any of their preferred options in 2006 have dealt with the Iranian challenge in Iraq more successfully than did the surge that President Bush ordered?
It is widely believed that the massive $60 billion U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is directed against Iran. After all, Israel did not object to the deal. As one analyst told China's Xinhua News Agency, Jerusalem, of all places, was simply adhering to the ancient principle of: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
It is indeed possible that the deal -- which includes up to 84 new F-15s, upgrading of Riyadh's current force of 70 F-15s, and up to 1,000 so-called "bunker buster" bombs -- is meant to enhance the Saudi deterrent against Iran. But that presupposes that Iran will still be moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program in 2015, when the first new F-15s will be delivered to the desert kingdom, but will not yet have actually fielded the bomb. Should Iran already have acquired nuclear weapons together with viable systems for delivering them prior to that date, it is difficult to see how the Saudi purchases would effectively deter Tehran from anything other than a conventional attack on the Saudi Kingdom. On the other hand, should Iran have dropped its nuclear program -- whether as a result of either international pressure or an internal upheaval -- the Saudi purchase would appear to be somewhat beside the point.
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In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.
It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as "low-hanging fruit" -- the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well-known, precisely the opposite occurred -- U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.
To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that "The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been -- and remains -- the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland." In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.
It is this interest-- defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding -- that leads not only to Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu's position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel's legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington's harsh approach.
The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were -- with few exceptions -- refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.
For Palestinians, these twin interests -- justice for refugees who have been the region's second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable -- motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.
On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel's settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the "1967 lines" to ensure a Palestinian state's viability.
Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.
The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What's more, the parties have other interests -- such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran -- which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role -- helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.
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Nouri al-Maliki appears close to a deal that will
put Iraq's Shi'ia parties in power. After seven months of political
wrangling, it would be tempting to believe that any government formed by Iraq's
squabbling political leaders is progress. It is not.
The political slate that garnered the most seats in the parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi's non-sectarian bloc, ought to have had the first shot at forming a government. Prime Minister Maliki's manipulations of electoral commission findings and superseding of judicial decisions accrued that advantage instead to his second-place finish.
Even with the advantages of incumbency in a system newly empowered and without strong legal constraints, Maliki has been unable to cobble together a coalition. Other parties fear a "soft coup" of Maliki consolidating power and have been unwilling to join a government with him as prime minister.
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The freedom section of President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause -- two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama's relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence -- an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," -- they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.
Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama's speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.
But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America's first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history's tides rather than merely be swept along.
What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny's crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.
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By coincidence, I happened to read two stories back-to-back: the Iranian regime is apparently dangling offers to help us in Afghanistan; and Secretary Robert Gates thinks the proliferation-related sanctions are hurting Iran more than expected. My reading them back-to-back may be a coincidence, but I suspect the stories are related in a fundamental way.
David Ignatius notes one way the stories are related: Skeptics will argue
against grasping the Iranian dangle for fear that would "dilute the main focus
of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." He
claims that similar fears derailed an earlier potentially fruitful collaboration
with Iran on Iraq in 2006, and he hopes the Obama administration won't make the
same "mistake." To bolster his case, he cites "hardliners" in Tehran who
exploited the abortive diplomatic maneuvers in 2006 to discredit the United
States as a negotiating partner.
But I don't find Ignatius's reasoning very persuasive because he avoids addressing the most obvious connection. Perhaps Iran is dangling these offers now precisely so as to disrupt the sanctions. Consider the similarities in the pattern. The earlier Iranian dangle came when a) the situation in Iraq was unraveling so U.S. local leverage was eroding but b) after a long period of paralysis there was finally modest progress on the nuclear file with credible threats of tighter sanctions on Iran and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage was weakening to terrain where it was strengthening made a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.
The current Iranian dangle comes when a) the situation in Afghanistan is dodgy (and probably some within the Obama camp even fear it is unraveling) but b) after a long period of paralysis there is finally modest progress on the nuclear file with increased sanctions inflicting noticeable pain on the Iranian regime and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage is weakening to terrain where it is strengthening makes a lot of sense -- for the Iranian regime.
It only makes sense to take up the Iranian dangle on Afghanistan if we can do so without relaxing pressure on the nuclear file. If, as Ignatius and other optimists assert, the Iranians are doing this out of a sincere desire to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, we should be able to explore that without relaxing nuclear-related sanctions. Indeed, the sanctions might even improve our leverage leading to more fruitful cooperation. If Iranians set as preconditions for talks on Afghanistan some sort of relaxation of the economic pressure -- or if our allies on their own relax the economic pressure so as to "help" negotiations on Afghanistan -- then the bargain is a bad one for U.S. foreign policy.
There was a brief window when the Iranian regime actually was helpful on Afghanistan -- during the early post-9/11 window when the Iranian regime was afraid, with some justification, that the United States had an unchecked arsenal of military options at its disposal and was in the mood to wield them. During that period, many previously problematic regimes (Iran, Libya, Sudan) got "on side" with the United States, albeit temporarily or provisionally in some cases. Once the difficulties in Iraq undermined U.S. leverage, however, the incentives for cooperation shifted and the Iranian regime returned to its more common pattern of doing everything it could to frustrate U.S. foreign policy objectives in every arena.
The best way to break that pattern is with smart diplomacy. Smart diplomacy begins with a robust pressure track and builds other components -- direct talks, regional talks, and other carrots -- on that foundation. So let's not take the dangle on Afghanistan until we have locked in the sanctions and have corralled all of our allies in that effort. Once we have, it would be worth exploring other diplomatic avenues, but not before.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of [nuclear] weapons.
-President Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009
Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities. Iran is not implementing the requirements contained in the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, including implementation of the Additional Protocol, which are essential to building confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear program.
-International Atomic Energy Agency, September 6, 2010
The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear program is circulating in Vienna among governments, but has not yet been released officially. Media reports have highlighted Iran's conflict with inspectors, but other developments are more troubling. While couched in the calm tones of international civil servants, the report's message is unmistakable: Iran continues its steady march towards nuclear weapon capabilities, and no recent progress has been made in halting it.
Since the current U.S. administration took office, extending its hand to the leaders in Tehran, Iran has: continued to violate a series of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, now numbering six; increased its declared capacity to enrich uranium by about one-third -- despite U.N. Security Council Resolutions requiring that it halt enrichment; nearly tripled its stocks of low-enriched uranium; begun production of small quantities of uranium enriched to 20 percent, versus earlier production at 3.5 percent; revealed a secret, underground enrichment facility near Qom, while announcing plans for several more; and continued to chip away at the IAEA's ability to monitor nuclear developments.
MARCUS BRANDT/AFP/Getty Images
The ceremony on Saturday marking the beginning of the fueling of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor was preceded by much commentary about the implications of the move for Iran’s nuclear program and international efforts to halt Iran’s steady progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Under construction for decades, it was only a matter of time before Bushehr went live, especially after the Bush administration agreed in 2007 not to object to the project, hoping that a Russian-fueled Iranian reactor producing electricity would obviate Iran’s claimed need for indigenous production of nuclear fuel.
While Bushehr could eventually produce plutonium that Iran could use in a nuclear weapon, this would be a different path to a weapon than the uranium enrichment route that Tehran has thus far pursued. Plus, under Moscow’s agreement with Tehran, Russia will retain the spent fuel, which will be transported back to Russia. All aspects of the reactor’s operations, including the fuel, will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
These arrangements, are of course not completely foolproof, but are about as close as it gets. Even if Iran wanted a confrontation, and kicked out the Russians and IAEA from Bushehr, Iran does not appear to possess the reprocessing technology required to produce weapons grade plutonium from the spent fuel. Regardless, an international confrontation of this sort would be a green light for Israeli or perhaps even U.S. military action, an action one would assume the Iranians would not risk.
Another concern cited by critics is that now that the reactor is operational, any military action taken against the facility becomes much more difficult given the likelihood of a Chernobyl-style dispersion of radiation. Given the reported continuing Russian presence at the site, military action already is already unlikely, given that the last thing Israel would likely want to do is kill Russian scientists and technicians that are working on a project that has been blessed by successive U.S. administrations of both political parties. Also, if Israel or the United States became convinced that Bushehr was being used as part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it is likely that either country could find a suitable way to disable the reactor without contaminating a large geographic area.
Despite the fact that Bushehr thus fails to meet the hype swirling around the weekend’s events, there are several lessons to be learned from the plant going online.
IIPA via Getty Images
David Ignatius appears to have been convinced that the Obama administration is deftly playing its Iran hand. I am not so easily persuaded, but I did see in Ignatius's report one thing worth praising: President Obama now appears to understand that the sanctions track is the diplomatic track.
There are basically three schools of thought regarding diplomatic engagement
with Iran. One school thinks the prospect is hopeless from the get-go and not
worth doing. I understand this school's pessimism -- for 30 years, anyone
betting that diplomacy with Iran would fail made money -- but I have not been
in this school because of its naiveté. That's right, naiveté. It is hardly
naïve about the intentions and stubbornness of the Iranian regime, but it is
naïve about everything else regarding American foreign policy options regarding
Iran. Everything else we might have to do with respect to Iran -- whether it is
the hawkish option of military strikes or the dovish option of learning to live
with an Iranian nuclear weapon -- is easier to do if we have thoroughly tried
and exhausted other diplomatic options. So pragmatism requires that we try
diplomatic engagement, even if pragmatism also leads us to be bearish about its
prospects for success.
The second school thinks that diplomatic engagement is hard but doable, provided that the United States faithfully makes ever larger concessions and offers ever larger carrots. This school believes that the Iranian regime has several times made sincere offers that belligerent Bush officials foolishly ignored or rejected. This school wanted Obama to reset Iranian relations and pursue an approach that began with unconditional carrots and only threatened vague and imprecise sticks should the Iranian regime reject U.S. concessions. The problem with this school is that it offers no hedge against Iranian negotiators pocketing the concessions, moving the bargaining space accordingly, and stringing out the negotiations while the Iranian nuclear weapons program inches ever closer to a fait accompli. Like the quest for the Holy Grail, the quest for Iranian moderates who would cut a deal was tantalizing and never-ending. Not surprisingly, this school ends up consistently arguing against applying sanctions, and instead proposes new concessions as the way out of diplomatic impasses. The best gimmick this school has in this regard is pretending that sanctions are the alternative to diplomacy rather than acknowledging that they are part and parcel of a robust diplomatic approach. Thus, second school apologists consistently argue "let's give diplomacy a chance and not pursue sanctions just yet," which is sort of like arguing "let's try to swim the English Channel but let's not use our legs just yet, let's wait until we are drowning first."
During the campaign, a careless answer to a gotcha question in a foreign policy debate put candidate Obama partially in the second school. When asked whether he would sit down for an unconditional face-to-face with Ahmadinejad, Obama gave the reflexive "if Bush is against it, I must be for it" answer and said yes. Hillary Clinton pounced. Under the onslaught of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, Obama doubled down on and elevated it to a pseudo-doctrine during the campaign: For Obama, diplomacy would mean unconditional face-to-face meetings with tyrants, without regard to diplomatic preparation or prospects for success.
Of course, once in office, the Obama administration had to retreat from that unsustainable position. Face-to-face meetings with the president are too precious to be granted without adequate diplomatic preparation -- without getting something guaranteed and up front. But they were stuck with enough of the ideology of this second school that they felt obligated to adopt the Bush carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran with one crucial difference: sequence the carrots-and-sticks by leading with carrots and waiting a long time -- over a year -- before recognizing that it was time for sticks.
To my eyes, the praiseworthy piece of the latest report on Obama's thinking on Iran is that he has apparently now moved into the third school, where I have been hoping he would end up long ago. This third school thinks that diplomatic engagement is hard and only doable if the United States and our international allies have sufficient leverage over the Iranian regime. The necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for diplomatic success is for the Iranian regime to believe they are on a negative trajectory. The longer they delay, the worse things get for them; the deal they could get today is better than the deal they could get tomorrow. To borrow a hackneyed idea from the Cold War, diplomatic engagement means first setting the conditions so that the correlation of world forces runs against the Iranian regime -- and that they perceive this to be the case. To be sure, this must be done deftly so that the Iranian regime does not grow so pessimistic that it launches its own preventive military strike. The deftness requires consistently offering a plausible set of carrots that would change the trajectory in a positive direction, but ensuring that the Iranian regime sees those carrots as the alternative to their eroding status quo. All of this requires leverage.
There are many elements to establishing this leverage. For instance, reversing the negative trajectory in Iraq helped. Likewise, forging closer cooperation now among our Gulf allies who would be the most adversely affected by an Iranian nuclear weapon could further isolate the regime. But of greatest import, I believe, is activating what diplomats call the "pressure track" -- meaning ratcheting up the economic pain that the Iranian regime is suffering -- and doing so before, or in tandem with, offering carrots.
For diplomacy to work, the Iranian regime has to confront the choice of sticks-now-but-carrots-in-the-future-if-they-get-onside. This is the opposite of the second school, which offers the choice of carrots-now-but-sticks-in-the-future-if-they-stay-offside. The third school's approach has a higher chance of success because it tightens with time. The more the Iranian regime dithers, the more pain it experiences.
The approach also is slightly less vulnerable to mischief from weakly committed partners on the U.N. Security Council (such as the Russians and Chinese) who consistently drag their heels on sticks and demand that more time be given to carrots. The third school hedges against this weakness by offering the Russian and Chinese this bargain: in exchange for the United States offering more carrots to Iran, you must first ratchet up the sanctions. Russian and Chinese cooperation will always be the Achilles heel of any Iranian strategy, but our best shot requires prioritizing their sticks over our carrots, and taking advantage of every opportunity to further that priority.
The Obama administration squandered the best opportunity they had in this regard -- the smoking gun evidence of Iranian cheating on uranium enrichment, which the administration dramatically revealed last September. At that moment, the optimal strategy would have been to seize the temporary diplomatic advantage in the Security Council, push for immediate sanctions, and then re-launch the various offers of carrots and concessions. Instead, Obama, perhaps still under the sway of the second school' thinking, re-launched the carrots and concessions.
The predictable (and predicted) result was diplomatic failure and a full year was lost. Now the Obama administration has belatedly started to apply the approach advocated by the third school. It may well be too late now, but it is still worth trying.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.