For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
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The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.
There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.
However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.
First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.
When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.
This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.
Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.
Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.
Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.
Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline.
Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.
The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks.
But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.
None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.
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While America's attention has been drawn to last week's terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December.
Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond -- particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.
The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration's zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama's team scrapped the Bush administration's missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB.
Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient. The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:
"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.
Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.
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North Korea's recent saber-rattling raises troubling new questions about the bipartisan failure of American policy to limit Pyongyang's armed recklessness and to manage its growing threat to the United States and our allies. Over the past few years, North Korea has walked across previous "red lines" -- attacking South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean naval vessel, abrogating the armed truce that has governed the peninsula for six decades, directly threatening the United States and our allies with attack, repeatedly testing nuclear weapons, and testing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory -- all with impunity. Is it time for Washington and its allies to implement a more robust containment policy to counter the erosion of Northeast Asian security caused by Pyongyang's dangerous provocations?
To sketch out such a policy is not to endorse it, for it entails considerable risks. But the risks attending the current status quo appear to be growing and unsustainable. Indeed, on current trends, America and its allies may be on a collision course with North Korea unless we consider a new approach that deprives Pyongyang of the strategic initiative that is keeping the Asia-Pacific democracies off-balance. Such an approach would be most effective if coordinated between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo with support from other regional powers. It might also help change China's calculations about whether and to what extent to support an "ally" that has become an acute strategic liability.
An aggressive containment strategy would tighten existing financial sanctions on North Korea by penalizing any third-country bank or firm doing business with it. In particular, Chinese entities would be faced with a choice: Do business with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, or with North Korea -- but not both.
On the military side, an intensified containment strategy would interdict all ship-borne traffic heading to North Korea in international waters to inspect it for contraband, including WMD components. Rather than passively observing and measuring the success of North Korean missile launches, a containment strategy with juice would have the United States and Japan jointly shoot down those missiles, depriving Pyongyang of the propaganda victories it claims following each test. In cyberspace, the United States and its allies could pursue a tit-for-tat approach to North Korean provocations, turning out the lights in Pyongyang when its leaders threaten us and our allies.
Using its soft power of attraction rather than relying purely on the hard power of its sophisticated military capabilities, South Korea could offer to open its borders to any North Korean able to escape their gulag of a country by land or sea, in a sort of "tear-down-this wall" policy that would complicate North Korea's ability to police its borders -- and undercut the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime by demonstrating to the world how many of its citizens are desperate to leave it behind.
In his 1999 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Senator John McCain urged the United States to stop playing "prevent defense" when it came to North Korea, moving instead to a policy of "rogue-state rollback" that targeted the legitimacy and power of the regime itself. The question for leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is whether they are ready to move to a more active policy that chips away at the foundations of a Pyongyang regime that directly threatens their people and their interests -- not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, where Iran's budding nuclear weapons program benefits from North Korean assistance. For China's new leaders, the question is whether the albatross of North Korea now so threatens stability in Northeast Asia that cutting it off is actually less risky than continuing to underwrite it.
The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" may soon need to give way to a policy of "strategic initiative" that prevents the people of the United States and our closest Asian allies from being held hostage to the whims of the tyrant in Pyongyang.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Korea had in recent years sunk a South Korean submarine. In fact, the North sank a corvette belonging to the South and not a submarine.
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The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
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Residents of the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic went to the polls over the past two days to deliver a resounding rejection of Argentina's bullying campaign to assert a historically dubious claim to sovereignty over the archipelago. With turnout over 90 percent, some 99.8 percent of islanders voted in favor of remaining an overseas territory of Britain.
The referendum comes thirty years after Argentina's disastrous military invasion of the islands was repelled by British forces at the cost of some 1,000 lives. Reasonable people can be forgiven for thinking that skirmish should have ended for the foreseeable future any dispute regarding sovereignty over the islands.
But reasonableness is not a quality in abundant supply among today's Latin American populists. It seems the government of Cristina Kirchner has dusted off the Falklands chestnut just as the country's economic fortunes -- and her popularity ratings -- are going even further south than the Falklands.
After riding the commodities boom for most of the past decade, the global recession has depressed demand and Argentina is now feeling the pain of President Kirchner's brand of populist economic policies. Economic growth has dropped from 9 percent to 2.2 percent, inflation has increased to approximately 24 percent, and unemployment stands at 7.6 percent. So, what is a good populist leader to do? Try to distract the populace's attention by resurrecting historical grievances. But speechifying from the balcony for domestic consumption is one thing. As the Heritage Foundation points out in a recent paper, the Kirchner government is also waging an intimidation campaign against the islanders, with its navy interfering in shipping and fishing activities, pressuring other countries to deny entry to Falkland-flagged ships, and threatening a vital air supply link to Chile.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has had no comment on this kind of aberrant behavior, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, and adopted no position on either side's sovereignty claims, simply saying the two should "negotiate."
The problem with the administration's position is that it legitimizes and elevates Argentina's spurious claim to the same moral plane as that of the Great Britain's -- as if there some sort of equivalence -- despite the fact that the latter's position has more than two hundred years of history behind it and the overwhelming wishes of the very same people whose lives will be most affected by any change in the status quo.
And ... to what purpose? Merely to provide succor to the expedient political interests of a government, Argentina's, that is no friend of the United States? And, moreover, at the expense of the interests of our closest and most trusted ally in the world?
U.S. policy on the issue of the Falklands should be that there is no issue. This is not Kashmir. We should be supporting our real friends in defending their interests whenever and wherever needed -- just as President Reagan did when he provided key U.S. logistical support to Great Britain during the 1982 war. It is regrettable that today we opt instead to enable the bad behavior of Latin American populist governments with whom we have no common interests or goals.
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Wayward ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman may think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a friend for life, but apparently Beijing does not. It looks like the U.N. Security Council will unanimously pass a resolution on Thursday that will impose Chapter Seven/Article 41 sanctions (measures short of armed force) on North Korea in response to Pyongyang's last nuclear test. I must confess that I did not expect this, but apparently even Beijing has a limit to its tolerance of North Korean provocations.
Chinese MFA officials say that the North Koreans crossed the line this time by testing their last nuke after "unprecedented" pressure from Beijing not to embarrass Xi Jinping on the eve of his assumption of power at the National People's Congress. Senior Chinese officials are telling their South Korean counterparts that Xi Jinping has ordered an overall review of North Korea policy, and even Japanese officials are pleasantly surprised that Pyongyang has provided an excuse for strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing in the midst of a tense Sino-Japanese stand-off over the Senkaku Islands.
This could fizzle, of course. China undertook a similar policy "review" after the North's 2009 test, but within a year it was doubling trade with Pyongyang and ignoring the North's attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The North is also adept at distracting the Chinese with alternating threats and promises of new diplomatic engagement. Pyongyang has already threatened to "nullify" the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War if the UNSC passes a sanctions resolution -- the kind of sabre rattling that has made Chinese knees knock together in the past. There are also expectations in the region that Pyongyang will offer to negotiate a peace agreement, which could induce huge sighs of relief in Beijing.
The point is not to wait and see, however. Implementation by Beijing has always been the Achilles heel of past UNSC resolutions on North Korea. Rather than pat itself on the back and use the international community's outrage as leverage to get the North back to the table (a mistake made after the 2006 and 2009 sanctions), the Obama administration should keep at China to implement the new sanctions in terms of specific actions to interdict North Korean proliferation activities and close illicit bank accounts and North Korean trading company offices in China (of which there are still visible examples).
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In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became known as a "more for more" approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.
It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a "more for less" strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to reports -- the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny), but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment facility at Fordow.
Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be negotiating with itself -- Iran did not respond to the P5+1's last offer and by all accounts made no formal response to the new offer -- the group's approach to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see this article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).
Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) -- in other words, a range of possible outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of $200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is between those two figures -- $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does not guarantee that a deal will be made -- there are still plenty of obstacles to reaching agreement -- but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to broker a deal.
In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks' failure to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present -- the least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S. and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.
Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same -- they raise the cost of failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating position.
The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open a ZOPA that much more.
The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons capability -- and the prestige and security that it could bring -- far more than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have previously characterized as a pittance.
There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in negotiations -- to change one's own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one's interests. This appears to have been the P5+1's approach in the Almaty round -- faced with Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as "a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime."
Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may now be the case with the P5+1.
There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes in one's bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true regarding the P5+1's previous insistence that Fordow be dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran's nuclear program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to maintain centrifuge cascades there -- even under IAEA seal -- means that they retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.
Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your "true" bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international pressure the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap enrichment at 20 percent, may fall by the wayside just as the demands for shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from operating centrifuges have in the past.
Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect, this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the P5+1's own flexibility and bottom line.
Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or "resistance" toward which was a guiding principle of the regime's founding ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October 2009 "TRR deal" lent legitimacy to Iran's low-level uranium enrichment activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but tolerable under the right conditions.
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For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
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The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?
On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.
On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."
Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now. Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.
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When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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North Korea is yanking the world's chain yet again, sending all relevant parties hither and yon. As we contemplate what to do and the Kim clan perfects its ability to deliver its growing nuclear arsenal to targets in South Korea, Japan and the United States, we could do worse than turn to a rising star of Korea analysis: Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University. Dr. Lee provides a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with. The basics are not a bad place to start in thinking or rethinking how to deal with the criminal-nuclear enterprise that we call North Korea. Here is an edited version of what he said at a conference in Seoul last week (my commentary is in italics and the final thoughts are my own).
1. North Korea is "uniquely unique." It is the world's sole communist hereditary dynasty, the world's only literate-industrialized-urbanized peacetime economy to have suffered a famine, the world's most cultish totalitarian system, and the world's most secretive, isolated country -- albeit one with the world's largest military in terms of manpower and defense spending proportional to its population and national income. The result is an exceptional state, perhaps the world's most influential regional power commensurate with its territorial and population size and economic and political power.
That is, North Korea has managed some seemingly impossible feats. It has remained a cultish communist dictatorship even though all its like-minded brethren have been relegated to the ash heap of history. It has managed to produce a spate of famines despite the fact that its population is urbanized and literate. And through its combination of supremely disproportionate spending on military forces, its nuclear program, and its unique ability to outfox, out-negotiate, and outplay the world's industrialized powers, it has become a regional nuclear power with disproportionate influence in Northeast Asia despite its poverty and privation.
2. The other Korea, the one south of the 38th parallel, is a global leader in trade, shipping, automobiles, and electronics. It is also a free democratic polity. And on December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-hye as president. Park is the first elected female leader in Korea and also in Confucian civilization, which consists of China, Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam and makes up nearly a quarter of the world's population. The contrast between the two Koreas could not be starker -- beyond the obvious, you have a cultish male hereditary dictatorship in the North, and a freely elected female leader in the South.
Development experts and theorists of democratization take note. South Korea has the same culture, historical legacies, and so on as its neighbor to the North. And yet it is an advanced industrial economy and a thriving democracy that has just, despite its Confucian culture, elected a woman as president. It has managed to reach this high point of prosperity and human dignity because of -- to reduce a complex set of phenomena to its minimal essence -- different institutions than those in the North: democratic and capitalist ones. (I realize that I may be violating some tenet of doctrinaire realism with this observation. For the less doctrinaire, the contrast between the two Koreas is a useful reminder of why we try and favor and even push for democratic capitalism). Given the stark contrast between the two countries one can safely draw at least one conclusion: There is nothing inherent in culture or history that ipso facto should keep a country poor and enslaved.
3. The Park Geun-hye administration and the Obama administration should ... not deprive themselves of the credible, non-military deterrent that would weaken or debilitate the Kim regime. They should attack the North Korean regime's two most glaring systemic contradictions: 1. Over-reliance on its shadowy palace economy instead of making licit goods that are competitive on the world market or opening up to foreign investment and trade worthy of the name. Pyongyang's palace economy is particularly vulnerable to tools designed to counter international money laundering. 2. [T]he unfeasibility of controlling the population over the long-term through its vast network of prison camps, fear, and thought police; that is, its egregious human rights violations.
The North Korean state is essentially two things: 1) a large money-laundering concern; 2) the world's largest prison and slave labor camp. Now, however, it is a large money-laundering concern and prison camp that has additionally extorted its way to nuclear weapons. Any U.S. policy should begin and end with the knowledge of what North Korea really is. It is not a state engaged in the normal give-and-take of diplomacy, seeking "security assurances" in return for "denuclearization" or some other such deal conjured up by diplomats whose experience is in dealing with real countries who negotiate in good faith. Rather, North Korea has had a pretty good run with its current approach of extortion, criminality and the deprivation of its own people.
4. The Obama administration is in a position to take the lead on squeezing Pyongyang's palace economy. It should designate the entire North Korean government a Primary Money Laundering Concern, which is a legal term for entities that fail to implement adequate safeguards against money laundering. It should also enforce Executive Orders 13382 (signed June 2005) and 13551 (signed August 2010), which call for the freezing of suspect North Korean entities' assets and those of third-country entities suspected of helping North Korea's WMD proliferation (and criminal) activities. Furthermore, the incoming Park Geun-hye administration is in a position to take the lead in implementing a sustained human rights campaign against Pyongyang. It should vastly increase funding for information transmission efforts into North Korea, encourage North Korean defection and reinforce resettlement programs, and raise global awareness on the Kim regime's egregious human rights violations so that people living in democratic societies around the globe come to think less of the Kim regime as an oddity or an abstraction and more as a threat to humanity.
North Korea's nature underscores its vulnerabilities. It cannot survive without laundering money for its dangerous and illicit activities. It should not be treated as a normal country when most of its people are enslaved. The countries threatened by Pyongyang have in their toolkit the ability to treat the entire state apparatus as a criminal enterprise and can block it and anyone (including many Chinese banks and enterprises) doing business with it from engaging in transactions within the international financial and commercial system. Rather than pretending that they are negotiating with just another regime, the United States and South Korea should instead unleash a campaign to highlight just how abnormal and illegitimate the Kim family is. Here is a simple formula that policymakers can use in setting our approach to North Korea: North Korean existence=criminal activity + human enslavement + nuclear exhortation. There may be little to nothing the world can do now about the fact that it has allowed the North to become a nuclear weapons state. But it can and should treat it like one big criminal/slave state.
Some Concluding Thoughts: South Korea and Japan, for reasons that should be obvious (North Korea, China, an unsteady and retrenching American presence), have elected right-of-center hawkish governments. They are uniquely open to dealing with reality, not a common occurrence in international politics. Reality in this case means taking all necessary deterrent measures against a nuclear state (Tokyo and Seoul appear poised to actually call North Korea a nuclear-weapons state, which -- for those unfortunate to have witnessed to the unfolding tragedy of North Korea policy -- is a big deal). Rather than engage in diplomatic conferences that result in more North Korean extortion, more North Korean nuclear weapons, and more illusions that through combined U.S. and Chinese exertions North Korea can actually be persuaded (against all evidence) that the illegal possession of nuclear weapons actually has a price, we would be wise to consider Dr. Lee's basic idea. Let's deal with North Korea as Dr. Lee describes it -- a criminal enterprise whose crimes can and must be stopped.
There is another looming problem. A second term in a presidency seems to provide a unique temptation to American secretaries of state across administrations to go for the brass ring-a Nobel Peace Prize for "solving" the North Korean problem. In this case, at least from Pyongyang's perspective, there is nothing to be solved. North Korea has pretty much what it wants. But now that Seoul and Tokyo (hopefully Washington too?) are ready to call North Korea a nuclear power, there may be one thing to discuss with Mr. Kim: What would happen if he dared use those weapons?
Perhaps to guard against the "North Korea Nobel Peace Prize" temptation, a parallel prize can be created, awarded to those diplomats who avoid attempts to bargain away that which the North has never put on the table, and instead achieve the more modest task of bettering the lot of the North Korean people and putting an end to the many crimes of Kim Jong Un and his cronies.
As I wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, calls for direct talks with Iran have been on the rise, in large part due to the lack of movement in talks between Iran and the P5+1, which includes the United States, the United Kingdon, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The P5+1 is entering its eighth year of discussions with Tehran, yet has made little progress toward a nuclear agreement while Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear capacity. This raises a question I do not address in the op-ed -- is there a continued role for the P5+1?
For diplomats, large international coalitions hold an irresistible allure, especially when dealing with troublesome regimes. Acting in concert through groupings such as the P5+1 improves international compliance with sanctions and reinforces the target state's isolation, in theory amplifying the pressure upon it and enhancing the prospects for achieving the coalition's objectives.
Such a broad grouping has downsides, however. First, coordination -- whether on carrots or sticks - takes time, and lots of it. A host of factors, from each state's domestic politics to unrelated international disputes among the members, prevents quick resolution of differences.
Second, the states all have different interests at stake. The United States sees Iran as a broad threat, given its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, which is only magnified by Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Russia and China see the issue differently. Tehran may target restaurants in Washington, but it avoids entangling itself in Chechnya and Xinjiang. As a result, many in Moscow and Beijing see Iran not as a threat, but as a potential (if difficult) partner in constraining Washington's exercise of power and influence in the region.
The result of these varying interests is a lowest-common-denominator approach, whereby the group focuses on the one thing that they can all agree upon. In this case, that is Iran's compliance with the international nonproliferation rules, which all of the major powers would like to see preserved. Any agreement the P5+1 reaches is likely to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear capabilities; other issues of interest to the United States and the European Union -- whether Iran's regional activities or human rights record -- are left to be pursued by separate, ad hoc coalitions of likeminded countries outside the official negotiations.
Given these downsides and the plodding pace of the negotiations, it is little wonder that calls for direct U.S.-Iran talks are on the rise. But the dismissal of such talks by Iran's supreme leader and the long and unsuccessful history of U.S.-Iran contacts suggest bilateral talks would not prove any more of a silver bullet than multilateral ones have been. The US offer of direct talks with Iran is likely to make more of an impression on our coalition partners -- convincing them that we are going the extra mile on diplomacy and hopefully pushing them to do the same on pressure -- than on the Iranian regime.
Indeed, while we should not hesitate to employ diplomacy creatively and flexibly in service of our policy aims, Iranian truculence likely ensures that the P5+1 will remain the most meaningful forum for talks on Iran's nuclear program. Tehran appears to see compromise as more dangerous than maintaining its confrontational stance toward neighbors and the West; Iran's leaders must be persuaded that in fact failing to compromise is the greater danger. Doing so will require various forms of international pressure -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- which must be marshaled through multilateral diplomacy. As I note in the Times piece, a broader U.S.-Iran breakthrough, if it occurs, is more likely to be a consequence of a strategic shift by Iran than a cause of one.
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Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran? As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran's nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.
If my speculations are correct thus far -- a big if, I realize -- then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.
Let's stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.
Officially, the Obama administration's policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven't we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.
Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish -- i.e. you believed you might need to use military force -- why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?
One possibility -- call it the "Nixon to China" possibility -- is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama's calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so. Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can't rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.
A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk's-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.
There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.
Which means that Hagel's confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.
Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel's views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama's words, "have its back." Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel's critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.
There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel's views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.
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The original Saturday Night Live cast used to have a skit where Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna saw sexual overtones in everything around her. Finally an exasperated Freud would explain to her, "sometimes a banana is just a banana...Anna."
The punditocracy's response to North Korea's launch of the Unha rocket on December 11 shows similar and predictable over-interpretation of Pyongyang's motives. The "Great General" Kim Jong-un is said to be using the launch to consolidate his control over the Korean People's Army. Other explanations focus on North Korean efforts to influence the South Korean or even Japanese elections, which are to be held over the next few weeks. Or is it a signal to the Obama administration as it begins a second term?
No doubt missile tests please the KPA generals and make for good propaganda in a nation of undernourished and terrified people, but that is the same reason given for all of the previous missile and nuclear tests by the North. This is, after all, a Stalinist state driven by an "Army First" policy and a perpetual state of war with the United Nations and the Republic of Korea. Explanations that the North is trying to shape the South Korean or Japanese elections also hang awkwardly in the air, since the missile test cannot possibly help the softer-line progressive candidate Moon Jae-in to overcome his conservative rival Park Geun-Hye -- let alone the hapless Democratic Party of Japan which is about to be trounced at the polls by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party led by North Kora's worst nightmare, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Psychoanalyzing North Korea's deviant behavior is convenient in one sense, however:. it allows the State Department and White House spokesmen to to dismiss the growing threat from Pyongyang as the rantings of a teenage miscreant only doing harm to itself. If North Korea is only isolating itself from the international community, as we are told after each provocation, then there is no need to take action. One analytical explanation making the rounds describes a "cycle" in which North Korea provokes with a nuclear or missile test but inevitably returns to talks. Phew !!
The problem is that the consequences of North Korean weapons testing are not cyclical -- they are linear. Each missile and nuclear test, even a failed test, represents a new milestone in Pyongyang's well-advertised march towards marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. This most recent test appears to have ended in the successful separation of multiple stage Rockets. Recently, a senior KPA general was reported to have told military officers at a speech in Pyongyang that the nation has already achieved the ability to mount small warheads on medium range missiles. Bravado or not, that is clearly the North's goal and it grows closer with this most recent test.
The administration's response should not be based on interpreting the North Korean Unha missile launch as anything other than what it was -- a deliberate weapons development program aimed at forcing concessions on the United States and our allies through coercion. That threat requires significant countermeasures both within the UN Security Council and among US allies.
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While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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There was plenty of foreign policy fodder for Republicans in last night's Vice Presidential debate, particularly Vice President Biden's claims that the administration was unaware of requests for additional security in Benghazi. In terms of understanding policy differences between the candidates, however, the most significant (and so far largely unreported) moment, came in the exchange on Iran. In response to Chairman Ryan's point that Iran had made enormous progress enriching uranium under this administration, Biden said, "the Israelis and the United States -- our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close -- how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away."
Explaining why he was reassured about the Iranian timeline, Biden continued:
"When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about? ... We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don't have a weapon to put it into. Let's all calm down a little bit here."
Biden, in other words, didn't contest Ryan's argument about Iran's rapidly growing enrichment capabilities, but said in essence that progress on enrichment was beside the point because Iran does not today have a nuclear device.
There are numerous problems with the vice president's comments, and they raise significant cause for concern about current U.S. strategy for ending Iran's nuclear weapons program.
To begin with, there is no dispute among nuclear experts that the most complicated challenge in developing a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material, not the process of developing the nuclear device itself. Enrichment is, as experts like to say, the "long pole in the tent." With sufficient weapons grade fuel, the Iranians would already be at the threshold of nuclear breakthrough. In fact, in 2009 the IAEA assessed that as early as 2004, Iran had developed the know-how to build a crude nuclear device that could be delivered by aircraft or ship.
Biden's focus on the development of the device itself, rather than the manufacture of weapons grade duel, suggests that the administration redline in Iran ("we'll stop them from getting a bomb") wouldn't kick in until Iran is on our 5 yard line.
Second, the vice president revealed a worrying overconfidence in the intelligence community's ability to detect nuclear weaponization activities, which are easily concealed. As most intelligence professionals will tell you, they aren't infallible; getting accurate intelligence on a nation's most closely guarded secrets and interpreting it correctly are notoriously difficult tasks.
Although the Vice President cited Israeli agreement with his point, the Israelis have steadfastly taken the opposite view. As PM Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech:
"For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich
uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem
in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're
In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator -- the fuse -- in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months.
The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy, and Britain combined.
The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.
So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb."
In fact, German, French, UK, and Israeli intelligence believe that the U.S. intelligence community is already missing evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponization capabilities, a point bolstered by the 2011 safeguards report on Iran from the IAEA in which detailed evidence is available here.
Biden's statement -- assuming it reflects the thinking of the administration broadly -- reveals a great deal about the administration's approach to Iran, none of it reassuring. It explains why the administration has been dismissive of Israeli concerns. It may also partly explain administration ambivalence about Congressional sanctions; if there is no urgency to the threat, there is a less compelling case in the administration's view for robust sanctions against foreign companies. And it tells us that the Obama administration may be naively betting U.S. and Israeli security on the assumption that our intelligence community has perfect insight into activities in Iran.
In a column in the October 7 Washington Post, I argued that "red lines" with respect to Iran's nuclear program, far from leading us automatically to war, are designed to facilitate diplomacy and prevent conflict. As Iran makes continued progress toward a nuclear weapons capability - and according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security, it is now as little as 2-4 months away from having sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a single bomb -- defining our red lines takes on increasing importance.
For all of its bluster, the Iranian regime has proceeded carefully to reach this point, expanding its nuclear capabilities while avoiding full-blown conflict with the West. The final stage of its nuclear drive will pose a significant challenge to this strategy, however, as any outright lunge for a nuclear weapon is likely to draw a devastating response. Iran could take any of several approaches to this last leg, from throwing caution to the wind and making a mad dash in the open, to proceeding entirely clandestinely. For this reason, we need not just one but several red lines, closing off all routes available to Iran for achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
The route to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability that receives the most attention is the most straightforward, but perhaps the riskiest for Iran -- a dash using Iran's declared enrichment sites and uranium stockpiles. It is this route which both Israeli PM Netanyahu and ISIS warned about recently. Their worry is straightforward -- as Iran expands its nuclear capacity and increases its stockpile of 19.75 percent uranium, its breakout time diminishes even further, perhaps to the point where a military response could not be mounted quickly enough to prevent Iran from producing and secreting away a bomb's worth of WGU or more.
It is this worry that led Netanyahu to declare his redline -- Iran stockpiling sufficient 19.75 percent uranium to, if further enriched, produce a single nuclear weapon. It is important to recognize, however, that Iran can dial its production of enriched uranium forward or back and thus control the pace of its confrontation with the West -- forward, by increasing the number of centrifuges enriching; back, by sending 19.75 percent uranium to be converted into another form unsuitable for further enrichment, such as fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran in the past has done just this -- moving quickly ahead during lulls in negotiations, and then resuming international talks to diffuse the resulting threats and pressure.
Iran could also proceed in a nonlinear manner that skirts this redline -- for example, by producing small batches of higher-enriched uranium without having first stockpiled a single bomb's worth of 19.75 percent uranium. A prominent Iranian legislator has already asserted, for example, that Iran would begin producing 60 percent enriched uranium for use in nuclear submarines. Iran could also simply continue amassing LEU while perfecting more efficient centrifuges, diminishing its breakout time for a future weapons dash.
Rather than a dash in the open, which would give the U.S. and Israel time and opportunity to mount a military response, Iran may prefer to attempt to limit the IAEA's access to its program and achieve a nuclear weapons capability out of sight of international inspectors. This would be in keeping with Iran's history of nuclear deception and subterfuge.
Iran could, of course, simply expel IAEA inspectors and hope that the US does not respond, but this would be a risky proposition. Far more likely would be incremental steps which reduce the IAEA's access or place obstacles in front of inspectors, in order to divert some portion of Iran's uranium stockpile (e.g. the 19.75 percent uranium removed from Fordow for conversion to fuel plates) to a heretofore undisclosed enrichment site, reduce the certainty with which the inspectors are able to account for Iranian activities at declared enrichment sites, or lengthen the time between inspections to a degree that would not permit a breakout to be detected in a timely fashion.
Because such steps might appear modest to a casual observer, Iran may believe that the U.S. would find it difficult to rally an international response to them. Iran has already reduced its cooperation with the IAEA over the last few years. Alarmingly, as detailed in a recent Washington Post article, Iran's far-fetched accusations that IAEA inspectors have engaged in acts of sabotage may represent an effort to establish a pretext to reduce that cooperation further.
There are further routes still that Iran could take to break out and achieve a nuclear weapons capability. It could attempt not simply to divert declared uranium stockpiles to a undisclosed enrichment facility, but to create an entirely parallel, covert uranium supply, conversion, and enrichment chain using the expertise and procurement networks it has gained from its disclosed program. It could also seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, or simply the fuel for one, from an existing nuclear power such as North Korea, with which it already cooperates extensively. Iran would face serious obstacles in either scenario, but neither can be discounted entirely.
By understanding Iran's pathways for completing the final stage of its nuclear drive, the U.S. and our allies can devise red lines -- whether private or publicly announced -- which fence off those pathways. These red lines should take into account not only Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, but also the level to which it enriches any uranium, the access it affords IAEA inspectors, the expansion of its centrifuge program and other weapons-applicable technologies, as well as any covert efforts to build additional nuclear sites or acquire nuclear materials abroad.
Perhaps more importantly, however, such an analysis of Iran's pathways to a weapon can help policymakers strengthen existing tools and devise new approaches -- from better intelligence collection, to more focused efforts to enforce sanctions and stymie Iranian nuclear procurement efforts, to joint warnings from the U.N. or other multilateral bodies -- to ensure that Iran never approaches those red lines in the first place.
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Both the Obama administration and Iran's President Ahmadinejad have blamed the recent dramatic fall in value of Iran's currency on international sanctions. It is a convenient explanation for both -- for the White House, it suggests that U.S. strategy towards Iran is working; for Ahmadinejad, it deflects responsibility away from his own policy decisions and toward an external scapegoat.
But as my colleague Patrick Clawson explains, sanctions are only partly to blame for Iran's economic travails. The currency crisis and associated inflationary spiral has its origins in the Ahmadinejad government's mismanaged subsidy reform initiative. Sanctions have indeed exacerbated the problem, both by raising the cost to foreign firms of doing business with Iran and reducing the regime's foreign exchange earnings. The increasing threat of war has also played a role, deepening Iranians' worries about economic stability and increasing their inflationary expectations, and thus leading them to dump rials and seek safe haven in dollars and other hard currency to protect their savings.
However, the regime's maladroit domestic response to the sanctions (for example, its decision to set up "foreign exchange centers," which sparked the current run on dollars) and its loose monetary and fiscal policies have made matters far worse. This is arguably the result of years of economic mismanagement in Iran, particularly under Ahmadinejad, who has subverted what little independence the Central Bank previously possessed and drained it of economic expertise.
Ironically, however, the Iranian regime is relatively sheltered from the present crisis. Although sanctions have reduced its oil exports, they remain high at 1.2 to 1.5 million barrels per day, meaning that the regime's foreign exchange income is considerable, even if diminished. What's more, it has limited external liabilities, and in any event its oil income is dollar-denominated, protecting it from exchange rate risk. This means that as the rial plunges, the regime's fixed rial-denominated payments become effectively cheaper. Meanwhile, Iran's rampant corruption likely shields elites and their families from the worst of the country's economic woes, such as unemployment and increasing scarcity.
As a result, Iran's economic crisis is unlikely to directly cause the regime to change its nuclear calculus. Instead, the sanctions implicitly depend on domestic Iranian outcry -- or the regime's worries of unrest -- to cause the regime to make the desired strategic shift. However, as bad as Iran's economy is, there are few signs of major unrest, and fewer signs still that the regime is responsive to the concerns of the Iranian people (although this will further diminish Ahmadinejad's standing). This is, after all, the regime that showed no compunction in brutally putting down protests in 2009.
By implication, the United States and our allies should be careful not to count on the current sanctions to resolve the nuclear crisis by themselves. Nor should we abandon our focus on targeted sanctions in favor of a return to broad sanctions, which rarely succeed in inducing policy changes in autocratic regimes. Rather than hoping that giving current sanctions "time to work" will force Iran back to the negotiating table, the United States and our allies should add further pressure to the regime and the elites who comprise it, including through additional targeted economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, bolstering the credibility of our military threat to the regime, and support for the Iranian opposition.
On their own, sanctions are unlikely to work. Instead, for the United States to succeed in its aims, sanctions must be just one part of a broad, coordinated, and disciplined policy which brings all policy tools to bear on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
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I read Jeffrey Lewis' FP blog post with interest because he highlights the nuclear balance between the United States and China, a topic that deserves greater attention than it has gotten.
Recent years have seen growing attention to China's fielding of so-called anti-access/area denial systems, including an increasing number of accurate conventional ballistic missiles to strike airbases and other facilities in the Western Pacific and anti-ship ballistic missiles to target mobile power projection forces like carrier strike groups. To date, however, the nuclear dimension of Chinese military modernization has received less attention. Still, in recent months, China's military has reportedly tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-41, which is reportedly equipped with multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, as well as its new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). China's nuclear buildup remains unconstrained by strategic arms limitation agreements, such as the Russo-American New START Treaty, as well as arms control affecting ballistic and cruise missiles, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
In Lewis' view, the path to stability is predicated on the United States and China accepting mutual nuclear vulnerability. Indeed, his discussion of the Sino-American nuclear balance takes mutual vulnerability as its starting point. He goes on to argue that "Our refusal to recognize that vulnerability is simply a fact of life essentially blocks a productive dialogue with Chinese leaders."
There is, however, plenty of room to question whether Chinese political or military leaders share our perspective. Indeed, official publications of the People's Liberation Army such as the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns show that the Chinese military views nuclear weapons much differently than American strategic thinkers. Other books, such as Coercive Deterrence Warfare, portray launching missiles in close proximity to enemy forces as a form of deterrence. In other words, official literature espouses some very different -- and potentially very dangerous -- notions.
Writing in the latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I edit) Tom Christensen of Princeton University argues that Chinese leaders believe that they are only now acquiring a secure second-strike capability. As a result, he raises the possibility that China will become bolder as the quantity and quality of its nuclear force increases. China's nuclear modernization program may thus have greater consequences for China's behavior than is commonly believed.
On the other side, as Dana Priest recently described in the Washington Post, the United States has an aging nuclear arsenal. The newest weapon in the U.S. nuclear force was designed and deployed in 1991. U.S. nuclear weapons, all of which are at least 20 years old, were designed for an expected operational life of 10-15 years. You can count the number of U.S. weapons laboratory employees who have actually designed a nuclear weapon on one hand -- and the number will only get smaller over time.
The Obama administration is committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons and has reportedly been conducting internal studies envisioning massive cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A number of policy makers with whom I've spoken in recent weeks tell me that if Obama is re-elected, he will seek to slash unilaterally the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Such a move could grant China nuclear parity with the United States, or at least put it in reach. Such a move would give China greater nuclear leverage not through an expensive buildup on their side, but through disarmament on ours.
Although there is much in Jeffrey Lewis' piece with which I disagree, I do believe that the United States and China should enter into more serious discussions about nuclear weapons. Indeed, I believe that the United States should refuse to enter into future nuclear arms limitation talks without the participation of the Chinese. A failure to do so could jeopardize the nuclear balance that has underpinned American and allied security since the end of World War II.
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A recent headline -- "State Dept. Advisers: Let's Cut Nukes Some More" -- left a deeply misleading impression about the work of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board, on which we serve. The Board is chartered to provide "independent insight and advice on all aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and related aspects of public diplomacy." The opinions expressed in this article are our own and represent neither the views of the State Department nor those of other Board members.
Contrary to the recent headline, the Board has not recommended further cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Some Board members would likely now favor such reductions; others would not, but the Board as a whole has made no such recommendation.
What is the source of the misunderstanding? The Board responded to a tasking from that State Department to "undertake a study of how the United States could manage a transition to a world of mutual assured stability." The tasking was a given. The logic of the Board's response was to outline the necessary prerequisites for the end state identified in the tasking. The report identified six essential, but not sufficient, preconditions for such a world, first in the context of U.S.-Russian relations, but also noting that other states would need to be involved.
As the report states, the six essential components require real achievements on cooperative security, transparency of capabilities and intentions, and mutually beneficial interdependence. In short, a transition to "mutual assured stability" would require profound changes in the world we inhabit today. Imagining a more secure and stable world is a worthy endeavor, but it is also necessary to be clear about what is necessary to achieve it.
The report leaves open the possibility that the conditions it identifies may not be achievable, and states that they will require many years and fundamental changes in U.S.-Russian relations if they are to occur. Those who find the preconditions identified by the report to be unrealistic will not find the end state described in the tasking given to the Board to be plausible. Those who believe seeking a world of mutual assured stability is feasible, will at least understand the significant preconditions that their policy goals will require. Either way, the Board's report has added clarity. What it has not done, is advocate further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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According to the New York Times, the International Atomic Energy Agency is ready to report that the Iranian nuclear program continues to expand and to accelerate. Moreover, the Times notes Iran's emphasis on enriching uranium to 20 percent.
The 20 percent level is more than four times what is necessary for power reactor fuel. As I have noted before, according to Professor Graham Allison, also of Harvard, this is like a football team reaching the ten yard line, where nuclear weapons-usable material is in the end zone. Stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent materially shorten the time it would take Iran to break out or sneak out of its Treaty obligations and produce a nuclear weapon.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent can also be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production, and this Iran claims to be doing. But that explanation is inconsistent with Iran's research reactor fuel requirements. Iran has already enriched more than enough such material to supply its medical isotope production for many years, and its enrichment to the 20 percent level is not only continuing, it is accelerating, again according to the reported IAEA findings.
How did the Obama Administration react to this unsettling if unsurprising news? It insisted that there is still "time and space" for a diplomatic solution.
This is a self-defeating U.S. response. It effectively tells Tehran, "Go ahead, keep enriching uranium, you are nowhere near provoking anything other than more fruitless meetings." Of course, Tehran will use the "time and space" granted by the Obama Administration to increase its stocks of enriched uranium further and to expand further its production capacity.
The only rational explanation for such an extraordinary statement by the Administration is that the White House places a higher priority on restraining a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities than it does on constraining Tehran's nuclear production capacity.Reassuring Tehran that it is in no danger fundamentally diminishes incentives on Iran to negotiate seriously, and thereby undermines the most important U.S. policy priority -- halting and reversing Tehran's capacity to make material for nuclear weapons.
The Iranian nuclear program presents a serious and hard problem. There is no easy solution, and no option that does not entail significant risk, including both diplomacy and military action. But the difficulties and the stakes make it all the more important to avoid unforced errors. A self-defeating policy will never succeed, and unfortunately in rushing to insist that there is still "time and space" for diplomacy, the administration has chosen one.
The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who is known, among other things, for his view that nuclear proliferation is a good thing, recently weighed in on the subject of Iran. Writing in the pages of USA Today in advance of an article in Foreign Affairs, Waltz argues that, "a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."
Waltz writes that diplomacy and sanctions are unlikely to convince Tehran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, concluding that, "a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded." He similarly dismisses the possibility that Iran could stop short of producing nuclear weapons, arguing that leaders in Tehran would see a "bomb in the basement" as an insufficient deterrent to Israel. Rather, he believes the most likely future as one in which Iran overtly acquires a nuclear weapon.
Such a diagnosis is hardly unique. What is likely to grab attention is his prescription. He argues that Iranian nuclear weapons would be a good thing for the stability of the Middle East. In his words, "policymakers and citizens worldwide should take comfort from the fact that where nuclear capabilities have emerged, so, too, has stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more could be better."
Waltz is a serious scholar, and his argument deserves serious attention, even if his embrace of nuclear weapons is the sort of thing that makes policy-makers doubt the value of the academy in policy debates.
As befits an international relations theorist, his arguments about the prospects and consequences of proliferation are categorical. Sweeping statements are fine when it comes to theory, but Waltz's assertions regarding proliferation all too often collide with the facts.
In fact, as Waltz concedes later in the piece, the spread of nuclear weapons is hardly inevitable. Over the last seventy years, a number of countries -- including Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, South Korea and Taiwan -- launched nuclear weapons programs only to abandon them because of foreign pressure and domestic political change. South Africa fielded a nuclear arsenal only to give it up for similar reasons. Most recently, Muammar Qaddafi gave up Libya's nuclear program in response to a series of carrots and sticks. And contrary to the arguments of some, governments have used force to interdict a country's nuclear ambition, including Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor and its 2007 attack on Syria's Al Kibar reactor. As Sarah Kreps and Matthew Fuhrmann show in an article in The Journal of Strategic Studies last year, peacetime attacks on nuclear facilities can delay proliferation, particularly when launched well before the nuclear threat is imminent. Such attacks are, however, the least legitimate under international law and are thus most likely to elicit censure.
If Waltz's fatalism regarding the acquisition of nuclear weapons is misplaced, then so too is his optimism regarding the impact of nuclear possession on state behavior. Not all states are alike. Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea or Iran are of far greater concern than those in the hands of Israel or India. Nor would all would agree with his assertion that "fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded." The world is a more, not less, dangerous place because of North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons, and it would be an even more dangerous place should Tehran get the bomb.
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The North Koreans don't care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year -- especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of "engagement" might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 "Leap Year" deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called "nutritional assistance"). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved.
Well, not quite. Within days of the agreement evidence mounted that the North might go ahead with a missile test anyway. The White House rushed off a high level delegation to Pyongyang in early March to warn that a test would scuttle the food aid deal. That "secret" mission soon became widely known because of clearance requests made for the plane across the U.S., Korean and Japanese governments. It did not matter anyway, since the North Koreans ignored the White House entreaties and went ahead with their ballistic missile test a few days later.
It was obvious to a number of us (see my previous posts) that North Korea intended to test missile and nuclear weapons in 2012 under almost any circumstances. I said as much to colleagues in the administration and warned that we were pinning too much on this agreement, which I did not oppose, but did not think would hold for very long. Hopeful North Korea watchers in and out of government acknowledged any agreement with the North is tenuous at best, but seemed genuinely perplexed that Pyongyang would violate this one so quickly. It makes sense, though. A series of negotiations had yielded the outlines of an agreement with the North in December that probably would have been announced that month if Kim Jong Il had not died suddenly. By March, IAEA inspectors would have been on the ground in Yongbyon investigating the North's showcase uranium enrichment facility. After a test would the international community have supported U.S. sanctions that would have forced the inspectors out? Kim Jong Un is new at the job and went with the original plan anyway -- cut the deal and then test. It just turned out that the gap between deal and no deal was shortened.
We should know by now that the main point for North Korea is developing the missile and nuclear capability; not the diplomatic agreements. Within months of its last two missile tests, Pyongyang tested nuclear devices. Sure enough, last week the North changed the preamble of its constitution to declare itself a full nuclear weapons state (as promised for years but dismissed a feint by hopeful observers). A third nuclear test within 2012 seems likely. If it is a higher plutonium yield (the last one was about 4-5 kilotons), that is bad. If it is a successful test of a uranium-based device, that is worse.
The administration is now entirely in reactive mode. They went for a lesser Presidential Statement (PRST) from the UNSC in response to the missile launch so that they would have their one North Korea UNSC Resolution bullet ready for a nuclear test when that comes. That gives the president a talking point after the next test, but it is not clear what else. Beijing, which had supported some slightly tougher language in the PRST, is now to calling on all parties to be restrained and return to the February 29 agreement.
A proactive strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem would have looked entirely different. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) attempting to "engage" the North Koreans out of conducting a test, the administration could have done any number of things, including: supporting South Korean and Japanese requests to go to the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang before the launch; pressing China to actually implement sanctions under UNSC 1874 by spotlighting Chinese firms in violation (like the one that sold the North the mobile missile TEL that was paraded in the streets of Pyongyang recently); working with friends and allies to inspect any ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 120 days (hundreds of such ships are estimated to pull into South Korean ports alone each year); cracking down on North Korean uses of "flags of convenience;" maintaining spending on missile defenses; keeping a more open mind on South Korean requests to extend their own surface-to-surface missile ranges so they can counterstrike deeper into North Korea...and the list goes on. None of these are radical proposals in light of North Korea's obvious intent to keep developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Yet I doubt the administration will do even half of these in response to another North Korean nuclear test. I do not fault the administration for talking to the North, but talk is cheap if it isn't backed by muscle.
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In one of the most memorable lines of his March 4, 2012, speech on the Middle East, President Obama declared, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." However, containment is rarely a policy one prefers, with its implication of preventing a bad situation from getting worse. Instead, it tends to be the policy one is left with once other realistic options have been exhausted.
Avoiding containment, therefore, has less to do with declarations about the future, and far more to do with sound strategy today: We must prevent ourselves from being maneuvered into a corner where we have little choice other than to accept containment as our de facto Iran policy. Instead of emphasizing what we may do if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, or is on the cusp of doing so, the U.S. should focus on denying Tehran the necessary building blocks to reach that point -- in other words, a nuclear weapons capability.
North Korea provides a case in point. It would surprise most Americans to learn that the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance from 1995 to 2008. This aid, along with other benefits, such as North Korea's removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the unfreezing of key assets, was provided even as the U.S. and its allies spent countless dollars more defending themselves from the dangers emanating from Pyongyang, and as North Korea made steady progress toward a nuclear weapon, culminating in a pair of nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The North Korean regime was given relief, not in exchange for irreversible denuclearization, but for "confidence-building measures" (CBMs), which stopped short of addressing Washington's core concerns. The net effect, however, is that diplomatic confidence has instead been undermined due to the North's reversals, and Pyongyang has reportedly assembled a nuclear arsenal despite withering international pressure. While Iran and North Korea are different in many regards, these outcomes should nevertheless be bracing for those involved in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, into which similar language regarding interim agreements and CBMs has crept.
In order for the talks resuming this week in Baghdad to provide a path to Iran's denuclearization -- rather than a slippery slope towards containment -- the Obama administration should avoid three key mistakes.
First, the U.S. should not provide relief from sanctions in exchange for anything less than the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Tehran, and other hard-to-reverse steps such as the removal of Iran's enriched uranium stocks and dismantlement of its key fuel fabrication facilities.
This is necessary for three reasons: First, it prevents Iran from using the talks simply to derail the pressure campaign against it, only to renege on its commitments later, as it has done in the past. Second, it prevents Iran from legitimizing its uranium enrichment program and thereby gaining technical mastery of the enrichment process, which would be a boon should the regime later kick out inspectors. Finally, it would simplify the task of detecting Iranian cheating. If Iran is permitted a legitimate enrichment program, then the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies must seek to detect diversion of uranium or other material and personnel to a possible parallel, clandestine program, whereas if Iran is not permitted such activities at all, any enrichment-related work would be a red flag and a cause for punitive action.
Second, the U.S. must take care not to reward Iran for provocations. Decision-makers in Tehran cannot help but be pleased that the international community is now focused on Iran's 19.75 percent enrichment work and treats its 3.5 percent enrichment as a fait accompli, or that their once-secret facilities at Natanz and Arak seem likely to remain in operation in the nuclear proposals put forward by the P5+1.
Washington has tended to focus its energies on each marginal advance by Tehran, such that what the U.S. now appears willing to do in return for a limit on Iran's enrichment activities is equivalent to what had previously been offered for a full suspension of enrichment. This constant re-drawing of U.S. redlines may seem sensible in the diplomatic heat of battle, but the perverse effect is not to cap Iran's activities, but to encourage further nuclear progress.
Finally, the U.S. must not neglect the bigger picture. It is a common fault of policymakers -- or any decision-maker, for that matter -- that near-term costs and benefits are given a disproportionate weight relative to longer-term ones. For example, there is a great deal of analysis of the impact of military action against Iran on the price of oil, but little on the long-term effect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon or of a policy of containment on oil prices.
Any nuclear deal which stops short of fulfilling the U.N. Security Council's repeated demand for the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran, among other things, holds the possibility of eroding U.S. influence in the Middle East, undermining U.S. deterrence broadly, strengthening the Iranian regime, and damaging the integrity of the global nonproliferation regime. Washington tends to exaggerate the benefits of a deal with Iran, given the short lifespan of past agreements, and underestimate these long-term costs.
Too often, a compromise on Iran's nuclear program has been presented by its advocates as a Hobson's choice -- accept a bad deal, or invite military conflict. The real choice is between ineffective diplomacy which provides Tehran with much-sought relief, yet leaves Washington's concerns unresolved and U.S. policy on a slippery slope towards containment -- or a firmer approach which provides Tehran with no benefits until it yields its nuclear weapons capabilities irreversibly. Negotiations and agreements are useful insofar as they advance our national security interests, but should never be seen as ends in themselves. The leverage the U.S. has built up has been hard-won, but can be easily lost, and should not be yielded too readily.
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Who is winning the public debate on Iran, the hawks or the doves? The polling is pretty ambiguous, as it usually is at this point in any foreign policy crisis/issue. The public is not committed to using military force, but the narrow majorities expressing support for military strikes actually represent a fairly permissive public option. Should President Obama choose, he probably could rally strong support among the public, at least initially.
To be sure, the public seems to want exactly what President Obama wants, which is to resolve this stand-off diplomatically. Yet it is striking how, in the absence of strong war-talk from the White House -- indeed, given all the poor-mouthing of the military option from administration officials -- there is still a reservoir of public support for the hawkish policy.
This is all the more remarkable, given that we live in a post-Iraq era. The echoes from Iraq are almost deafening in the Iran debate, and yet the public has not closed off its ears to the hawkish view.
My dovish friends think this is because the intellectual playing field is biased in favor of military action. They claim that it is easier to hype threats than to downplay them, and they speak about a dysfunctional marketplace of ideas that crowds out dovish approaches.
Such claims are not very persuasive. This might have been true in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But in the wake of the Iraq war, surely the opposite is the case. It is easier to persuade people that perhaps Iran is bluffing (or we have misunderstood their nuclear ambitions) because that is what seemed to happen in Iraq. It is easier to convince people that any war will drag on and be more costly than advertised because that is what happened in Iraq.
As a hawkish friend of mine pointed out to me recently, to argue the hawkish side feels like arguing in favor of the human costs of war. Emotionally and psychologically, it is easier simply to dismiss the threat and thus avoid the costs.
Public support for the hawkish position is not so strong or resolute as to force President Obama's hand. But it might be strong enough to allow a president who has repeatedly said that letting Iran develop a nuclear arsenal is unacceptable to take decisive action to launch military strikes to prevent that, if he believes it necessary.
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Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has distinguished himself once again, this time claiming that the Obama administration's refusal to send the 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea shows that President Obama is tougher than President Bush. It's amazing the White House is reduced to juvenile boasts of this sort in an effort to burnish their foreign policy achievements; even more amazing is that the deputy national security advisor seems innocent of awareness that the policy he extols is both (a) a repeat of the Bush administration; and (b) a departure from candidate Obama's promises of a brighter American foreign policy.
The article sounds like an Onion parody, but is worth reading to get a full sense of just how contorted is the logic associated with President Obama's claims.
Rhodes says "what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past." Wrong. What this administration has done is to exactly repeat the cycle of hoping to lure the North Korean government into cooperative behavior and then withholding our promised assistance when the North Korean regime proceeds with its nuclear and missile programs. The North Koreans claim bad faith, just as they did when the Bush administration withheld fuel oil after an earlier test.
President Obama came to office promising a new era of American foreign policy, an era of hope and change, in which we would reach out to our enemies, practice a new kind of positive engagement to attenuate the image of America as arrogant and overpowering. But the deputy national security advisor now celebrates the Obama administration withholding humanitarian assistance to badly malnourished people because of the provocative actions of an authoritarian regime. "Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," he said, as though it were a major foreign policy achievement.
He also criticized the Bush administration for having removed North Korea from the terrorism list, and for continuing to negotiate with the North Korean government to try and walk back its nuclear program. But note that the Obama administration has not taken any action to return North Korea to the terrorism list, nor has it broken off negotiations with North Korea. Last time I checked, the Obama administration favored negotiations and had limiting nuclear proliferation as a major foreign policy objective.
Not only has the administration returned to the policy of its predecessor, it has done so while claiming that policy was unduly lenient. Savor that for a minute: the same Obama who held an outstretched hand to the evil and erratic leader of North Korea is now claiming special foreign policy prowess for adopting the policy he condemns in his predecessor.
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North Korea's apparently imminent test-launch of another ballistic missile brings an unwelcome complication to the Obama administration's overflowing inboxes. It highlights yet again the perpetual dilemma posed by the Kim regime: Whether you ignore it or engage it, North Korea invariably misbehaves. For all of the debates over U.S. policy, ultimately the main driver of North Korean behavior is not how the U.S. acts but rather the perverse nature of the Pyongyang regime itself.
Even though the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are in separate regions of the world, they share some linkages and reciprocal influences. In Pyongyang's case, the newest incarnation of the Kim dynasty does not like losing global attention to Tehran, and appears to be returning to its customary patterns of bluster and brinksmanship in part to recapture global headlines and increase its leverage in potential future negotiations with the U.S. Domestic politics no doubt play a role as well, as Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his hold on power and place himself in continuity with the legacies of his father and grandfather. From Tehran's perspective, one "lesson" from North Korea appears to be that possession of nuclear weapons helps ensure regime survival and increase bargaining leverage, despite international opprobrium.
Both nations' nuclear programs also complicate the Obama administration's planned "pivot" to Asia. I remain worried that the White House's Asia pivot contains a mistaken assumption that treats the Middle East and Asia as distinctly separate regions, subject to zero-sum allocations of American strategic resources. Yet as the administration weighs its limited menu of options for North Korea's latest provocation, there is an opportunity to consider potential strategic linkages between how the U.S. responds to North Korea and how it handles the Iran file. At least two possible paths come to mind. Both admittedly have significant downsides, but then what policy doesn't when it comes to North Korea and Iran? As tactically different as each approach is, both represent an effort to consider a strategic linkage between U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran.
Deterrent Linkage. This would mean the U.S. taking an aggressive response to North Korea's missile test, by throwing a brush-back pitch against Pyongyang and also sending a deterrent message to Tehran about American resolve and willingness to use force. Specifically, this could entail an attack on the North Korean Unha-3 missile while on the launch pad, or intercepting it after the launch in its boost phase. Bill Perry and Ashton Carter called for such a strike before North Korea's 2006 test, and Philip Zelikow laid out the case for a similar measure in 2009. Numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions (such as 1695, 1718, and 1874) have declared the illegality of North Korea's ballistic missile program, and such a strike could be justified on self-defense grounds by the U.S. and treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
A strike is of course a dramatic step that carries significant risks. The most significant is the potential for North Korean retaliation and escalation, but other risks include an embarrassing "miss" if the attack fails, heightened tensions with China, potential discord with South Korea if the Lee government disapproves, not to mention a further emboldening of Iran. On the other hand, if successful such an attack could serve as a strategic game-changer with implications in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Benefits could include restraining further North Korean provocations and bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table in better faith, diminishing China's virtually unqualified support for North Korea, and increasing Tehran's openness to a negotiated settlement by demonstrating that the U.S. mantra of "all options are on the table" is a credible threat.
Bargaining Linkage. If the Obama administration takes a less confrontational approach to North Korea's missile test (by, say, a ritual sternly-worded condemnation and perhaps yet another UNSC resolution), it could still be done in a way that creates linkage with the Iran issue. Given the limited options and risks of an aggressive North Korean response, this might be the more prudent path. If so, the White House should at least use its restraint with Pyongyang to increase its bargaining leverage with Beijing -- and thus potentially gain a strategic benefit in pressing Iran. This could mean quietly communicating to Beijing that the U.S. has considered but rejected the option of striking the North Korean missile, in part out of deference to China's preferences for a soft approach to its unruly ally. In return, the U.S. secures from China a commitment to publicly support increased sanctions pressure on Iran, in word and practice.
This approach also carries risks. China may be unwilling to credit American restraint on North Korea as a concession, and may likewise be unwilling to depart from its opposition to tightened sanctions on Iran. Pyongyang and Tehran might both perceive the lack of a strong response to the missile test as further evidence that nuclear adventurism ultimately has little cost (especially if Pyongyang follows up the missile launch with another nuclear test). But this path is also an opportunity for the U.S. to at least try to increase its bargaining leverage with Iran, by persuading China to see our restraint on North Korea as a trade-off rather than a giveaway.
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President Obama used his visit to Seoul this week for the Nuclear Security Summit to warn North Korea not to go through with its provocative plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile in April. The launch would only "further isolate" Pyongyang, he declared, and would bring neither "the security" nor "the respect" the regime seeks.
All the right words, and yet once again the United States is playing tactical catch-up in response to a strategic move by the North. It appears that the administration was genuinely surprised by the North's announcement on March 16 that it would go ahead with the missile launch. The launch would clearly violate existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the recent U.S.-DPRK agreement of February 29 in which the United States was to provide food aid (well, "nutritional assistance") in exchange for the North halting provocative missile and nuclear tests and allowing IAEA inspectors into some of its Yongbyon facilities. The administration furled its collective brow and avoided celebrating the February 29 agreement as a breakthrough, but appeared convinced that they had kicked the North Korea can down the road past the nuclear summit and the presidential elections here and in South Korea. The North, no doubt sniffing a certain tactical desperation, has raised the ante.
It is surprising that the administration seems so surprised. As I pointed out in previous postings and in op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere last December when Kim Jong Il died, the North has been propagandizing for years about its intentions to become a "full nuclear weapons state" in 2012...predictably around the April 15 hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Speculation that the North's most recent escalation represents a power struggle between hardliners and internationalists in Pyongyang is silly. The North has been consistent and transparent about its intent to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them -- through missiles and/or transfer to third countries (the latter threat was made repeatedly to U.S. negotiators in 2003 and the capability demonstrated with the El Kibar reactor in Syria). Everything else the North does is a secondary tactical move within that longer-term objective, which they see as indispensable to regime survival.
The temptation in the White House will be to continue threatening to throw Pyongyang in the rhetorical briar patch of "international isolation" so that United States and our allies can focus our limited hard power on the more immediate problem of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. However, Tehran will take note of the U.S. response to North Korea. We should assume that the Mullahs have seen the video tape of Bill Clinton declaring in 1994 that he would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.N. sanctions now in place from the North's previous missile and nuclear tests are not being fully enforced -- particularly by Beijing -- and there is pressure short of war that the administration can bring to bear on Pyongyang if necessary. If there are no consequences for the ballistic missile launch, the regime will come to expect minimal consequences for another nuclear test...or another transfer of nuclear related technology. And Tehran will definitely take note.
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The P5+1 -- which includes the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia -- has just accepted an Iranian offer of further nuclear talks. These talks will come at a crucial time. The West has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the Iranian regime through new sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and its central bank, and President Obama in remarks on Sunday took a tougher line than he has in the past by ruling out the notion of "containing" a nuclear-armed Iran. The next round of negotiations will therefore be an important test of the notion that pressure can force Iran to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, as well as a test of U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian obstinacy.
Sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly had an impact, driving down the value of Iran's currency, driving up inflation, and making it difficult for Iranians to sell oil or even buy food. But making life difficult for Iranians is not the objective of U.S. policy; indeed, for many years it was American policy to avoid causing widespread hardship in Iran. The U.S. goal is to halt Iran's nuclear activities, and that has not yet been accomplished -- Iran is spinning more centrifuges, and manufacturing more and higher-grade uranium than ever before.
If the upcoming round of talks, like previous iterations, fails to yield progress, the U.S. will be left with little recourse other than additional pressure, while Israel will have additional incentive to carry out a strike. But another alternative exists, which President Obama has yet to rule out -- that the U.S. will draw back our own redlines and accept a nuclear weapons-capable, if not nuclear -- armed, Iran. This would be a dangerous miscalculation.
While the official U.S. and U.N. Security Council stance has long been that Iran must halt uranium enrichment as part of any serious talks, Washington has demonstrated tactical flexibility in an effort to allow Iran to "save face" and get negotiations started. From 2006-2008, the U.S. and its allies offered Tehran the so-called "freeze for freeze" deal, whereby Iran would merely temporarily freeze new enrichment and the West new sanctions, as a brief prelude to the full suspension of both uranium enrichment and sanctions implementation called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Similarly, in October 2009, the U.S. and its partners offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the fuel plates Iran required to power its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), with which it manufactured medical isotopes. Washington asserted that the arrangement was intended as a confidence-building measure, but did not negate the U.N. demand that Iran suspend enrichment.
Recently, however, there have been signs of a U.S. shift. In his speech on Sunday, the President assiduously referred only to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not a nuclear weapons capability. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that the U.S. redline is that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. This leaves open the possibility of Washington acquiescing to a "latent" nuclear weapons capability, whereby Iran retains weapons-applicable components of its nuclear program, such its enrichment work, as long as it refrains from actually building a bomb.
Many analysts have urged President Obama to consider one of the various proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, though perhaps under somewhat stronger supervision. One of these is the so-called Russian proposal, under which Iran would address the IAEA's questions in phases and the West would reciprocally ease sanctions. Another was the vague offer by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his September visit to New York to cease Iran's production of highly-enriched uranium.
The allure of such a deal from the U.S. perspective is clear. Washington would cite the deal as a diplomatic triumph that averted war and limited Iran's nuclear capacity. Likewise, the Iranian regime, having compelled the West to recognize its nuclear status and retained its enrichment program, would tout the pact as a victory.
In reality, allowing Iran to retain its uranium enrichment program would carry serious risks for the U.S. and our allies. The Institute for Science and International Security warns that "without [a halt to enrichment], Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants."
In other words, the Iranian regime would have its cake and eat it, too. The current sanctions drive would fizzle and existing sanctions would be eased or lifted. A military strike would effectively be taken off the table, including by Israel, which would likely feel constrained from attacking nuclear facilities blessed by the U.S. The Iranian regime, having succeeded in defying not only the U.S. but the entire Security Council, would be strengthened domestically. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not be removed; instead, Iran could perfect its nuclear expertise, stopping just one turn of the screw away from producing a nuclear weapon, or even building one clandestinely.
As our confrontation with Iran enters a new, more dangerous phase, the U.S. must avoid the temptation of redefining our redlines and objectives in a manner that fails to satisfy our national security requirements. To avert war and diffuse tensions through clever tactics and smart policies is admirable; to do so by abdicating our vital interests is not.
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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.