Barack Obama's administration is under the gun to produce a "final" agreement justifying its six-month sweetener for Iran. In return for cessation of progress in the country's nuclear programs, Iran has received some sanctions relief. The White House is trumpeting this as a great advance toward eliminating Iran's nuclear threat, even hinting it could dramatically reshuffle American alliances in the Middle East. What the Obama administration appears not to understand is how much the interim deal highlights its incredible -- literally, lacking in credibility -- declaratory policy.
President Obama has stated unequivocally that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. His closest aides have defended the interim deal as forestalling military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. In fact, the administration has explicitly tied the negotiations to forestalling "another war in the Middle East."
After watching the debacle of the president's aborted military strikes on Syria and hearing the audible sigh of relief from the White House when Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him an exit strategy, the Iranian government would be stupid to think that the American people would back "another war in the Middle East" or that Obama would launch one without the public plebiscite he allowed to dictate his policy. And the Iranian government is not stupid.
The Obama administration seems genuinely to believe public opposition to "another war in the Middle East" is caused by George W. Bush's administration invading Iraq. The American public opposes all wars until persuaded that they need fighting and that their government has a reasonable plan to achieve its goals at an acceptable cost. Team Obama seems genuinely not to understand that its incontinent policies are responsible for the current malaise. Choosing not to win wars is responsible for it. Inability to build common cause with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan is also responsible. Presidential inattention to the subject is responsible. Having no predictability to when the United States would intervene and when it would not is responsible. Turning on a dime from opposing to advocating intervention is responsible. Advocating tiny little strikes is responsible. Treating military intervention as though it isn't going to war is responsible -- responsible for public resistance, irresponsible as government policy.
And that's the problem with national security policy by plebiscite: What the public wants may not be what the public needs. That's why the United States has a representative democracy with legislators and an executive to govern. That's why presidents spend time talking about national security policy: The public needs to have the arguments presented and time to think and debate the alternatives. They need to know the alternatives are worse, because the president has no business taking the country to war if there are better alternatives.
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Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will.
Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East -- on a nuclear hair trigger -- just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.
Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium -- the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited -- on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests -- they just got it, in spades.
Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.
But of course Iran is not Japan -- a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.
Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.
Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element -- the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will -- of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Read the full article here.
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The six-month interim deal is simply a standstill agreement, generally providing that neither party will be further disadvantaged while a broader settlement is negotiated. Whether or not such an accord can be completed and enforced remains in doubt. Already the two sides are sparring over what the interim deal means.
The White House case for the agreement notes that it: halts production of uranium enriched above 5 percent and requires that existing stocks be diluted or turned to oxide form; halts installation of new centrifuge capabilities; freezes stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (unless converted to oxide); freezes construction of the Arak heavy water reactor; and affords the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better access and more information. These provisions generally slow progress on declared civil nuclear activities, and in the case of the uranium enriched to near 20 percent, impose a modest rollback.
In return, the U.S. administration claims that Iran will receive only "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, amounting to about $7 billion, while broader sanctions will remain in place, with over $100 billion in funds frozen, and restrictions on oil sales continuing to cost Tehran $4 billion per month.
Why, then, has the deal evoked such opposition in the United States, with even influential Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer criticizing it?
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Defenders and critics of the interim deal with Iran on nuclear issues apparently agree on one thing: What is most important about this deal is what will come next.
To their credit, officials within Barack Obama's administration have been more careful than some outside boosters in emphasizing how limited this deal is. It does not stop Iran from making progress toward building a nuclear weapon. It does not even irreversibly slow Iran's progress. At best, it slows that progress slightly and, more consequentially, introduces more intrusive inspections that offer the hope of detecting violations sooner.
The most important result of the interim deal is the establishment of a short six-month timeline for securing the ultimate long-term deal. In the next six months we will discover whether the critics are right that the Obama administration made too many concessions on the pressure front -- alleviating the pressure that had helped propel the diplomacy thus far and thus eroding our bargaining leverage too much. If the defenders of the deal are right, then Iran will negotiate in good faith and, if not, the West will have the wherewithal to re-ratchet up the economic pressure.
This will likely prove harder than the boosters admit. The Achilles' heel of most multilateral sanctions regimes is that it's usually easier to pressure too little than it is to pressure too much. Once sanctions are relaxed a little bit, it is even harder to reimpose them. And if sanctions are linked directly to ongoing diplomatic negotiations, this problem is multiplied many-fold. It is always easier to block or delay new sanctions even if they are warranted on the grounds that imposing them would kill off what little diplomatic momentum remains in the negotiations. (Remember: President Obama vigorously opposed the sanctions he now claims were decisive in bringing Iran to this point -- it was congressional hawks who forced the pace, not the administration.) Even if some states are willing to run that risk, it is hard to reach consensus across a large and diverse coalition. That is why hawks were so eager to keep the maximum sanctions in place at the outset of the direct negotiations and why they worry that the relaxation in sanctions already promised to Iran will be a one-way door to ever-decreasing economic pressure.
(Doves had a compelling answer to this concern, but one that raised other worries: Doves pointed out that if the United States did not reach this interim deal, then the global support for sanctions would erode markedly and so sanctions would be eased regardless. This may well have been true, but it raises doubts about the ability to reimpose sanctions if Iran cheats in clever ways. If the international coalition is so fraught, is it likely to support renewed sanctions if circumstances warrant?)
Yet there is one more less-heralded way that this interim deal is but a precursor to the more decisive showdown: It was the necessary antecedent to the military option.
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As the United States and other world powers resume nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, Barack Obama's administration is pushing hard not only to wrap up a short-term nuclear deal with the rogue nation, but also to dissuade Congress from imposing any new sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program. In a rare move, President Obama personally made his case to key Democratic and Republican Senate leaders this week. U.S. diplomats have explained that the United States seeks a deal that "stops Iran's nuclear program from moving forward," but careful analysis suggests the pact's reported terms fall alarmingly short of that stated goal.
First, the deal's current measures fail to get Iran to completely open up its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Iran announced this week that it will provide more transparency to the IAEA on specific declared nuclear sites, the well-timed announcement elides Iran's ongoing refusal to let the world's nuclear watchdog verify that the country has not just correctly, but also completely, declared all its nuclear materials and activities. Indeed, Iran has rejected nearly a decade's worth of legally binding demands by the IAEA, the 35-country IAEA Board of Governors, and the U.N. Security Council for its full transparency and cooperation. That's a big problem because Iran has a long, long, long, long, long history of hiding weapons-relevant nuclear activities from the world.
Second, the proposed deal still fails to fully freeze the growth of what's known as Iran's "nuclear weapons-making capability" -- that is, Iran's ability to rapidly build a nuclear explosive on increasingly short notice. To be sure, the short-term deal would stop some discrete elements of Iran's nuclear program from advancing. Specifically, it would require Iran to halt the production of "20 percent" enriched uranium that (counterintuitively yet technically) represents nine-tenths of the effort required to produce "90 percent" bomb-grade uranium, and to convert at least some of its current inventory of 20 percent uranium into a form that creates technical -- but far from impossible -- hurdles to further enrichment. It would oblige Iran not to use advanced "second-generation" centrifuges that can enrich uranium much more efficiently than "first-generation" units. And it would temporarily prohibit Iran from bringing online a dangerous heavy-water nuclear reactor that's ideal for producing plutonium optimized for a nuclear explosive.
That said, the pending interim pact would still allow other key elements of Iran's nuclear program to move forward and expand. It would neither shrink Iran's stockpile of "3.5 percent" low-enriched uranium that represents (again, counterintuitively yet technically) seven-tenths of the effort required to produce bomb-grade uranium. Nor would it prevent Iran from producing more. Moreover, the deal would not actually roll back or disassemble Iran's fleet of over 19,000 installed "first-generation" centrifuges for enriching uranium (more than half of which are actively enriching), nor apparently prevent Iran from manufacturing more. And it would only delay, not dismantle, the plutonium-producing "heavy water" reactor that Robert Einhorn, a former nonproliferation official in Bill Clinton's and Obama's administrations, dubbed a "plutonium bomb factory."
Photo: EPA/HAMID FORUTAN
Before ink had been put to paper -- let alone dried -- on an interim nuclear bargain with Iran Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as "the deal of the century" for Tehran , noting that Iran would not have to dismantle even one centrifuge. If a deal is culminated, others will no doubt defend it, arguing that Iran's enrichment program is a fait accompli; that we can hope only to contain it, not to end it, or even to roll it back.
So over the next few weeks the argument will play out over whether or not Iran has been pushed farther from a nuclear weapons capability, and whether sanctions relief would then be justified. This highly transactional approach would offer scant evidence of a strategic decision by Tehran to forego a nuclear weapons program in favor of a better relationship with the international community. It would, however, be consistent with a pattern of deals Tehran has sought to buy breathing space, while continuing to expand its nuclear program.
A better test of the worth of an Iranian nuclear commitment has already been specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- how Tehran answers specific evidence of nuclear weapons development. Two years ago, the agency reported on what it called "possible military dimensions" of the Iranian nuclear program, stating:
"Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information." [pdf]
Despite the IAEA's rather anodyne label, the November 2011 report raised allegations of work that can only be explained as part of a nuclear weapons development program, including efforts "pertinent to the development of an HEU [highly enriched uranium] implosion device," such as:
These are detailed allegations, directly related to nuclear weapons development, reported by multiple sources, and in many cases cross-checked against information developed independently by the agency. They give lie to Tehran's plea that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
For years, the IAEA has sought Iranian cooperation in resolving the issues associated with these activities, but Tehran has stonewalled. Even Monday's deal between the IAEA and Iran failed to address these matters. How Tehran deals with the IAEA's allegation of "a possible military dimension" to the Iranian program is critically important.
Openness would allow the IAEA to follow the leads -- inspect facilities, analyze documents, talk with scientists, check procurement records. This would enable the agency to determine what the facts on the ground are, and to root out any Iranian nuclear weapons program, if one continues to exist.
It would also signal that Tehran has decided that the costs of developing nuclear weapons are too high and the benefits of an alternative path are worth pursuing.
Alternatively, if Tehran continues to stonewall the IAEA, refusing to clarify what it has done and not done despite credible and damning evidence, we will know that the deal is tactical, not strategic, that cooperation by Tehran is incomplete and grudging, and that given half a chance, they will cheat on it.
Could such a deal still be worthwhile? Perhaps, but only if Iran is materially and verifiably farther from a nuclear weapons capability than it is today, and that would set the bar very, very high.
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In an Oct. 3 op-ed in the New York Times, Vali Nasr asserts that Iran is approaching the nuclear negotiations slated to resume Oct. 15 from a position of strength and that American ambitions should therefore be modest. He suggests limited sanctions relief in exchange for "concrete steps to slow down Iran's nuclear program and open it to international scrutiny." Nasr's prescription, however, would provide neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor Iranian President Hasan Rouhani with what they need.
Iran is not riding nearly as high as Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, suggests, but is in fact under tremendous economic, political, and military pressure. The charming self-assurance projected by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif masks a desperate need to make a deal with the United States.
As much as if not more than other Middle Eastern countries, Iran's security has been threatened by recent events in the region. The Syrian regime is Iran's main ally and conduit for projecting power; it may have been granted a reprieve from American attack, but it is by no means secure. And Syria is just one part of a broader, increasingly sectarian regional struggle that has dented the once-high popular prestige of Iran and its proxies.
Furthermore, U.S. military credibility may be at low ebb, but Iran cannot discount U.S. and Israeli military threats. An attack by either would not only set back Iran's nuclear efforts, but would expose the weakness of its military and the hollowness of its bombastic rhetoric.
Economically, Iran is suffering mightily. Iran's oil revenues have dropped from $8 billion monthly in 2011 to just $3.4 billion today, much of which cannot be repatriated due to sanctions that require Iran's customers to pay in local currency. Sanctions have also isolated Iran from the international financial system, contributing to high unemployment and inflation, stagnant economic growth, and a plummeting currency.
These pains come in the wake of Iran's widespread 2009 political unrest, which was followed by the brutal suppression of dissidents and the marginalization of reformist politicians and even pragmatic conservatives. The regime's repression was effective but had the effect of uniting a coalition of otherwise disparate political forces in opposition to hard-liners dominating the regime.
Rouhani's election in June was a result of (or at least the supreme leader's response to) these dynamics, but was not itself a solution to Iran's domestic problems. In voting for Rouhani, the Iranian people overwhelmingly endorsed the platform of social and economic change on which he campaigned. But to deliver on his promises, Rouhani needs not merely the lifting of one or two sanctions, but broad relief from them. And thus, he needs our help.
Iran's predicament provides Obama with both opportunity and leverage, neither of which should be squandered. But Rouhani will surely seek to alleviate Iran's suffering at the minimum price to its nuclear options, offering transparency and confidence-building rather than far-reaching limits on Iran's nuclear activities. The United States is susceptible to such arguments, as Washington wants not just to reach a nuclear agreement but to ease hostilities with Iran, and it is worried that the chance to do so may be fleeting.
But a limited nuclear agreement that leaves Iranian capabilities in place, even if subject to enhanced inspections, will not build confidence or stability. Inspections will raise tensions, not lower them, when Iran inevitably objects to inspectors' desire for access to sensitive military sites or denies activities for which the United States has evidence, such as Iran's weaponization work. Similar efforts with North Korea and Iraq in the 1990s and with Iran in the early 2000s eroded, rather than built, trust. And even if the United States chooses to trust Iran, its allies will not. Instead they will hedge their bets by matching the capabilities permitted to Tehran.
Furthermore, an agreement that leaves Iran's nuclear fuel fabrication capabilities and weaponization research program in place will permit Tehran in the future -- once economic and military pressures are safely relieved -- to expel inspectors and resume its march toward nuclear weapons, as North Korea did in the early 2000s.
Avoiding this risk and opening space for a gradual improvement of U.S.-Iran ties and cooling of regional tensions will require an agreement that rolls back rather than simply halts the progress of Iran's nuclear program, and it will require Tehran to come clean about its past nuclear work. In exchange, Washington should be prepared to offer broad relief from sanctions. Negotiating such an agreement will require a stiff spine from the Obama administration; the United States may need to increase the pressure on Iran even further and defer hopes of rapprochement until a sustainable nuclear accord is concluded.
To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, neither Obama nor Rouhani may get what they want from nuclear talks -- for Obama a historic diplomatic breakthrough, and for Rouhani the preservation of Iran's nuclear options and capabilities -- but with some effort each may get what he needs. For Rouhani, this is relief from the crushing burden of sanctions. For Obama, it is a strategic shift, not merely a tactical retreat, by Tehran.
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The prevailing narrative in the Western media regarding the new president of the Islamic Republic, Hasan Rouhani, is reminiscent of the optimistic assessment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by Jimmy Carter's administration. President Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, said that Khomeini would eventually be hailed as a saint; Carter's ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, observed that Khomeini was a Gandhi-like figure. Khomeini was seen by the administration at that time as a man of impeccable integrity and honesty. Today, of course, the gravity of this historic mistake and its consequences are self-evident.
Yet, we again are bearing witness to a similar self-deception as Rouhani is presented to Western publics as a moderate leader possessing charm and humility, a man of vision for a new, free Iran who wishes to pursue a constructive dialogue with the West. This is another historic mistake in the making, the consequences of which -- a nuclear-armed Iran -- will be catastrophic not only for the Iranian people but for the region and the international community.
Tehran has done its best to reinforce the view that Rouhani represents a major shift in the strategic direction in the Islamic Republic. In a seemingly humanitarian effort, for example, political prisoners close to the so-called reformist faction of the Islamic Republic were released only days before Rouhani's arrival in New York. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently displayed an unprecedented tolerance of the United States. Aware of the West's deep mistrust of him and his role in the current stalemate over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, Khamenei announced that it was time for what he described as "heroic leniency" with respect to direct talks with the United States. Rouhani himself told NBC News on Sept. 18 that "in its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority."
The White House announced that President
Barack Obama is willing to meet with Rouhani. Obama
noted in an interview with Telemundo that there are indications that Rouhani
"is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the
United States in a way that we haven't seen in the past." And therefore, Obama
said, he believes that the United States should test Iran.
Many in the Western media have convinced themselves that with Rouhani's arrival, there is a genuine opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. Few, apparently, are willing to review Rouhani's statements, especially those made during his recent presidential campaign, which reveal the Islamic Republic's strategy in dealing with the international community on its nuclear program. During the last presidential election, the so-called hard-liners were critical of Rouhani's candidacy and accused him of being too soft with the West when he was serving as the Islamic Republic's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. The sharpest criticisms were aimed at his agreement to suspend all enrichment activities in what was called the Saadabad agreement.
In an interview on Iranian state television on May 27, Rouhani refuted the allegation that he had overseen the curtailment of uranium enrichment activities, and in so doing he outlined the strategy the Tehran regime had pursued, its results, and the major tasks that he believes lie ahead.
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Trash-talking is a sports metaphor often used by individuals on the losing side of games. Rather than "walking the walk" (playing well), they "talk the talk." While Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used trashy rhetoric about Holocaust denial and anti-Americanism cover up for his and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's mismanagement of the Iranian economy; enhanced U.N., EU, and U.S. trade and financial sanctions during Ahmadinejad's two terms; and the failure to survive serious infighting with other members of the ruling elite from the judiciary and parliament.
The good news about the Ahmadinejad era was consistency between Iran's rhetoric and its actions. Hot words were consistent with fast-spinning centrifuges moving Iran closer to enriching bomb-grade uranium. The bad news was that the major powers reached out to the Iranian regime despite rhetorical extremism and increased nuclear capability, while virtually ignoring the Iranian pro-democracy movement.
Negotiations with the Iranian regime continued on a sporadic basis in spite of the words and deeds. Tehran and the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) engaged in a proposal-counterproposal sequence from 2003 to 2005 (before and just after the advent of Ahmadinejad).
In July 2005, Hasan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and now president of Iran, proposed to the EU3, among other things:
But Rouhani, known as the "diplomatic sheikh," bragged about having duped the West in these negotiations. According to a March 2006 Telegraph article, Rouhani boasted that while nuclear talks took place in Tehran with the EU3, Iran was able to complete installation of equipment for conversion, a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant.
The good news as the Rouhani era begins is that his words are soothing to our ears. It is good to hear from an Iranian president that he pledges to be moderate and flexible. The bad news is that Rouhani has only taken cosmetic steps to demonstrate moderation, and the West is bound to reach out even more to Rouhani because of a misperception of moderation.
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Syria's Bashar al-Assad may have thrown a wrench into Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's plans for nuclear negotiations with the West -- if the United States learns the right lessons from the Syria experience.
It is by now conventional wisdom that Iran emerged as a clear winner in the U.S.-Russia diplomacy on Syria. To be sure, there was plenty for Tehran to like about this particular foreign-policy misadventure: the United States' hesitancy to enforce a red line or to use force, the West's willingness to focus narrowly on Assad's chemical weapons and ignore the broader threats posed by Assad and his allies, the public split between the United States and key regional allies like the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, and the re-emergence of Russia, Iran's ally, as a player in the region.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that the outcome is entirely benign for Iran.
Rouhani's overarching objective in the nuclear talks, likely to resume soon, appears to be securing relief from economic sanctions at the minimum cost to Iran's nuclear options. To that end, media reports indicate that Rouhani will propose that Iran retain most of its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and be given relief from the two primary threats facing the regime -- economic sanctions and military threats. In exchange, Iran will reportedly offer a range of transparency and verification measures, such as implementing the "Additional Protocol" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thereby ostensibly expanding International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors' access to Iranian nuclear sites.
The chemical weapons deal with Syria, however, complicates this approach. Barack Obama's administration and many in Congress have asserted that the deal was made possible only due to the credible threat of force. This explanation is facile; the credibility of the president's threat evaporated when it became clear that Congress would not authorize the use of force and the administration would not act absent that approval. In reality, having maneuvered himself into a corner through a deficient and undisciplined policy process, the president had little choice but to accept the Russian gambit.
Ironically, this collapse of credibility on Syria may prompt an effort to reinforce U.S. credibility on Iran. Because the alternative explanations of its behavior are so unpalatable, the Obama administration is now committed to the principle that credible threats of force facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs. And the administration's partners, from Congress to overseas allies, may well be eager to cooperate in any effort to bolster the credibility of U.S. military warnings to Iran, having themselves proven reluctant to endorse force against Syria.
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The Washington Post has revealed the intense concern of the U.S. intelligence community about Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. In addition to gaps in U.S. information about nuclear weapons storage and safeguards, American analysts are worried about the risk of terrorist attacks against nuclear facilities in Pakistan as well as the risk that individual Pakistani nuclear weapons handlers could go rogue in ways that endanger unified national control over these weapons of mass destruction.
These concerns raise a wider question for a U.S. national security establishment whose worst nightmares include the collapse of the Pakistani state -- with all its implications for empowerment of terrorists, a regional explosion of violent extremism, war with India, and loss of control over the country's nuclear weapons. That larger question is: Does Pakistan's nuclear arsenal promote the country's unity or its disaggregation?
This is a complicated puzzle, in part because nuclear war in South Asia may be more likely as long as nuclear weapons help hold Pakistan together and embolden its military leaders to pursue foreign adventures under the nuclear umbrella. So if we argue that nuclear weapons help maintain Pakistan's integrity as a state -- by empowering and cohering the Pakistani Army -- they may at the same time undermine regional stability and security by making regional war more likely.
As South Asia scholar Christine Fair of Georgetown University has argued, the Pakistani military's sponsorship of "jihad under the nuclear umbrella" has gravely undermined the security of Pakistan's neighborhood -- making possible war with India over Kargil in 1999, the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, and Pakistan's ongoing support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other violent extremists.
Moreover, Pakistan's proliferation of nuclear technologies has seeded extra-regional instability by boosting "rogue state" nuclear weapons programs as far afield as North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Syria. Worryingly, rather than pursuing a policy of minimal deterrence along Indian lines, Pakistan's military leaders are banking on the future benefits of nuclear weapons by overseeing the proportionately biggest nuclear buildup of any power, developing tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, and dispersing the nuclear arsenal to ensure its survivability in the event of attack by either the United States or India. (Note that most Pakistanis identify the United States, not India, as their country's primary adversary, despite an alliance dating to 1954 and nearly $30 billion in American assistance since 2001.)
The nuclear arsenal sustains Pakistan's unbalanced internal power structure, underwriting Army dominance over elected politicians and neutering civilian control of national security policy; civilian leaders have no practical authority over Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Whether one believes the arsenal's governance implications generate stability or instability within Pakistan depends on whether one believes that Army domination of the country is a stabilizing or destabilizing factor.
A similarly split opinion derives from whether one deems the Pakistan Army the country's most competent institution and therefore the best steward of weapons whose fall into the wrong hands could lead to global crisis -- or whether one views the Army's history of reckless risk-taking, from sponsoring terrorist attacks against the United States and India to launching multiple wars against India that it had no hope of winning, as a flashing "DANGER" sign suggesting that nuclear weapons are far more likely to be used "rationally" by the armed forces in pursuit of Pakistan's traditional policies of keeping its neighbors off balance.
There is no question that the seizure of power by a radicalized group of generals with a revolutionary anti-Indian, anti-American, and social-transformation agenda within Pakistan becomes a far more dangerous scenario in the context of nuclear weapons. Similarly, the geographical dispersal of the country's nuclear arsenal and the relatively low level of authority a battlefield commander would require to employ tactical nuclear weapons raise the risk of their use outside the chain of command.
This also raises the risk that the Pakistani Taliban, even if it cannot seize the commanding heights of state institutions, could seize either by force or through infiltration a nuclear warhead at an individual installation and use it to hold the country -- and the world -- to ransom. American intelligence analysts covering Pakistan will continue to lose sleep for a long time to come.
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How should the administration respond to the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and his expressed desire to work with the international community to lift the sanctions?
For starters, I agree with my Shadow Government colleagues when they warn that the administration should not be naïve. So far in this latest round, I think it is fair to say that the administration has not been naïve. Team Obama appears to understand that Rouhani is doubtless sincere in his desire to see the sanctions lifted, but Iranian hardliners remain adamant that they will not quickly do the one thing that would guarantee rapprochement: verifiably abandon the nuclear weapons program. Rouhani may be more pragmatic than his predecessor was, but that is so low a bar to clear that the prudent emotion should be wariness, not giddiness.
Yet, I am not sure I go as far as my other Shadow Government colleagues do when they call for increasing sanctions now, even before diplomatic overtures have been attempted. I understand the logic for additional sanctions. Iran will likely only accept a painful compromise that would guarantee President Obama's stated policy of prevention -- i.e. preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability rather than containing Iran after it has developed a nuclear weapons capability -- if all other policy options are deemed to be even more painful. Ratcheting up the pain of Iran's status quo path thus could contribute to a diplomatic solution.
However, it is also true that the Iranian regime will only verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions if it believes the United States will honor its side of the deal, namely lifting the sanctions and welcoming Iran back into the international economic community after Iran lives up to its obligations.
This is the dilemma of coercive diplomacy. For it to work, the threatening state (United States) must convince the target (Iran) of two opposite potential futures. First, the state must convince the target that continued defiance will receive continued (painful) punishment. Second, the state must convince the target that acquiescence will receive a lifting of the punishment. In other words, coercive diplomacy requires simultaneously threatening and reassuring one's opponent.
Coercive diplomacy can fail if either the threat or the reassurance is undermined. As I have explained before, if the target gets sanctions relief too soon -- say, for merely entering negotiations -- then it is unlikely the target will actually compromise. Why should they when they get what they want -- sanctions relief -- without giving up anything? Failed reassurance frustrates diplomacy in the opposite way: if the target believes it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't make a deal, it will refuse to compromise.
The history of negotiating with Iran is a history of the international community being too concerned about reassurance and consistently failing to maintain the pressure side. We have repeatedly pursued negotiations with inadequate sanctions pressure and then given into well-meaning calls to ease the pressure with "confidence-building measures" aimed at bolstering reassurance.
It is also the case that multilateral sanctions are only as tough as the weakest link. The Iranian regime has proven masterful at exploiting weak links in the international community and thus the net effect of sanctions has often been less pressure than the sanctions would seem to promise on paper.
A good case could be made, therefore, that Iran knows only too well that the West would like to give up the sanctions and welcome Iran back into the global economy. Reassurance is the easier side of the equation, the one we are more likely to default to when inertia sets in. Thus, if we are going to err, better to err on the side of too much rather than too little pressure.
I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but it is also the case that presently Iran is subject to more painful sanctions than it has endured heretofore in the nuclear negotiations era. This pain is clearly evident in Rouhani's messaging. Whether it is enough pain to produce a deal is uncertain, but given the stakes it may be worth exploring with another round of negotiations -- provided that we can simultaneously threaten and reassure.
That is why I think that Congress may have handed the Obama administration a gift when the House passed substantially ramped-up sanctions -- provided that Obama handles this deftly.
If the Senate passes this and Obama signs it into law, it would likely cause negotiations to fail even before they begin. Maybe later, after the new sanctions have taken hold and the pain becomes intolerable, the Iranians might come around and float other diplomatic offers, but in the near-term the Iranians would view the additional sanctions as a rebuff to Rouhani -- and some key U.S. partners might even sympathize with them on that point. It could even backfire and result in international partners isolating U.S. policy, rather than joining U.S. policy to isolate Iran.
But if the Senate passes these new sanctions with a national security waiver, and if Obama exercises that waiver but keeps all of the other preexisting sanctions, we might just enter into negotiations in the coercive diplomacy sweet spot: Obama will have provided the requisite gesture of reassurance, waiving the new harsh sanctions, without undermining the prevailing economic pressure that has driven the Iranians to the current inflection point.
Of course, even sweet-spot coercive diplomacy may be inadequate to the daunting task of convincing the Iranians to verifiably abandon the nuclear weapons' option. But the alternatives -- negotiating with an Iranian regime that believes it has already won the prize of sanctions relief or negotiating with an Iranian regime that believes the United States will not honor any deal -- face even less of a chance of working. A deft Obama administration would take advantage of the gambit that Congress is providing.
This past Saturday, Iran inaugurated a new president -- former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. And while there is rightly a consensus that Rouhani's victory will do little to change Iran's foreign policy, domestic policy is another matter. Indeed, there are strong indications that Rouhani plans to pursue a new domestic agenda to increase the regime's diminishing popularity among Iranians.
Specifically, Rouhani, who has portrayed himself as a populist reformer, may try to cosmetically improve the human rights situation in Iran. At the same time, the regime may use such action to present itself to the world as "changed," and buy precious time to complete its nuclear program. The international community must not allow this to happen.
A word about the Iranian nuclear program: Most everyone agrees that Iran is getting closer and closer to having the nuclear weapons capability it has long sought. While there are differing opinions on when it will reach fruition, the bottom line is that the program is advancing, and this event is not a decade away, but one poised to happen in the near future.
Time is of the essence, and the current trajectory has to change. This is why Americans should be highly concerned about the disaster that could come from the international community buying into a Rouhani-led charm offensive and easing the current pressure on Iran.
From Rouhani's perspective, Iran's human rights situation is the perfect area to claim to be reforming. Iran's treatment of its own citizens is absolutely appalling, as citizens are commonly denied free speech, fair trials, and personal liberties. Iranians are targeted and punished for their religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Hundreds are executed, some publicly by construction crane or gallows, for minor or nonexistent offenses. Journalists and dissidents are increasingly being monitored, imprisoned, beaten, and in some cases killed.
The Iranian regime behaves abysmally in many ways, but its human rights abuses are unique in that they cannot be blamed on the West. The regime commonly faults the West and sanctions for the dismal economic situation in Iran, ignoring its own economic mismanagement and kleptocratic structures. Likewise, it carries out international terror attacks and threatens military strikes, claiming that it is defending itself from Western aggression. Yet when it comes to beating, torturing, and killing Iranians without due process, there is no external boogeyman for the regime to blame.
This is in fact a crucial reason why the international community needs to continue to uncover and highlight the regime's abuses -- doing so shows the Iranian people that the world sees the cruel nature of the men that unjustly rule them. It also strengthens the case for why the international community should ratchet up sanctions and do what it takes to prevent this violent and aggressive regime from having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.
The Iranian regime has, through its intransigence, turned the entire world against it. As former George W. Bush-era officials on U.N. matters who are typically not optimistic about the body's ability to affect change, we were particularly astounded to see that even the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva took action by appointing a Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to report on the human rights situation in the country.
In truth, sanctions and international pressure have been quite effective at economically isolating Iran. Iran's economy is in freefall and countries, banks, and companies around the world have sworn off business with the regime. The climate for pressuring Iran is exponentially better than it was just a few years ago.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clearly knows that his people are fed up with the current situation and blame their leadership. He also appears willing to go along with some trappings of change instead of risking a more significant uprising among the population. It is quite plausible that Khamenei will allow Rouhani to take cosmetic steps to appear to improve the human rights situation in Iran, for the same reasons he went along with Rouhani's electoral victory in the first place.
And therein lies the most immediate problem. Khamenei and Rouhani will be glad to see a tamping down of the current restiveness in the country, but they are also likely to portray such "improvements" to the rest of the world as evidence of change and buy time to continue their nuclear program and try to roll back or stall current sanctions.
It is imperative that the international community not fall for this trick. No real change will occur under this theocracy. Cosmetic change is not a reason to give the regime economic relief, and the time it needs to finish its nuclear program.
Mark P. Lagon is a former U.S. ambassador to combat trafficking in persons, a Georgetown University professor in the practice on international affairs, and a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow. Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, representative for U.N. management and reform.
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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are scheduled to vote today on a new Iran sanctions bill that is aimed at cutting Iran's oil exports by another 1 million barrels over the next year. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously in support of the bill, and it is expected to garner overwhelming bipartisan support in the full House. The House will be sending the right message at precisely the right time to the Iranian regime.
Strong bipartisan support for tougher oil sanctions indicates a broadly shared understanding that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will succeed and military strikes on Iranian facilities avoided only if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is convinced that the flow of oil revenues needed to sustain his regime will be cut off. Islamic Republic officials have acknowledged that Iranian oil revenues have dropped 45 percent since 2011 because of international trade sanctions imposed as a result of Iran's nuclear program.
Some observers, however, argue that the timing of these new sanctions could not be worse because it would send all the wrong signals to the new so-called "moderate" president of the Islamic Republic who will begin his work on Aug. 3. President-elect Hasan Rouhani, they assert, is the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. This view rests on a fundamental misconception that by now should be apparent to U.S. policymakers.
This underlying misconception is that a new "moderate" president can be expected to fulfill a campaign promise of pursuing "a policy of peace and reconciliation" and thus resolve the nuclear dispute that has been at a stalemate for the past 10 years. Six of the seven candidates for president were known hard-liners, and one, Rouhani, was presented as a "moderate." Rouhani has been a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1999, a member of the Expediency Council since 1991, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council since 1989, and head of the Center for Strategic Research since 1992. All these organizations are under the direct supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and all members are trusted and loyal underlings of Khamenei. More to the point, the reality in Khamenei-controlled Iran is that throughout these years, neither a "reformist" nor a "hard-line" president has ever played a role in the nuclear negotiations. The real decision-maker on the nuclear negotiating strategy and acceptable outcome is and always has been Khamenei, the supreme leader, who inherited final authority on all issues when he succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
The record over the past decade demonstrates that only the imposition of oil sanctions has influenced Khamenei's public statements, let alone his behavior. The European Union and later the U.N. Security Council held a series of negotiations with Iranian representatives for years on an agreement to put constraints on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and prevent it from developing a nuclear arsenal. Khamenei consistently and deliberately prolonged the negotiations by setting unreasonable and unacceptable preconditions. He remained defiant, and his presidential mouthpiece at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likened their nuclear program to a train without breaks. The mild sanctions adopted by the Security Council during the course of these negotiations tended to affect the Iranian people far more than the regime. They were dismissed by the regime as torn pieces of paper. The nuclear program went ahead full speed while billions of dollars in oil revenue continued to flow into the regime's coffers.
Khamenei's concern for the welfare of the Iranian people is reflected in the regime's egregious human rights record. When Iranians decided to voice their opposition to Khamenei's policies in 2009 and over 3 million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran in protest, Ahmadinejad, Khamenei's then-selected president, referred to them as "dust and dirt," a contempt for the Iranian people shared by the leaders of the regime. The peaceful post-2009 election protests were violently crushed by Khamenei's security forces. Many peaceful protesters were killed on the streets and in prisons. Thousands were arrested, many of whom are still in confinement. Iran became more of a police state than ever before.
As Khamenei's regime amassed the largest oil revenues in the eight years of Ahmadinejad's presidency -- over $800 billion -- the Iranian people became poorer. The inflow of petrodollars to the regime was not used on any domestic programs to relieve the burdens on the Iranian people or even to fund desperately needed improvements in the Iranian oil sector. Instead, regime corruption grew to epic proportions. Almost 250 cases of embezzlement were reported in one year alone, the largest of which involved a sum of $3 billion. The Syrian government, Hezbollah, and other dictators and terrorist organizations were beneficiaries of Khamenei's generosity, but not the Iranian people.
The evidence to date demonstrates that only the imposition of tough oil sanctions will influence Khamenei's public statements and his behavior. One year after American-led sanctions were imposed on the regime's oil sector, Khamenei changed his tone in the 2013 election. First, he presented the Iranian people with a list of seven presidential candidates, selected by his Guardian Council, and asked them to vote "even if they are for some reasons opposed to the regime." Then Khamenei took another bold step by announcing publicly that while he is not optimistic about negotiations with the United States, he did not forbid it in the past years concerning specific issues such as Iraq. Khamenei was implying that he is not opposed to negotiations with the "Great Satan." Yet in the same speech, he made clear that the nuclear negotiators should pursue talks in a way that allows the nuclear program to continue unimpeded.
In the final analysis, the only diplomatic instrument that shows any likelihood of succeeding in dealing with Khamenei's regime is one that cuts off the source of his revenue -- oil sanctions. Khamenei has shown that any real change in the behavior of his regime will happen only under financial duress. Unless he is convinced that the inauguration of a so-called moderate president will not delay tougher oil sanctions that cut off his revenue flow, there is little hope for resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically anytime soon. A strong bipartisan House vote this week on tougher oil sanctions will send Khamenei the unmistakable signal that it is in his best interests to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically now.
G. William Heiser was formerly an official in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff and is currently an advisor to the Iranian Freedom Institute and Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar is president of the Iranian Freedom Institute, secretary-general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is currently a research fellow and visiting lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, D.C.
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A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama's speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.
Second, Obama's call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow's only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces. Similarly, Obama's call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.
So what if Putin's Russia doesn't reciprocate Obama's overtures? Previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with modernization to make a smaller arsenal more reliable and effective. Obama's approach, by contrast, has been reduction without modernization. Although the administration has pledged additional funding for U.S. nuclear infrastructure, there is skepticism as to whether it will ever materialize. And opponents of the U.S. nuclear enterprise increasingly frame their arguments in budgetary terms, stressing the "savings" that could be achieved if the United States slashes its nuclear stockpile. In a period of declining defense budgets, nuclear programs represent juicy targets.
Largely lost in such discussions is the real reason the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal: to protect the United States and its allies against aggression and coercion. It is a purpose that John F. Kennedy and the Germans who greeted him in Berlin half a century ago understood all too well, but one that seems to make the current president uncomfortable.
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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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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.