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August 27, 2006

Going it Alone In Iran
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Michael Signer asks the question:  if one of the primary objectives of US foreign policy is to exemplify conduct that causes other nations to want to emulate America's example and follow its lead, what is Washington to do in cases where most of the world declines to back us? 

The answer, of course, depends on why the world isn't with us:  is it because our motives are questionable, our intelligence faulty, our objectives unrealistic, our methods inappropriate, our plans half-baked?  Or is that other countries - because of their own economic or political interests, cowardice, indifference, inertia or a combination thereof - won't subscribe to a policy that has genuine merit?  The distinction makes all the difference.

All this seems may soon be tested over Iran.  The LA Times' Maggie Farley framed the question well in a piece yesterday:  if the US ends up forced to sidestep the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, will Washington's doing so be a sign of weakness or of strength?

A bit of background:  Over the last few days, Tehran has opened a heavy water plant, and launched a sub-to-surface missile test, all days in advance of an August 31 UN deadline for a cessation of their uranium enrichment activities.  All signs indicate that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has no intention of heeding the UN's demands.

Washington now faces a dilemma.  The crisis in Lebanon only underscores the breadth of Iran's regional ambitions and the efficacy of their proxy network.  The one thing foreign policy experts of all persuasions agree on is that the foremost threat to U.S. security is nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue or terrorist state.   Thus far, Ahmadinejad seems unwilling to slow down his nuclear march, meaning that waiting out the threat - essentially the Clinton Administration's approach to Iraq and one that, in retrospect, looks better and better - may not be an option here. 

But, if the US must act, will we get the international support we need, and - if not - why not, and then what?

The Europeans, at least for the moment, look fairly solid, at least insofar as favoring relatively tepid sanctions including a travel ban on Iranian officials and an asset freeze.  Going back to the framework above, that a substantial bloc of countries is siding with the US at least suggests that our position is not meritless.  So, fortunately, we're not at this point really faced with the choice of having to go it alone.

But despite having months ago said that they'd support sanctions if Iran failed to comply with the UNSC's resolution, Russia seems to be backing off.  Moscow now says sanctions would be premature and they'd like to further negotiate.  China has not yet pronounced, but may well be similarly reluctant to act.

According to Farley, while working to forge consensus at the Security Council, the US is at the same time working alternative channels that could culminate in a kind of coalition-of-the-willing seizing Iranian assets, and cut off their access to currency, technology and materials.

In discussing such plans publicly, one dimension of the Administration's game is to convince UNSC members that some form of sanctions will proceed with or without them as a way to try to induce Council action.  China and Russia will then have to decide whether they prefer the action over sanctions occuring at the UN where they hold vetos, or in an ad hoc forum where they don't even have a seat. 

To go back to Michael's question, in order to enjoy this leverage its essential that the US never renounce unilateral action, or suggest that - when fundamental US or global security matters are at stake - we will act only when external support can be mustered.  We've learned in Iraq that, as a practical matter, acting alone is brutally difficult.  But having the ability to do so is often essential to enlisting others to support us.

But what if the bluff doesn't work and the best the US can do are sanctions without the imprimatur of a UN resolution?  Realistically, at least part of the blame will originate in the US's weakened position as a result of Iraq and the broader sense of chaos in the Middle East.  To go back to Michael's argument, our failure to be exemplary in the past will have undercut our ability to be exemplary in the present. 

Building on that theme, Iran may declare victory, ridiculing our inability to hold together UN consensus.   There's also a legitimate question about how effective such sanctions would be since Russia and China are both leading trade partners with Iran.  Though on the other hand, the track record of UN-backed sanctions is also poor, and its not clear that extra-UN sanctions couldn't have some bite.

If unity at the UN proves unattainable due to Russian and Chinese unwillingness to back sanctions, this will not undermine the US's credibility in proceeding.  After all, Russia and China both voted for a resolution providing that if Tehran spurned the August 31 deadline, penalties would ensue.  By failing to follow through, they undermine the UN's legitimacy and persuasive power.  Also, both countries are known to have deep economic interests in Iran that would be seen to color their positions.  The Kosovo invasion offers one precedent for action that was blocked by the UN, that time because of the Russians, but went ahead under the NATO umbrella and was roundly judged as legitimate.

One point that Russia has brought up is that while Iran may be deserving of sanction, its far from clear that sanctions will achieve any concrete objective, much less elicit a change in Tehran's posture.  This has some validity, but with two key caveats: one, the whole UN is predicated on the notion that a collective of nations can and must serve a kind of global policing function, however imperfectly.  In that context, even ineffectual action to signify unified opposition may be better than doing nothing while a sovereign acts in flagrant violation of a UN resolution; two, rather than throwing up its hands at its own ineffectiveness, the members of the UNSC need to refine and improve sanctions regimes.  If the Russians rue what's been tried in the past, the onus is on them to propose something better.

As long as we're not seem to move with excessive haste or to fail because of bullying or ham-handed tactics, and as long as we sustain a core of support from Europe and some others, there will be no shame - and no weaknes - in penalizing Iran through an ad hoc coalition.


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The crisis in Lebanon only underscores the breadth of Iran's regional ambitions and the efficacy of their proxy network.... Thus far, Ahmadinejad seems unwilling to slow down his nuclear march.

Then let's just go to war now. The threat of ad-hoc sanctions will almost certainly drive Iran into the hands of Russia, so I don't see how this threat has any teeth for Putin.

After the failure of sanctions, the administration can then say that the current policy is ineffective and we have to go to war. Since the Democrats agree with the grave nature of the threat, how can they disagree that war is necessary?

But the threat from Iran -- while serious -- is not as grave as you claim. You talk as if Ahmedinejad controls the army and the nuclear negotiations. He controls neither.

As for Iran's Hezbollah proxy, here's Anthony Cordesman, PDF, page 15:

One key point that should be mentioned more in passing than as a lesson, although it may be a warning about conspiracy theories, is that no serving Israeli official, intelligence officer, or other military officer felt that the Hezbollah acted under the direction of Iran or Syria.

Hezbollah is indigenous to Lebanon, and while supported by Iran, no longer follows orders from the Iranian gov't.

One option we haven't tried with Iran is security guarantees. Maybe this wouldn't work, but I'd like to see one party suggest it before we embark on another disastrous war.

The Europeans, at least for the moment, look fairly solid, at least insofar as favoring relatively tepid sanctions including a travel ban on Iranian officials and an asset freeze. Going back to the framework above, that a substantial bloc of countries is siding with the US at least suggests that our position is not meritless.

This doesn't seem to be the judgment of Josh Landis at Syria Comment:

From French pronouncements, it looks as if the Europeans are delighted to have Russia run interference for them with Washington. America's stand on Lebanon disgusted most European leaders. They don't trust the US to do the right thing with its leading role in the UN. France undercut US plans in Lebanon. Now Russia will take the heat for Karate chopping Washington on Iran.

Landis also links to this essay by Gareth Porter, offering a different take on European aims and attitudes toward the US in this affair.

My sense is that Europeans right now view the US as a sort of distempered King Kong at which they have to throw a few Fay Wrays from time to time, to get it to sit down and cool down. Yet I fear their agreeing to a weakly justified UN resolution was a mistake. The Euros may live to rue this appeasement.

Cal and Dan,

Thank you both for focusing this thread to the substance of the matter.

I disagree with Gareth Porter, however, in his implied view that the United States could have offered Iran credible security guarantees. The problem with any such guarantees (at least in the way they are described) is that they are revocable.

To be serious, a security guarantee has to more than a mere pledge. A proposal would not need to be practical in an immediate way to have the necessary diplomatic effect:

1. We need to offer to include Iran in a shared strategic missile defense that also includes the other seven nuclear powers plus a few other strategic states.

2. Such a system should be proposed to intercept large-scale ballistic missile salvos originating from any nuclear power, thus preventing any nuclear state from launching a first or second strike. Such a defense would require a massive engineering effort over the next two or three decades but cooperation could begin right away.

3. Having made this proposal, we could then ask Iran to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs on the grounds that they would no longer be necessary, since all nuclear missile capabilities in the world would be heading for obsolescence.

4. Iran would then be forced to disclose its real strategic intentions, ie. whether their nuclear program is for deterrence only or whether it is intended to produce nuclear weapons for delivery by means other than missiles.

5. If Iran rejects the US proposal, the rest of the world could reasonably infer that Tehran's real purpose is exactly what the Bush hardliners say it is, namely a program to raise terrorism to a new level.

6. If Iran accepts the US offer, then it would be up to the United States and the other nuclear powers to deliver on it.

It doesn't look like the Bush administration will propose flushing out Iran's real intentions in this way. Most American hardliners seem likely to think that any shared defense would be an unacceptable infringement of America's sovereignty and freedom of action, which indeed it would be once it becomes operational. But it is precisely America's freedom to offer and then revoke security guarantees that has motivated Iran to have a nuclear deterrent.

If we are unable to conceive security guarantees on a scale that would more credibly give up some of our military freedom to act against Iran, Iran will be able to maintain that its nuclear program is necessary to preserve its own security, whether or not that is their only reason.


I believe we can approach the Iran issue in a much more straightforward and traditional way, which doesn't require the US, Iran or anybody else to put their faith in the ambitious yet doubtful promises of strategic missile defense, or in large schemes for heretofore unseen levels of international military and technological cooperation.

In order for a shared missile defense system such as you imagine to work, all the states participating would have to be equal partners in the effort. The technology would have to be fully shared and mutually worked and administered, otherwise most of the states in the sytem would be entirely dependent on the good will, honesty and competence of the states building and maintaining the system. I simply cannot see the US opening the books on its strategic missile research to Iran, or any other country. Yet unless the books were completely open, those other countries could never have confidence that the US had not secretly engineered some sort of trojan horse system on which it could pull the plug whenever it wished.

And of course, the system would have to work. That's hard for anyone to guarantee. Frankly, I doubt we ever will have the technology needed to make nuclear weapons obsolete. Whatever research occurs on means of neutralizing existing systems is likely to go hand in hand with research on means of circumventing the neutralization.

Security guarantees are indeed revocable. That's why an opening between Iran and the US should not be based on a mere exchange of vague promises on a limited front, but must involve a broader set of talks, state visits and confidence building measures aimed at overhauling the relationship - with an eye ultimately toward strategic partnership. We need to have talks with Iran about Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Gulf security. We need an economic and cultural opening beteen the countries. We need to readdress our trade relationship. We need normalization.

It's time for the US and Iran get down to business together. The problem is we have a leader in Iran who is an ambitious populist, reveling in his defiant posture and emergence on the world stage, and a leader in the US who is dull-witted and is by most accounts historically and geographically ignorant, and who apparently approaches all problems of conflict with the mentality of a schoolyard bully or gang leader - a trait to which even his friendly associates have attested.

Sanctions are a ridiculous and futile option, and war is a ridiculous and futile option. We already have sanctions on Iran. And we still have many of their assets frozen from 1979. It doesn't seem to me there is any way of mounting a truly effective global or limited sanctions campaign against Iran. Other countries have too many conflicting interests in Iran and the Middle East, and frankly, hardly anybody sees the situation the same way the US does. The sanctions won't stick. But while they are in effect, other countries will outmaneuver us in building mutually profitable relations with Iran.

It makes abundant, self-evident strategic sense for both countries to seek a rapprochment. Anybody who is thinking clearly, and is watching the dynamic rearrangements of power in the globe, should be able to see this. It is time for both countries to put 1953, 1979 and 1988 behind them and get on with the next stage in their historical relationship.

Iran's fundamental goal, as I interpret it, is to continue to consolidate and improve the new state it created in 1979, to develop economically, and to achieve security in a dangerous region where it is currently surrounded by rivals and antagonists. Personally, I suspect that its nuclear program is mainly all about real economic benefits, and national pride in technological achievement and progress.

For those who argue Iran is a dangerous expansionist power that we dare not "appease", where is the evidence? Where are the borders it has violated? Where are the foreign territories it has attempted to subdue and annex? One could argue the actual situation is completely the reverse - Iran is hemmed in on all sides by US clients and allies.

Nor do I see the compelling human rights case for our total isolation and rejection of Iran. Iran actually has many real components of democracy - more than almost anyone else in the region. I'm well aware of occasional intervention in the electoral process by the Guardianship. But Iran does have an electoral process. It has a parliament, and an elected president. Frankly the occasional subversions of democracy are not much worse than the occasional interventions by the Turkish military in Turkey. And yet we have maintained an open economic, cultural and strategic relationship with Turkey for decades - often while those usurpations were occuring. Iran has a constitutional system of government, with genuine checks and balances among competing power centers. Its press and civil society appear to be somewhat freer than those found among many of our allies in the region. It has authoritarian elements to its government, and real human rights issues, but is certainly nowhere near - for example - the repressive totalitarian hell-hole that Mao's China was following the Cultural Revolution. And yet we made a diplomatic opening to China that worked.

The US seems determined to punch and claw and conquer its way to regional influence and strategic access and control of Middle Eastern oil fields, when the key to a reversal of its Middle East fortunes is staring them right in the face. Once again, the US foreign policy may be in danger of being strangled and perverted from its proper ends by the demands of ethnic and interest group politics in the domestic arena. Yet think how awful our relations would be in China, and East Asia in general, if we had listened only to the Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans back in the Nixon administration. The nation has important interests that go beyond the more limited interests of Iranian expats (or Cuban expats, or whatever.)

Bush has a couple of years left to turn himself into a real statesman, and drop the boneheaded bully act. Ahmadinejad also needs to show he can actually accomplish soemthing for his country besides moving them with crowd-pleasing rhetoric. But somebody is going to have to devise a strategy that will give both these guys a graceful climb-down, and perhaps involve other powerful figures in the respective governments (probably easier to do in Iran than the US) so that neither state's leaders perceive themselves as caving to the other. Hopefully the Europeans or Russians will come up with something.

One thing that disturbs me about Suzanne's tendency to focus so much on the corrupt, botched and troubled UN path currently underway is that it reflects a common tendency among commentators to turn the diplomacy itself into the overriding issue, and lose sight of the main underlying security issues the diplomacy is meant to address. We should avoid getting too wrapped up in abstract debates about the wisdom of over unilateralism and multilateralism when there is a need to debate and clearly understand just what our interests are with respect to Iran. Amazingly, we have yet to see a clear national debate, analysis and discussion of the facts of the Iran situation. The national discussion just whizzes along on the rails of conjecture, stereotypes, misinformation, disinformation, snap judgments and questionable government claims, with barely any time taken to determine what is actually going on in Iran.

In her essays, Suzanne always seems to take the conventional hawkish wisdom on "Iran threat" for granted - even as she advocates more diplomatic means of addressing that threat. She never actually argues in any detail, or advances substantial evidence, for her interpretation of Iranian intentions, capabilities and conditions. About the main issue itself, she maintains a posture somewhere between studied reserve and ambivalence, and outright acceptance of the hawkish interpretation. She sometimes raises these issues in her bullet point lists of discussion questions and issue summaries, but we have yet to see any sustained, skeptical and serious analysis of the Iranian nuclear program and foreign policy, and the US interests involved therin. This is the same sort of foreign policy group think that got us into our current mess.


Thank you for the extended and thoughtful criticisms. I did go a bit on the fringe to make my point. Let me try to make a somewhat different point that addresses the problem more directly.

Tehran's nuclear program is partly a response to perceived threats. But to my knowledge Tehran has said nothing to suggest that it will discontinue its nuclear work as a condition for better relations with the United States. America could also withdraw from the region tomorrow and Iran would probably continue its nuclear work, because it cannot accept a status permanently inferior to that of Pakistan.

The case you make for normalizing relations with Iran is really a case for normalizing relations with a nuclear Iran, not a bargain to dissuade Iran from going nuclear. None of the added steps you recommend to engage Iran would make a pledge of non-aggression any less revocable, but they could make sense if we accept Iran's nuclear status and treat Tehran as less of a pariah.

There are two questions about a nuclear Iran:

The first is whether the spread of nuclear weapons would then stop. The prevailing opinion seems to be that a nuclear Iran will prompt Saudi Arabia to go nuclear, and it would seem to me likely that nuclear weapons will then spread farther afield. If this spread cannot be stopped short of war, can we accept a world with twenty or thirty nuclear weapon states?

Second, would a nuclear Iran be amenable to peaceful coexistence with its neighbors? All of the features you note about the Islamic Republic (democratically elected, feels hemmed in, not as bad as other states) were true of Nazi Germany in 1935. Iran's rhetoric today is quite different from that of Maoist China, which at its most violent turned inward, not outward.

I would still agree that appearances can be deceiving, and overheated analogies with Nazi Germany can be just as dangerous as ignoring real similarities. But whether we can be a genuine partner with Iran depends on whether Iran really is a state seeking only to coexist peacefully with its neighbors. Iran has called for the extinction of Israel, its Sunni neighbors dread its growing influence, and Iran has violated its obligation to declare all aspects of its nuclear program. Tehran has had two decades to devote its ample resources to internal development yet remains a domestic shambles. Iran harbors terrorists and helped topple the Taliban regime. Once Tehran gets a nuclear deterrent, it will be in a position to pressure or threaten other states in the region.

That is not to say that Iran will do any of these things. But I don't think anyone can say with the necessary assurance what Iran will or won't do. The prevailing realist view seems to be that Iran cannot be stopped, or that the consequences of stopping it would be unacceptable, or that a nuclear Iran would not be so bad, or that it would at least be deterrable. But even if these assumptions are correct, there will surely be consequences for nuclear proliferation. I am troubled by how far the dominant sources of opinion on Iran seem to be resigned to outcomes in this crisis that are all terrible.

Our relative military superiority in the world is a function of our technical advantage over potential adversaries large and small. This advantage will eventually recede as the rest of the world catches up to us in productivity and military skill in the second half of this century, possibly in some important cases sooner. How urgently we need to plan for this change depends on the speed with which it occurs but in my view we need to begin to think about it now and encourage public opinion at home and abroad to think about it as well.

We cannot of course cooperate with governments that we do not trust or that do not trust each other. Schemes to engineer cooperation may have to wait for the political conditions that make them possible. But drifting into the future by acceding to one nuclear state after another will also accelerate the need for better defenses.

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