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Iran War Talk: “Once the Military Option Is on the Table, It Never Goes Away”

October 28, 2010

Today, Marc Lynch — a professor at George Washington University who blogs at Foreign Policy — published a timely piece entitled “Keep the Iran War Talk Quiet.”  As Marc notes, “there’s some hope that Iran will return to nuclear talks with the P-5+1 in Geneva on Nov.15, even if they probably will have more questions about the agenda as the deadline approaches before they formally RSVP.”  Marc is perhaps more hopeful than we are that a new round of nuclear talks could “become the basis for an ongoing diplomatic process, where a range of issues can be explored, alternative arrangements proposed, and confidence built.”  (We will have more to say on that below.)  But he is absolutely right to point out that “it’s a very bad sign” that “the lack of progress in talks thus far has” (as the New York Times reports) “‘prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have [President Barack Obama] talk more openly about military options’.”

Marc appropriately links this discussion to Dennis Ross’s remarks to AIPAC a few days ago:

But should Iran continue its defiance, despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times, “we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Marc rightly argues that having Obama talk more openly about the military option “would be highly counterproductive, and downright dangerous.”  As he elaborates,

The idea of putting war talk on the table is presumably to increase the pressure on Iran to come to the table and make a deal.  It won’t likely accomplish that.  Iran will quite reasonably refuse to bargain under the threat of military force, and will view U.S. offers under such conditions as manifestly insincere.  It probably will not view the military threat as credible, given the realities of U.S. challenges and limitation.  The war talk would swamp all other issues, make confidence building virtually impossible, and even further harden the divisions.

We disagree with Marc’s description of new international sanctions on Iran as an “accomplishment” which could be undermined by stepped-up war talk.  (Our view of sanctions, of course, is that they, too, undercut the perceived sincerity of U.S. diplomatic representations in Tehran.)  But we agree strongly with Marc’s assessment that “few of the countries which came on board for sanctions in defense of nonproliferation would have any stomach for another U.S. preventive war in the Middle East.”  (And, yes, that would be another “preventive” war, not a preemptive one.)

Then Marc comes to what may be his most strategically consequential point — one which he has made before and which warrants considerably more attention:

The greatest danger of introducing open war talk by the administration is that it would represent the next step in the “ratcheting” — which I’ve been warning of for months — and pave the way either to a 1990s Iraq scenario or to an actual war.  Once the military option is on the table, it never goes away.  The only way to signal “toughness” in future encounters will be to somehow escalate beyond military threats — i.e., to commit action, such as airstrikes or cruise missiles.  And those would, by the consensus of virtually every serious analyst, be a catastrophe.  If the United States isn’t prepared to follow through on the threat — and it really, really shouldn’t be — then it shouldn’t make the threat.  That would just either undermine credibility, or else give a hook for hawks to demand that actions live up to rhetoric.  Dangerous either way. . . .  [Putting the military option more openly on the table] would represent the next step in the seemingly inexorable ratcheting process towards an unnecessary and counterproductive war.  This would be yet another of those painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy.  It may offer momentary satisfaction to U.S. domestic hawks and earn a few fleeting moments of praise, but at the expense of real U.S. strategic interests.

Speaking of “painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy,” the same story from the New York Times cited by Marc Lynch reported that the Obama Administration is putting together a new proposal to present to Iran in the next round of nuclear talks — a proposal that will make the Administration’s chicanery over the initial “Baradei proposal” for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor seem relatively innocent by comparison.  According to the story, which was written by David Sanger,

the conditions on Tehran would be even more onerous than a deal that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected last year.  Iran’s reaction, officials say, will be the first test of whether a new and surprisingly broad set of economic sanctions is changing Iran’s nuclear calculus. . . .  The new offer would require Iran to send more than 4,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of the country, an increase of more than two-thirds from the amount required under a tentative deal struck in Vienna a year ago.  The increase reflects the fact that Iran has steadily produced more uranium over the past year, and the American goal is so make sure than Iran has less than one bomb’s worth of uranium on hand.  Iran would also have to halt production of nuclear fuel that it is currently enriching to 2- percent — an important step on the way to bomb-grade levels.  It would also have to make good on its agreement to negotiate on the future of its nuclear program.

As Sanger notes, “many officials suspect that this latest initiative is likely to fail.  But they say that it fulfills President Obama’s promise to keep negotiating even while the pressure of sanctions increases.”  And, as Sanger’s reporting suggests, the Obama Administration seems unwilling to consider any approach to nuclear diplomacy with Tehran that would accept the principle of internationally-safeguarded enrichment inside Iran.  This, as we have argued repeatedly for some time, is essential to any chance of seriously productive nuclear talks.

So, Dennis Ross continues extending the extraordinary record of diplomatic malpractice that he built up during his stewardship of the Middle East peace process for President Clinton.  Ross is doing so by applying the same sort of “narrowly conceived tactics over realistic strategy” approach that brought strategic failure in the Arab-Israeli arena to the formulation of President Obama’s Iran policy.  Moreover, the Financial Times reported this week that Mr. Ross has now largely displaced President Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell to assume the leading role, at the sub-cabinet level, in masterminding the Administration’s policies regarding Arab-Israeli issues.  And then, yesterday, Laura Rosen reported in her foreign policy blog on POLITICO that the Administration is considering bringing Martin Indyk on board as a “channel to the Palestinians” — because of Indyk’s “good ties with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” (sic).

On these personnel moves, we agree strongly with the observations of Harvard University professor and Foreign Policy blogger Steve Walt: “Middle East Peace: Waiting for Superman, or Godot?” (Foreign Policy, October 27, 2010).


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 28 October 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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