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Gates’ False Iran Premise: Sanctions Will Not Sow Internal Discord and Change Iran’s Nuclear Calculations

Since returning to government service to take up his current position, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been a sober skeptic about the wisdom of military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets — under President Obama as well as under President George W. Bush, and regardless of whether such strikes would be carried out by the United States or by Israel.  To the extent that he has addressed the issue publicly, he has generally offered sound reasons for his skepticism — e.g., strikes would expose other U.S. positions in the region (such as military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq) to additional and undesirable stress and would not “solve” the nuclear problem.  As far as these arguments go, we agree with them.

But now Secretary Gates is emphasizing an additional argument against the military option — namely, that an attack on Iran would undo all of the “good” being achieved by sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  Speaking in Washington last week, Gates said:

[T]he information that we have is that [the Iranians] have been surprised by the impact of the sanctions, this latest round, not just the last U.N. Security Council resolution, but the actions taken by individual countries using the U.N. Security Council resolution as a platform or as a foundation.  And those measures have really bitten much harder than they anticipated.  And we even have some evidence that Khamenei now is beginning to wonder if Ahmadinejad is lying to him about the impact of the sanctions on the economy, and whether he’s getting the straight scoop in terms of how much trouble the economy really is in.

So I think that the sanctions are having an impact . . . the only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest.  Everything else is a short-term solution, is a two- to three-year solution.  And if it’s a military solution, as far as I’m concerned . . . it will bring together a divided nation, it will make them absolutely committed to attaining nuclear weapons, and they will just go deeper and more covert.  So I think that the political economic strategy is the one that we have to continue to pursue and ratchet up, and create an exit for them . . . if you agree to do these things that give us confidence that you’re not building nuclear weapons, then there is a way out of the box you’ve gotten yourself into.

The proposition that the United States should not embrace the military option vis-à-vis Iran because that would undermine the Obama Administration’s unexpectedly effective sanctions policy is gaining traction in what, today, passes for “realism” in non-neoconservative foreign policy analysis outside the Administration.  But the proposition rests on a false premise — that the sanctions policy is actually accomplishing something positive.  And, as is usually the case with strategies built on false analytic premises, this proposition will end up having deeply negative — and, for most who embrace it, unintended — consequences.  Above all, it will raise the risks of an eventual U.S.-Iranian military confrontation — precisely the outcome that Secretary Gates and others want to avoid.

The notion that sanctions are “working” is inevitably bound up with the idea that there are deep cleavages in the Islamic Republic’s political elite over matters of high politics and that the United States and its partners can play on those cleavages to steer Iranian foreign policy in the direction they prefer.  Gates’ claim about Khamenei’s distrust of Ahmadinejad is nothing but hearsay (if that).  Others hypothesize that major conservative figures in Iranian politics — e.g., Larijani, Qalibaf, etc. — will join forces to displace Ahmadinejad.  All of these fanciful scenarios reflect the same chronic delusion about the Islamic Republic in American foreign policy circles, as described above — that that there are deep cleavages in Tehran which the United States can exploit.  This delusion dates back at least to the Reagan Administration’s Iran-contra scandal.

But, like all delusions, this one never pans out for those who hold it.  And, once this particular delusion is exposed, those who previously held it tend to embrace much harder-line positions toward the Islamic Republic.  To illustrate this point, consider the evolution of Michael Ledeen’s views on Iran.  For twenty years, we have known Mr. Ledeen as a staunch advocate of regime change as the goal of America’s Iran policy.  But, in the 1980s, Ledeen was one of the movers behind the Reagan Administration’s attempted outreach to Tehran, which imploded in the Iran-contra scandal.  And, note the following passages from an Op Ed that Ledeen published in the New York Times on July 19, 1988, just after the Islamic Republic agreed to a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war:

The United States, which should have been exploring improved relations with Iran before Iran’s acceptance of the United Nations-sponsored cease-fire, should now seize the opportunity to do so. . .  The Iranian advocates of a war to the death against Iraq have been discredited by Iraqi battlefield victories, by the recent military successes of the Iraq-supported anti-Khomeini Iranian fighters and by the humiliation inflicted on Iran by the American military in the Persian Gulf.

Those Iranians who have been calling for better relations with the West have clearly been gathering strength, demonstrated by the normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations with France in May and the subsequent opening of talks with Britain toward the same ends.  Among the advocates of such improved relations are the two leading candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. . .

One of the more striking aspects of the Iranian announcement that it would abide unconditionally by the cease-fire is that it came from the general command of the armed forces — that is, from the commanders of the regular army.  The war with Iraq has been conducted primarily by the Revolutionary Guards, who have made sure that the traditional armed forces have been largely extraneous to military planning and to the balance of political power in Tehran.  Indeed, the regular armed forces — long pro-Western in their outlook — were kept out of the capital, lest they become a decisive political factor.  The general command’s announcement of the cease-fire thus indicates further strengthening of the pro-Western forces in Iran. . .

[T]here has been no sense of urgency among our top policymakers to design and conduct a policy toward Iran — in part because our top officials, traumatized by the Iran-contra scandal and the hearings and investigations that followed, were determined not to be caught dealing with the Iranians, and in part because President Reagan unfortunately chose to make the hostage question the prime issue between the two countries.  This meant that the more serious matter of United States-Iranian relations was finessed during the many months of the unfortunate Iran-contra initiative in 1985 and 1986.

Yet past mistakes should not prevent the Administration from pursuing the clear chance for a potential breakthrough in one of the more strategically sensitive areas of the world.  If, indeed, there is a chance to explore the possibility of some sort of rapprochement in which Iran would abandon its use of terror, come to terms with its neighbors and re-enter the community of civilized nations, we should certainly be interested in exploring it — as we should have been in 1985 and 1986.  It would be a pity if our own domestic concerns and previous blunders combined to paralyze our diplomacy.

Now, apart from the basic ideas that past mistakes should not prevent the United States from pursuing clear opportunities for potential breakthroughs in relations with the Islamic Republic and that “it would be a pity if our own domestic concerns and previous blunders combined to paralyze our diplomacy,” most of Ledeen’s analysis is utter nonsense.  But our larger point in calling attention to this particular Op Ed is to highlight how, after the United States was unable to find just the right group of Iranians to deal with to negotiate the Islamic Republic’s surrender on virtually every regional issue of strategic consequence, Ledeen became the avatar of Washington-based advocates of regime change in Tehran.

Those who currently champion sanctions as the moderate alternative to U.S. military confrontation with Iran should pay attention to this.  When sanctions do not magically produce just the right domestic constellation of political players to terminate the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and sue for terms with Washington, the next steps in the evolution of U.S. strategy will be adoption of regime change as the formal goal of America’s Iran policy and/or military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.

The real alternative to another U.S.-initiated war in the Persian Gulf is not more sanctions, any more than it is militarized containment; the real alternative remains something that President Obama has yet to try — serious, strategically grounded diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.  The United States needs to treat the Islamic Republic as a system, without trying to game it.  Yes, there is “factional struggle” in the Islamic Republic, with different groups competing for power and influence over policy.  In other countries, American analysts seem willing to recognize this as normal politics.  In the Islamic Republic, though, American analysts routinely make the mistake that manifestations of competitive politics — even intensely competitive politics — indicate that the political order is splintering and susceptible to manipulation from outside.  And, the United States needs to realize that, on matters of high politics and national security, there is a remarkable degree of consensus on fundamental issues in the Islamic Republic, which cuts across much of the political spectrum.


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 19 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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