In September 2008, I happened to be at Minneapolis airport, waiting for the same flight as the band Rage Against the Machine, which was how I found myself in a foreign policy discussion with Zack de la Rocha. (The flight also gave me a chance to introduce Tom Morello to Ben Stein, but that’s another story.)
The upshot of my chat with the RATM front man was his observation that if Israel attacked Iran, that could pose big problems for us foreign policy establishment types. Not that de la Rocha and I have identical views on Israel, but he could see tricky dilemmas down the road. Sure enough, here we are three plus years later, watching the Israeli government reaching for the lid of that pandora’s box. So a tip of the hat goes to Zack for his keen instinct.
Reminders from the Iraq case
With the recent flood of analysis and commentary, there’s a lot of material to choose from, but I’d like to highlight a few strands of the debate. I’ll start with Colin Kahl’s excellent Foreign Affairs essay arguing against an attack. I found Kahl’s reminders from the Iraq case particularly interesting. For instance, the reason we know that bombing facilities will only delay and not permanently halt a nuclear program is because that’s what happened after Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi facility. The Osirak attack hardly prevented us from having to deal with the issue in the 1990s. And I should quickly add that when people argue that delay itself is valuable, that is hardly a strategic perspective.
The discussion of Israel’s role in the first Gulf War in 1991 is also interesting from the perspective of Republicans’ foreign policy message. Just to recall, President George H.W. Bush prevailed upon Israel to refrain from getting sucked into the war — despite the obvious provocation of Saddam’s missile attacks on Israel. In return, Bush 41 helped shield Israel from the attacks with the Patriot anti-missile system. Regardless, though, the restraint shown by Israel was impressive.
The underlying rationale for this self-restraint was that Israel’s direct involvement would have blurred the stakes and distract from a clear focus on Iraq. In the geopolitics of the region, Israel brings added layers of conflict and sensitivity. In other words, we can’t look only through the prism of America’s own view of Israel as a close ally, but also the attitude and response of other players. As a matter of simple strategic calculus, duh.
But wait, let’s pause to note the huge disconnect between this kind of clear eyed-ness and the 2012 Republican competition over who can place themselves farthest to the right on the Israeli domestic political spectrum. This is an absolutely critical point. When the Republican candidates talk about the nation of Israel, usually they’re really only reflecting a certain segment of opinion in Israel. One more time: there is no consensual Israeli view on the wisdom of attacking Iran. Even within the Israeli national security establishment and political elite, the issue is hotly contested.
Prospects for a diplomatic solution
The other major issue, of course, is whether and how a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran over its nuclear program. On this question, no one maps the terrain better than Trita Parsi, even if you don’t completely agree with him. Trita has a terrific new book, A Single Roll of the Dice, which I recommend highly for anyone interested in the subject. But if you’re not going to read the book, his blog post over at Fareed Zakarkia’s Global Public Square blog lays out the core problems.
Trita gives President Obama and his administration a lot of credit for placing Iran under heavy pressure, and for the deft diplomacy it took to build international support. His main critique concerns the trade-offs between exerting pressure (mainly sanctions) and leaving space for diplomatic negotiations. As he sees it, Obama’s own so-called “pressure track” has boxed him in and potentially put a diplomatic solution out of reach.
This is essentially a debate between different views of how to bring the Iranians to the table. From one vantage, Iran is motivated to reach an agreement, and the key things for the West are patience, diligence and a comprehensive agenda for talks. My reading of Trita is that he sees the need for pressure, but also the importance of calibrating the pressure to give diplomacy enough time and patience to work. What these two views share is a worry that mounting Iranian mistrust might already be so high that luring them to the negotiating table will be difficult to impossible.
So how about the Obama administration, where does its policy fit into this debate? The way I interpret it, the policy assumes Tehran is disposed against an agreement — preferring the freedom of action to master the uranium enrichment process. Not that they’re implacable and and unwilling to meet outside powers’ demands for transparency and monitoring. Rather, it’s an assumption that Iran’s cooperation depends on the price they pay for continuing to resist. Some critics charge the administration with relying too heavily on pressure, saying they’re underestimating Iran’s ability to withstand hardship. My response to that is to note the danger of overestimating Tehran’s ability to withstand isolation. Iranian leaders might understand how hard it would be to sustain the same degree of autarky as North Korea’s Kim family regime; as Iran moves closer to full-pariah status, they may calculate things differently.
The future of Iran’s uranium enrichment
The substantive issue at the heart of the matter is whether a diplomatic solution would let Iran continue enriching uranium. As Trita explains, this is a source of real tension between the United States and Israel. In short, the Israelis take a very hard line against any ongoing future enrichment by Iran. (Bill Keller delved into the wonkish details in a recent post over at NYTimes.com.)
This is where the issue tilts toward the need to accommodate Iran somewhat in order to reach a deal — aka the previous administration’s complete fantasy of a diplomatic outcome with Iran totally capitulating. As it happens, the authors of an op-ed on the subject in Friday’s NYTimes (Ambassadors Tom Pickering and Bill Luers) told us nearly four years ago in a much-cited NY Review of Books essay that zero enrichment was, practically speaking, a non-starter. Now, peering into the abyss of a new war with Iran, let me boil it down. If an agreement can be reached that permits some enrichment — under close international supervision — is that a prospect really worthy of going to war?
The rumors of war have significantly notched up the danger of a real catastrophe. Meanwhile, it’s the same tangled mess it’s always been. Even a rock star could see that.
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