If you want to become totally depressed, try following the heated debate over efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – which of course came to a head today (for now) with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress over the objections of the Obama administration.
This debate is depressing because none of the major participants seem to have an especially promising strategy for keeping Iran’s dangerous regime non-nuclear, at least not for the foreseeable future. In fact, the two most prominent blueprints – advanced by President Obama and by Mr. Netanyahu – seem to place excessive faith in economic sanctions to produce a long-term solution, albeit for dramatically different reasons.
The American position in the current negotiations assumes that the best strategy to achieve a non-nuclear Iran entails (a) promising to ease and eventually end current sanctions depending on the regime’s adherence to any agreement, and (b) threatening to intensify sanctions if the present talks fail. In addition, the Obama administration insists that it has not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear program if it concludes that sanctions have been unsuccessful as well.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been leading the American diplomatic effort, and wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last June, “All along, these negotiations have been about a choice for Iran’s leaders. They can agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that their country’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and not be used to build a weapon, or they can squander a historic opportunity to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation and improve the lives of their people.”
In Kerry’s apparent view, this offer is too good for Iran’s leaders to pass up. As he wrote, if it agrees to forswear weaponizing their nuclear program, and to the measures needed to verify compliance, that nation “will be able to use its significant scientific know-how for international civil nuclear cooperation. Businesses could return to Iran, bringing much needed investment, jobs and many additional goods and services. Iran could have greater access to the international financial system. The result would be an Iranian economy that begins to grow at a significant and sustainable pace, boosting the standard of living among the Iranian population. If Iran is not ready to do so, international sanctions will tighten and Iran’s isolation will deepen.”
The problem is that Kerry could well be overlooking compelling reasons for Iran’s leaders to value becoming a nuclear weapons state over the benefits of reintegrating with the global economy and political system. These benefits would be especially important for an Iran determined to maximize its influence in the Middle East through means that include supporting terrorism and other forms of violence. Specifically, a nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver warheads throughout the region could effectively give Tehran the retaliatory capability to deter any American or Israeli counter-strikes. Longer-range delivery systems, including those that could reach the United States, would give Iran even greater scope to pursue its agenda. As I have written, the acquisition of such intercontinental capabilities is threatening to give North Korea this degree of deterrence, and to destroy the foundations of America’s security strategy in the Far East.
Yet President Obama’s critics, including Mr. Netanyahu, may be harboring equally unrealistic expectations of sanctions. In late 2013, he criticized America’s Iran strategy for granting Iran “relief from sanctions after years of a grueling sanctions regime. They got that. They are paying nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability.”
Speaking to American lawmakers today, Netanyahu made even clearer his confidence in both the sanctions that he believe should not have been lifted, and of those that could still be imposed:
“Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well-beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil. Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do. And by maintaining the pressure on Iran and on those who do business with Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.
And of course using the threat of harsher sanctions allegedly more effectively than the administration has was at the heart of the recent bipartisan Senate bill that was co-sponsored by 16 Senators upon its introduction.
But why does Netanyahu, who has assailed the Obama administration’s ostensibly shortsighted decade-or-so Iran time frame, believe that oil prices will remain low, especially over the long run? And why does he seem so confident that the Europeans and others, whose cooperation is essential for sanctions to exert genuine pain, will buy in for as long as is necessary? Surely he can’t be basing this optimism on Europe’s response to Russia’s campaign against Ukraine.
Scarily, this analysis seems to point – logically at least – to military strikes as the best means of preventing Iran’s nuclear-ization. And “best” here isn’t a synonym for “good” or even “feasible.” I’ll leave the purely military analysis to others with more expertise. But even recognizing the major risks and the long odds, it does seem that the Obama administration undervalues the most plausible benefits.
It’s true, as Kerry has said that, “You can’t bomb knowledge into oblivion unless you kill everybody. You can’t bomb it away.” But that’s the wrong standard for success. If Iran’s most important nuclear facilities are vulnerable to air attack (a crucial “if”), then destroying or disabling them would serve the objective – which should never to be underestimated in this tragically flawed world – of buying time. And if and whenever Iran is able to reconstitute a critical mass of its nuclear capabilities, the best option may be resuming attacks.
The military option could also move Iran’s toward the kinds of compromises that it’s so far resisted – including a massively intrusive inspection regime that, incidentally, would have to function in a much more streamlined and seat-of-the-pants manner than its predecessors, to avoid lengthy controversies about documenting violations that Tehran could exploit to make weapon-ization progress. But the case for airstrikes shouldn’t depend exclusively, or even heavily, on diplomatic hopes, much less on expectations of regime change. In other words, Americans may need to start viewing the Iran nuclear threat not as a problem to be solved, but as a condition that needs to be managed in forceful – and frankly dangerous – ways. And that’s if we’re lucky.