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Confronting the Iranian Nuclear Challenge

"Sanctions aren’t slowing Iran’s nuclear progress."
- Washington Post editorial, July 22, 2011.
"[Sanctions] are constraining Iran’s procurement of items related to prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile activity and thus slowing development of these programs."
- Report of UN special panel of experts, May 2011.

Middle East Analysis

Upcoming Events

The U.S. Agency for International Development and Conflict: Hard Lessons from the Field

May 17, 2011, 12:00pm – 1:15pm

From Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan, Somalia, and South Sudan, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, is engaged daily in trying to help some of the most troubled nations on the planet make a lasting transition to stability, open markets, and democracy. Few areas of the agency’s work are more challenging or more controversial.

Join us for remarks by, and a roundtable with, the deputy administrator of USAID, Ambassador


Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, with whom I’ve previously had the enormous (and very educational) privilege of traveling in Israel and Palestine, has a new piece in the National Interest surveying the decades of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process that have led up to the current impasse, and calling for a renewed U.S. push for negotiations. "For the United States," Kurtzer writes, "the policy choice ahead is binary:"

Do we pull the plug on the life-support system of the peace process that we constructed in 1991, let this phase of Arab-Israeli interaction die a peaceful death, and try to develop a different paradigm for resolving the conflict? Or do we persist, maintaining the same goal of a two-state solution and essentially the same process of arriving at peace through bilateral negotiations? I don’t see merit in a third option of waiting it out, living with the status quo, allowing the conflict to “ripen” and choosing a different time for negotiations. There is no such thing as a status quo in conflict situations: things either improve or get worse. This conflict—if left to develop on its own and subject to the machinations of those on both sides who are intent upon disrupting any resolution effort—will get much worse, much faster than anyone can anticipate.

Given that a U.S.-brokered process of negotiation is what got us here, I wondered about the difference between the second and third option. Isn’t continuing such a process likely to simply perpetuate a deteriorating status quo? "You’re right, the status quo could be either static, or just not-very-effective diplomacy," Kurtzer told me over the phone. "Both of those are quite dangerous. All it will lead to is a pressure cooker situation that could explode into another round of violence."

Asked to describe a different paradigm for resolving the conflict, Kurtzer told me, "I don’t think there is another paradigm. If someone has another paradigm, the onus is on them to show how it makes sense." A one-state solution, or a confederation, have been shown to be "unworkable," said Kurtzer, and he believes a two-state solution is still the only one that can work.

Given the domestic political challenges to assertive U.S. leadership in the peace process, what about a larger role for the U.S.’s international partners? "The only international player who can have real influence here is the U.S.," Kurtzer responded. "This isn’t hubris, it’s a recognition of the very obvious fact that the Israelis have a great deal of trouble trusting anyone, and if they do trust anyone it’s the U.S., because we have historically come through with support. At the end of the day that’s going to make the difference for an Israeli leader" when it comes time to make a deal. "The other players are important, they can bring resources and support, but it’s Washington" that will make the difference.

As to the likelihood of a renewed peace push by the Obama administration, "I have no illusions here," said Kurtzer. "The common wisdom is that this is something that won’t be done in an election year, and I’m fighting against that. I’m saying that this is a time when it’s important to do it."

Kurtzer’s piece is very much worth reading in full.

A number of others have already noted the severe deficiencies in Matthew Kroenig’s recent Foreign Affairs piece, "Time to Attack Iran," with Paul Pillar’s take being one of the best. But I want to flag one particularly troubling claim from Kroenig, which is that a U.S. attack on Iran could somehow help Iran’s democracy movement:

An attack might actually create more openings for dissidents in the long term (after temporarily uniting Iran behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), giving them grounds for criticizing a government that invited disaster. Even if a strike would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, the United States must not prioritize the outcomes of Iran’s domestic political tussles over its vital national security interest in preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Iranian dissidents themselves have actually been very clear that a U.S. attack would be bad for their movement. When I interviewed her last year, human rights activist Shirin Ebadi was unequivocal: “The military option will not benefit the U.S. interest or the Iranian interest,” she said. “It is the worst option. You should not think about it… The Iranian people — including myself — will resist any military action.”

Similarly, dissident journalist Akbar Ganji has been adamant that talk of a U.S. military option is harmful to the cause of Iranian democracy. “If you do not have the threat of foreign invasion and you do not use the dialog of invasion and military intervention, the society itself has a huge potential to oppose and potentially topple the theocratic system,” Ganji said last year. “Jingoistic, militaristic language used by any foreign power would actually be detrimental to [the] natural evolution of Iranian society.”

But maybe they’re wrong and Kroenig’s right. I’d love to see his evidence, but he doesn’t offer anything beyond, "Hey, it just might work!" Kroenig is quite right that our concern for political reform in Iran should come second to vital U.S. national security concerns. But I think the evidence is strong that a U.S. attack on Iran would significantly undermine both. Given the stakes, both for Americans and Iranians, the discussion over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge deserves far better than what Kroenig offers. Frankly, the appearance of a piece like this in the country’s most prominent foreign policy journal should raise serious concerns about whether our strategic class is preparing — again — to talk itself into supporting something very unwise.

In regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, the argument of U.S. hawks has long been that the only way to really change the strategic calculations of the Iranian regime is to make them really, really scared that a U.S. or Israeli strike could happen.

Former Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan apparently disagrees. Speaking at a conference on Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli decision-making, Dagan said he believed the military option should "be on the table, but not as a first option," and warned:

The commotion surrounding the immediate alternative of an attack may lead the Iranians into a reality in which they are (pushed over the edge) and try to obtain nuclear capabilities as quickly as possible instead of treading rather carefully while taking the international community’s demands into consideration.

Don’t look now but I think Dagan, who made Iran his top priority during his tenure as head of the Mossad, is actually suggesting that the Iranians can respond to things other than threats of force, and moreover that such threats may serve only to convince them of the need for a nuclear deterrent. This should not be as difficult to grasp as it apparently is for some.

Speaking in the Senate last week to register his displeasure with the Iraq pullout, prominent Iraq war supporter Sen. John McCain said, "It is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interests." He’s not wrong. The pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq was dictated by politics — Iraqi politics. With very few exceptions, the Iraqi people wanted U.S. troops out of their country, and, whatever else they may have said in private, Iraqi parliamentarians weren’t willing to publicly disagree with them on that.

Confronted with this point while on a panel at last month’s Halifax International Security Forum, Sen. McCain was shockingly dismissive of Iraqi politics. "We’ve got troops in Kuwait, and we didn’t have to pass it through their parliament!" he spat.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, another big supporter of the war, similarly condemned the withdrawal. "A president who understood the stakes would have had no difficulty justifying a residual American presence in Iraq," Ajami wrote, as if all it would have taken to keep U.S. troops in Iraq was a president who was really committed to making the Iraqis see things our way.

But, as Brett McGurk, who served as a senior adviser to three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, wrote in November, "The decision to complete our withdrawal was not the result of a failed negotiation but rather the byproduct of an independent Iraq that has an open political system and a 325-member parliament." Trying to force an agreement through that parliament would have been "self-destructive," McGurk wrote. "That had nothing to do with Iran and everything to do with Iraqi pride, history and nationalism. Even the most staunchly anti-Iranian Iraqi officials refused to publicly back a residual U.S. force — and in the end, they supported our withdrawal."

What’s really troubling, though, about the comments of McCain, Ajami, and others who refuse to recognize the political facts on the ground in Iraq is what they suggest about the reaction to future foreign policies in the region that they don’t like. If, as a result of the Arab Awakening, countries of the Middle East do become more democratic, as I hope they will (I assume McCain and Ajami both hope so too), getting shown the door in Iraq is just a taste of what may come. As Arab leaders become more responsive to populations which are, I think we can agree, less sympathetic to America’s self-defined security imperatives, they will be less easily pressured by us to simply do what we want. There will be negotiations. Sometimes they will fail.

In this respect, the response to the Iraq withdrawal should be seen as a test. And it’s one that many of the war’s supporters are failing. Even as they’ve unconvincingly tried to credit the Iraq war with contributing in some positive way to the Arab Awakening, they’ve revealed themselves as unprepared to accept the sort of policies that the Awakening could, and likely will, produce.

Deploying probably the single most overworked accusation in the conservative lexicon, Charles Krauthammer condemns the Obama administration’s Iran policy as "appeasement":

[President Obama] began his presidency apologetically acknowledging U.S. involvement in a coup that happened more than 50 years ago. He then offered bilateral negotiations that, predictably, failed miserably. Most egregiously, he adopted a studied and scandalous neutrality during the popular revolution of 2009, a near-miraculous opportunity — now lost — for regime change.

Obama imagined that his silver tongue and exquisite sensitivity to Islam would persuade the mullahs to give up their weapons program. Amazingly, they resisted his charms, choosing instead to become a nuclear power. The negotiations did nothing but confer legitimacy on the regime at its point of maximum vulnerability (and savagery), as well as give it time for further uranium enrichment and bomb development.

No, actually, the negotiations have been a force multiplier for the administration’s efforts to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. As one Israeli defense official told me for an article Meir Javedanfar and I wrote about this, the Israelis were initially quite skeptical that engagement with Iran would have any benefit, but now recognize that the effort "contributed to building international consensus" around the problem. Negotiations actually did the opposite of conferring legitimacy on the Iranian regime: they made clear to the world, and to the Iranian people, that the regime, not the U.S., was the recalcitrant party.

As for the idea that we could have had regime change in Iran in 2009 if only President Obama had sided more forcefully with the protesters, I know this has become something of an article of faith for conservatives, but the next person to describe a plausible scenario in which President Obama’s speaking out more explicitly in favor of the Green Movement in 2009 results in the regime’s collapse will be the first.

One can disagree with the Obama administration’s two track approach of engagement and pressure. But to describe that approach — which includes the adoption of some of the most stringent multilateral sanctions ever, successfully supporting the appointment of a special UN human rights monitor for Iran, and unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies — as "appeasement" is to declare oneself desperately in need of a dictionary.

There’s a lot to recommend in Tom Friedman’s column today, especially in regard to Newt Gingrich’s pandering and some of the alarming trends in Israeli society, but this is quite a bit off:

I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. The real test is what would happen if Bibi tried to speak at, let’s say, the University of Wisconsin. My guess is that many students would boycott him and many Jewish students would stay away, not because they are hostile but because they are confused.

I think this is both rhetorically and analytically sloppy. Sure, the pro-Israel lobby directs money to politicians who please them and withholds it from those who don’t, as all lobbies do. But pretending this is the whole story misunderstands the extent to which support for Israel a) is a genuine thing among Americans, and b) has, since 9/11, increasingly been taken on board as an extension of American hawkishness. Netanyahu understands these things better than most Israeli politicians (immediately after the 9/11 attacks, he rightly predicted that they would ”strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we’ve experienced terror over so many decades"), and he played to both fairly expertly in his May address to Congress.

I know TIME’s "Person of the Year" has become little more than a provocative end-of-the-year play for page views, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But this year’s choice, announced today, of "The Protester" strikes me as a really bad call. It’s quite true that the protest movements in the Arab world, in Greece, in Israel, and the Occupy movement in U.S. share some things in common. All represent a challenge to the legitimacy of current economic and political arrangements. All have skillfully employed various social media tools to drive and organize that challenge. It’s important to recognize this, not least for what it says about the shared human desire for dignity and self-rule.

But the significance of the Arab Awakening should — must — stand apart from these other movements. The change that the people of the Arab world have sought, and the dangers that they have braved, and the punishments they’ve suffered to bring that change, are of an entirely different order than those other movements. TIME’s acknowledgment that "The stakes are very different in different places" is frankly insulting for its extreme understatement. The parents and families of the 256 children tortured and murdered by Bashar al-Assad’s regime are in a completely different class than those who camped out in Zuccotti Park and McPherson Square. As Jules told Vincent, "It ain’t the same f****n’ ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same f****n’ sport."

There’s still a long, tough road ahead for reform in all of these countries. Some far longer and tougher than others. But 2011 belongs to the Arabs, bruv. Believe it.

I’m finally getting around to reading the American Enterprise Institute’s new report, "Containing and deterring a nuclear Iran," which focuses mainly on the difficulties inherent in such a strategy. I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now I’ll just note this graf from the executive summary:

Throughout the Cold War, the policy of containment oscillated between periods of strategic expansion and contraction, but the underlying policy remained remarkably consistent. Those principles are essential components of a coherent Iran containment policy: that it should seek to block any Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region; to illuminate the problematic nature of the regime’s ambitions; to constrain and indeed to “induce a retraction” of Iranian influence, including Iranian “soft power”; and to work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.

Please note that the war in Iraq, of which AEI was a leading advocate, undermined each and every one of these principles in regard to Iran. It helped facilitate Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region. It distracted from the problematic nature of the Iranian regime’s ambitions. It induced an expansion of Iranian influence, including Iranian “soft power.” By affirming the paranoid arguments of Iranian hardliners, it hindered political transformation of the Tehran regime. Or rather, it encouraged the transformation of that regime in a more extreme form of conservatism. But don’t expect any recognition of this from the folks at AEI. Indeed, AEI’s Danielle Pletka recently wrote, "I did repeatedly argue for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and I would do it again." Wonderful.

There aren’t really a lot of great options for dealing with Iran right now. But as you read AEI’s current ideas for it, do keep in mind how much of a role their previous bad ideas played in getting us here.

Looking over the document on me and some of my colleagues that, as Salon’s Justin Elliott revealed yesterday, former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, now listed as a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, has been sending around under the pretense that it exposes us as being, in his words, "on the side of anti-U.S., anti-Israel, and anti-Western forces," one has to be impressed at the effort that Block has put into attributing the darkest possible motives to work that, taken on its own and without his misleading editorializing, is not particularly controversial. Yes, I think a strike on Iran would be hugely destabilizing, as does former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and that overly aggressive unilateral U.S. sanctions could undermine more effective multilateral sanctions. Yes, I think Turkey is a very important U.S. partner, and more effort should be put toward resolving its rift with Israel, which is bad for all three countries. Yes, I think the continuing growth of Israeli settlements diminishes the prospects of a negotiated peace, as does Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, as has every U.S. administration since 1968. It’s ridiculous to characterize these views as either anti-U.S. or anti-Israel.

People can make up their own minds, and I’m happy to defend anything I’ve written, but there are few particularly misleading items in the now-public document that I’d like to address.

Josh writes that I “seem ideologically and personally committed to mainstreaming the idea that Israel is a strategic drag on the United States.” As evidence, he cites a June 2010 post in which I note recent statements from Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan warning of Israel becoming a strategic burden on the United States. Here’s the quote from me he uses:

Like Cordesman (for whom, full disclosure, I interned years ago) I’ve always been skeptical of claims about the strategic benefits of the U.S.-Israel partnership. As Cordesman writes, “At the best of times,” Israel “provides some intelligence, some minor advances in military technology, and a potential source of stabilizing military power.”

And here’s the rest:

But I’m also a strong believer in the moral and ethical basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship, in support for Israel as a fellow democracy — an imperfect one, sure, just as the U.S. was and still is in many ways — and as a country that shares many of our values, and holds enormous spiritual significance for many Americans.

Whether one supports or opposes the current U.S.-Israel relationship, on whatever basis, the fact is that the U.S. is deeply implicated in what Israel does. But supporting the relationship on the basis of values means recognizing that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to work toward halting Israel’s violations of those values, most obviously its four decade-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and creation of illegal settlements throughout occupied territory, rather than providing diplomatic cover for them. One can quibble with the manner in which President Obama has pursued the settlement issue, but the fact that he has made it such a central element of his approach to Israel shows how seriously he takes the relationship, and how he understands the threat that the settlements represent to Israel’s future. Though no two countries’ interests are perfectly aligned, I think that U.S. and Israeli interests in resolving the conflict, seeing Israel integrated into the region (and allowing the region to benefit from Israel’s vibrant culture and enormous economic accomplishments) are about as closely aligned as such interests get.

On the question of “linkage” – the manner in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked to other challenges in the Middle East – Josh writes, “CAP’s Middle East people are committed to the idea that Israel is at the core of Middle East instability…CAP constantly pushes the talking point that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the cause rather than the symptom of Middle East pathologies.” Here’s what I actually wrote in the December 2010 Foreign Policy piece Josh cites:

Basically, the "linkage" argument holds that continued irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hinders America’s ability to achieve its national security goals in the region, both by serving as a driver of extremism and a source of anti-American sentiment. […]

It is of course true that hostility toward Israel and its U.S. patron will not simply dissipate upon the end of Israel’s occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state — the completeness of that de-occupation, and the contours of that state, matter greatly. There are also problems and pathologies in the Middle East that have nothing to do with Israelis or Palestinians. Securing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will, however, make addressing some of those problems easier, by sealing up one well of resentment from which demagogues and extremists have for decades drawn freely and profitably.

"We don’t have to like it or even believe it makes sense," wrote Ken Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, in his book A Path Out of the Desert, "but linkage is a reality and one we are not likely to be able to change in the near term."

One reason this is particularly interesting is Josh and I discussed this in some detail while sitting together in the press section at the Herzliya Conference in Israel last February. I explained to him my view of linkage in nearly exactly the same terms as above, and explained why his interpretation of linkage is not one I agree with. Yet for some reason he chose to disregard that conversation, and characterize my views differently.

Another interesting thing about the Herzliya conference: In speeches there, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and former national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones all offered variations of the linkage argument. Dennis Ross has done, too, along with many others. Josh may strongly disagree with it, but it is by no means a fringe analysis.

As for Josh’s outrageous anti-Semitism smear, I’m not going to bother responding, because I’m quite confident Josh knows that it isn’t true. I will offer a note, however, on what Josh refers to as my “unprofessional rhetoric” on Twitter. I will admit that in my tweets I do occasionally engage in a level of snark that some might reasonably call unprofessional. So do many, many others. But I hereby commit myself to being more judicious about the deployment of said snark, and to treating these important issues with the seriousness that they deserve.

Last January, shortly after the collapse of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Rachid Ghannouchi returned home to Tunisia after over twenty years in exile. One of the founders and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s non-violent Islamist Ennahda ("Rennaissance") party, which claimed victory in Tunisia’s recent elections, Ghannouchi spent much of the 1980’s in Tunisian prisons for his political activities. He left Tunisia for Europe in 1987, and spent the intervening decades opposing the Tunisian regime from exile.

Earlier this week I attended a discussion with Ghannouchi at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he talked about his movement’s victory, addressed concerns about the various Islamist currents unleashed by the Arab revolutions, and how his ideas on the relationship between Islam, human rights, and democracy have developed over the years.

"Events in Tunisia have changed the world," Ghannouchi said. "Some had claimed that change was only possible through violence,” but the Tunisian revolution has shown differently. Ghannouchi described the revolutions across the Arab world as "like surgery, a painful last resort by our nations to save themselves. Some revolutions, like some surgeries, fail. We hope for success.”

The region continues to be "governed by dictators, single families controlling wealth, like a mafia robbing the country, using violence to enforce their rule," Ghannouchi said. By delegitimizing and banning non-violent movements like Ennahda, the Tunisian government "created a void that was filled by more violent Salafi ideologies… But the violent alternative didn’t succeed. [It] did not produce a single case of success.” Moreover, “Violent elements enabled dictators to present themselves to the West as allies in the war on terror.”

Describing the role of Islam in the Arab revolutions, Ghannouchi said that "Islam gave people self-confidence, helped them break their fear." He described the events of the past year as "An opportunity to reintroduce Islam on the global stage, not as a symbol of violence, but as a symbol of unity and peace.” Ghannouchi noted that "There are many currents within Islamism. My feeling is that the dominant current will be a centrist, moderate current." He also stressed that “We don’t want religious division in society. The real division should be between pro- and anti-democracy forces.”

Addressing the role of sharia in a future Tunisia, specifically in regard to the status of women and non-Muslims. Ghannouchi said, “Discrimination against women, to me, finds no real justification in the text" of the Koran, which "has revealed that the Creator will look to our hearts and our deeds to judge us."

"There is one issue that has bothered me," Ghannouchi continued, "that’s the issue of reversion, the ability to leave Islam. I concluded when I was in prison that people should be free to come and go in religion as they please.”

Asked about anti-U.S. comments he had made during first Gulf War — he condemned the U.S. as an “enemy of Islam” and supported Saddam Hussein — Ghannouchi claimed that his words had been distorted, but also noted that "they’re also from twenty years ago. Only stones do not change. People do. If you look at what I’ve been writing [over the past years] you will see the difference.”

Discussing the future Tunisian relationship with Israel, Ghannouchi said, "If the Palestinians reach an agreement with the Israelis, it will no longer be a concern of people in the region. I don’t think any Muslim country will have a tougher position than the Palestinians." Ghannouchi stressed that "We have no problem with people of any religion. After Ennahda’s victory, the leader of Tunisia’s Jewish community congratulated us.” Asked whether he thought language against relations with Israel did not belong in the Tunisian constitution, as has been considered, he responded, “Yes. I don’t think this should be included in the constitution, which should focus on Tunisia, not on other countries.”

I asked Ghannouchi about the impact of the young Tunisians who had traveled to Iraq to fight, something he had mentioned earlier in the discussion. “There are hundreds of young people from Tunisia who went to Iraq," he said. "Many are still in prisons there or dead. Some have been executed for crimes. This is a problem for [Tunisian] public opinion, a source of stress between Tunisia and Iraq." But "there is a lot of work being done" between the two governments to deal with this issue, Ghannouchi said. I followed up afterward and asked if he thought the Iraq war had made any contribution to the Arab revolutions, as some in the U.S. have claimed. He looked at me and said simply, “I don’t think there’s any relationship.”