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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


I recorded a Bloggingheads yesterday with Ben Birnbaum of the Washington Times, in which we discussed the recent report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and prospects for reconciliation and reform there.

In a piece examining the continuing presence of neoconservatives in GOP foreign policy debates, Andrea Stone writes, "[I]f neoconservatism has gone out of style with most Americans, the most controversial and consequential foreign policy philosophy since the end of the Cold War has hardly faded away."

The results of the unilateralism, preemptive war and democracy-promotion that the neocons forcefully advocated and helped make the official policy of President George W. Bush’s administration are still playing out as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down. President Barack Obama may have banned the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," but other elements of the "War on Terrorism" remain, from secret prisons in Afghanistan and Europe to Guantanamo Bay to the use of illegal wiretapping. And despite Herman Cain’s claim that he was "not familiar with the neoconservative movement" — among other things — its influence is clearly on display in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Leaving aside Stone’s incorrect labeling of the Iraq war as "preemptive" — it was a preventive war, and this distinction matters a great deal, and I will continue to be a pain about it — the article is very much worth reading, both for the attempts by the neoconservatives to whom Stone talks to redefine their ideology as something that wasn’t a huge disaster (rather hilariously, AEI’s Michael Rubin slams President Obama’s Iran policy and then tries to claim Obama as a neocon for doing the things the neocons failed to do, like get Osama bin Laden), but also because it looks at the important question of why, despite their ideas about the transformative capacity of American military power having been rather conclusively discredited, the neocons persist in elite influence.

I delved into this question in a piece I wrote for the Nation back in April 2010:

It turns out, however, that being disastrously wrong on the most significant foreign policy questions of the era is no barrier to continued influence in American politics. Even though their bong-hit theories about transforming the Middle East at the point of an American gun retain about as much popular appeal as E. coli, the neocons continue to impact US foreign policy debates through an entrenched network of think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute), publications (The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review), supportive editorial boards (the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal) and, of course, Fox News.

With the continuing decline of the Scowcroftian realist faction of the GOP, there are currently no close competitors for control of Republican foreign policy, even though neocons are far from loved by conservative grassroots outside the Beltway. This much was clear at the recent [2010] Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Liz performed her usual "stab in the back" act, accusing Obama of "usher[ing] Al Qaeda-trained terrorists onto American soil." The audience gobbled it down like chum–then went into a full-on frenzy when Liz introduced her dad. But despite the wild applause for the Cheneys, the big winner of CPAC’s presidential straw poll (with one of the highest totals ever) was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who represents a more populist-isolationist strain of conservatism and is a longtime critic of Dick Cheney and the neoconservative faction.

But while Paulite isolationists may disdain the role neocons play in the GOP, they lack the organizational tools to challenge it.

The same is pretty much true today. As a recent CBS poll showed, the neoconservative agenda remains broadly unpopular among Americans, but as long as neocons continue to occupy prominent think tanks, editorial boards, and cable news channels, and without any comparably well-funded counterweight within the conservative movement, we’ll have to keep hearing from them, and have to keep reading articles about how they’re still around.

In a significant development yesterday, the 22-member Arab League "overwhelmingly approved a series of economic sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including freezing the assets of senior figures, banning high-level Syrian officials from visiting Arab nations and ending dealings with the country’s central bank."

The decision is the first of its kind by a body that is often perceived as divided and indecisive. Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria did not vote on the sanctions.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Saturday that Iraq had “reservations” about sanctions, and analysts doubt that Iraq, which has a strong trade relationship with Syria, would implement them. And Lebanon, whose government is dominated by groups that support Assad, including the militant political group Hezbollah, also is unlikely to enforce the sanctions.

Turkey, which is not a member of the Arab League but whose foreign minister attended the meeting on Sunday, "agreed to adopt the league’s sanctions ‘as a minimum’ start point for its own measures."

"When civilians are killed in Syria and the Syrian regime increases its cruelty to innocent people, it should not be expected for Turkey and the Arab League to be silent," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, according to the state Anatolia news agency.

It’s interesting that, for all the claims about Turkey’s supposed turn toward radical Islamism and away from the West, Turkey is playing a major part in the pressure campaign against Syria. It’s hard to overstate how significant this is, given both that Turkey is Syria’s biggest trading partner, and the Turkey-Syria relationship was seen as a central element of Davotoglu’s "zero problems" foreign policy agenda. On the other hand, Syria’s second biggest trading partner, the new, democratic Iraq (the one that was supposed to be a beacon of freedom in the Middle East) abstained from the vote, after having voiced support for Assad’s regime, and is unlikely to enforce the sanctions in any serious way.

I’ve contributed a piece to U.S. News and World Report’s Debate Club, on the question of whether the U.S. should consider military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. My answer:

U.S. strikes could unite the Iranian people around the regime at a time when it is facing considerable popular discontent over its mismanagement of the economy and human rights abuses. According to an Iranian woman recently interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, military action "will unite the regime, and it will also force many to unite behind a regime they don’t even support." [...]

Military action would likely result in the crushing of Iran’s pro-democracy Green movement. Iranian human rights lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, has said an attack "would give the government an excuse to kill all of its political opponents, as was done during the Iran-Iraq war." Military action "is the worst option," Ebadi insisted. "You should not think about it."

U.S. military action could spark reprisals against the United States and its allies by Iranian military assets and proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. As happened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it would likely result in a wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, at a crucial moment of transition in the region. An attack would also cause oil prices to skyrocket, slowing the U.S.’s economic recovery, exacerbating the global economic crisis, and fracturing the international coalition that President Obama has worked so hard to forge.

Iran represents a thorny problem for the United States and its allies. It’s tempting, and perhaps comforting, to imagine that the United States can solve this problem through the use of its awesome military forces, but it cannot. The costs of military action far outweigh the limited (at best) benefits.

The other contributions, both pro and con, are worth reading. Well, except maybe that of Raymond Tanter, Washington’s most tireless advocate for the Mujahideen-e Khalq cult. Given that democracy activists inside Iran have made clear that they want nothing to do with the group, any piece that tries to present the MEK as "the main Iranian opposition" is probably best ignored.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) yesterday on Meet the Press:

President Obama was given a war that is won in Iraq, and he’s choosing to lose the peace. That’s a desecration of the memory of 4400 Americans that gave their lives to liberate Iraq. And also, it’s over $800 billion that we have expended. I believe that Iraq should pay us back for the money that we spent. And I believe that Iraq should pay the families that lost a loved one several million dollars per life.

I’m not sure what’s more offensive here, Bachmann’s claim that by withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq (i.e. adhering to an agreement signed by the Bush administration), President Obama is betraying the blood of the martyrs, or her suggestion that Iraq should compensate the U.S. for a war that left over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, some 300,000 maimed, and over 4 million displaced.

The CFR website has posted an interview with Marks Hibbs, a nuclear policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussing the details and possible implications of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report on Iran’s nuclear program. It’s worth reading in full, but this mention a 2004 meeting between then-IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is particularly interesting:

Rafsanjani, during the meeting, actually became very emotional and almost broke into tears. He was explaining to people at the meeting with the IAEA that he had been on the front of the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s and had seen the Iranian soldiers who had been attacked with chemicals by Iraq. People at the IAEA who have been looking at the Iranian program have thought about that meeting again and again. The Iranians were at war with Iraq; Iraq had unleashed chemical weapons on them. Many people who have been studying this program in Iran since then have wondered whether the Iranian leadership, after the Iran-Iraq War, took a decision to develop a nuclear weapons capability in secret to make sure that the kind of vulnerability Iran experienced in the Iraq War would never happen again. The IAEA’s report doesn’t answer that question.

The horror and deprivation of Iran’s hugely destructive eight year-long war with Iraq was the defining event for Iran’s current leadership,and continues to shape the consciousness of much of its population. They remember that not only did many in the West support Iraq in a war that Iraq initiated, but that the "civilized world" sat back and basically did nothing in response to Iraq’s illegal use of chemical weapons against Iran. In addition to demonstrating the need for their own nuclear deterrent, that experience also made the Iranian leadership understandably skeptical of the fairness and efficacy of international arms control conventions. While this obviously doesn’t mean that Iran should get a pass on its obligations under such conventions, it’s important to understand as one factor determining the regime’s course.

Memories of the Iran-Iraq war also come up in Golnaz Esfandiari’s report on reactions of Iranians to the uptick in talk of Israeli strikes:

Iran fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s in which 1 million people are thought to have been killed. Iranians have expressed concern about the return of such hardship in telephone and other conversations with RFE/RL. In most cases, these Iranians have withheld their identities to protect themselves from possible government retaliation. [...]

"I cannot sleep out of worry," says a 56-year-old woman in the capital, Tehran. She says she thinks military action against the Islamic republic would benefit the clerical establishment and negatively affect the people. "A war will unite the regime, and it will also force many to unite behind a regime they don’t even support," she says during a phone interview before asking: "What else should we do, [cheer] for Israel, which would kill our countrymen working in the nuclear sites?"

Like many others in Iran, she suggests that strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States aimed at halting or slowing Iran’s nuclear progress would prompt a full-fledged war. That belief has been strengthened by promises by Iranian officials of retaliation for any such act against the country.

We should remember that the 1980 Iraqi invasion came at a time when the Iranian government was in serious danger of collapsing under its failures to make good on its revolutionary promises. The Iraq invasion provided the government a rallying point and lifeline at a moment when it was experiencing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Some American supporters of an Iran war suggest that the same would not be true of a foreign attack today, but, as shown above, actual Iranians seem to disagree with that.

In his new article arguing (and clearly hoping) that President Obama might go for a military strike against Iran, Jeffrey Goldberg makes a familiar case:

An Iran with nuclear weapons may be unbearable for Israel. It would further empower Israel’s terrorist enemies, who would be able to commit atrocities under the protection of an atomic umbrella. It would mean the end of the peace process, as no Arab state in the shadow of a nuclear Iran would dare make a separate peace with Israel. And it isn’t too much to imagine that some of Iran’s more mystically minded leaders, mesmerized by visions of the apocalypse, would actually consider using a nuclear weapon on Israel — a country so small that a single detonation could cripple it permanently.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who once told me he believes that Iran is led by a “messianic, apocalyptic cult,” is correct to view Iran as a threat to his country’s existence.

Israel’s terrorist enemies have committed atrocities for years without the benefit of an atomic umbrella, and I haven’t seen anyone yet describe how, exactly, this would become significantly worse once that changes. And while I appreciate the humor in the idea that the road to peace now runs through Tehran, "then the Arab states would make even less peace with Israel" is among the least convincing arguments I’ve ever heard, for anything, period.

As for the claim that Iran is run by apocalyptic maniacs bent on suicide, I wrote about this in my piece "The Martyr State Myth" back in September. The short version is that, while an Iran with a nuclear weapon obviously presents serious challenges, there is little evidence to suggest that Iran’s leadership is bent on triggering the apocalypse.

It also seems to me that a good journalist, rather than simply "imagin[ing] that some of Iran’s more mystically minded leaders" might use a nuke on Israel, then citing the opinion of the Israeli prime minister in support, might actually want to report something like this out a bit. But for some reason Goldberg is happy to let this rest on conjecture.

It’s probably not worth spending too much time on Charles Krauthammer’s long whine of a column today, in which he blames President Obama for "losing" the Iraq war which was "won" in 2008 by failing to convince the government of Iraq to accept a continuing U.S. troop presence. Stationing significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq represented the last shred of possible vindication that the war’s supporters could have hoped for out of America’s strategically disastrous Iraq folly, and now that this has been denied them, they’re throwing temper tantrums, of which Krauthammer’s is only the latest and purplest.

A couple points in Krauthammer’s complaint bear refuting, though. The first is the idea — which neocons are relentlessly pushing — that Obama has handed Iraq to Iran:

The Obama proposal was an unmistakable signal of unseriousness. It became clear that he simply wanted out, leaving any Iraqi foolish enough to maintain a pro-American orientation exposed to Iranian influence, now unopposed and potentially lethal. Message received. Just this past week, Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurds — for two decades the staunchest of U.S. allies — visited Tehran to bend a knee to both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It didn’t have to be this way. Our friends did not have to be left out in the cold to seek Iranian protection.

We "exposed" Iraq to Iranian influence the moment we removed Saddam Hussein and created an Iraqi government largely run by Iran’s partners and clients. This is something Krauthammer has a record of remembering and forgetting as it suits his argumentative purposes.

As for the idea that Massoud Barzani’s visit to Tehran demonstrates some new orientation, here’s Barzani in October 2008 assuring the Iranians that “We will never allow any action to take place against Iran from Iraqi territory.” He was in Tehran at the time.

The second point is the notion that Obama administration could’ve negotiated a compromise on the immunity issue if only… something:

[Obama] failed, though he hardly tried very hard. The excuse is Iraqi refusal to grant legal immunity to U.S. forces. But the Bush administration encountered the same problem and overcame it. Obama had little desire to.

The immunity issue was one that threatened to scuttle the original SOFA negotiations 2008, and was only overcome because Bush relented on a hard timeline for withdrawal, which he had previously opposed. Treating the immunity issue as simply an "excuse" is a clear admission that Charles is just fooling around. Fortunately, today’s Washington Post op-ed page features this corrective from Brett McGurk, who has worked on Iraq policy for nearly eight years under both the Bush and Obama administrations. McGurk writes:

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, whose proceedings are televised daily. U.S. and Iraqi legal experts determined that any new accord required parliamentary approval to ensure U.S. troops would be immune from Iraqi laws. No bloc in parliament other than the Kurds supported that requirement.

Consequently, our trying to force an agreement through the Iraqi parliament would have been self-destructive. 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.

See also J.P. Schnapper-Casteras’ piece on this, posted here yesterday.

Krathammer’s column, though, is a great reminder of why he’s such a popular pundit among conservatives: He tells them the fairy tales they require.

Our guest author is John Paul Schnapper-Casteras an attorney in Washington, D.C. and fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Schnapper-Casteras conducted research in Iraq as part of a fellowship with Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

President Obama’s recent announcement that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq has been met with fierce criticism from some Republican Presidential candidates. Former Governor Mitt Romney, for one, called the move an “astonishing failure” rooted in political calculation or inept negotiation. But cavalierly insisting that the President could have kept troops in Iraq if only he had wanted to ignores almost a century of history, the intensity of Iraqi concerns, and the instability that the presence of foreign troops has repeatedly caused in that country. In reality, Iraqi leaders offered terms that would have been unacceptable to any U.S. President, and the Obama administration was right to turn them down.

The legal status of foreign troops in Iraq has a long, if underappreciated, history of causing major turmoil and ousting several regimes. In the 1920s, Great Britain tried to formalize its military presence in Iraq through a treaty. But that was so divisive that it contributed to the resignation of five Iraqi prime ministers in eight years and had to be ratified three separate times. In 1948, Iraq’s first Shiite prime minister tried to curry domestic favor by forcing Britain to withdraw. But he secretly reached a new agreement under which, although British troops would largely depart, they could access airbases in times of war and would continue to train, equip, and plan Iraq’s military for another 25 years. When this loophole came to light, it caused massive protests, forced the prime minister from power, and accelerated the fall of the constitutional monarchy and the eventual rise of the Ba’ath party.

In 1964, the Shah of Iran signed a similar security agreement granting U.S. military advisors full legal immunity. A then lesser-known cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, publicly condemned the agreement as “capitulation” that “sold” Iran’s independence and reduced Iranians “to a level lower than an American dog.” Khomeini’s tirade sparked enormous protests that foreshadowed the 1979 revolution, launched him into prominence, and contributed to his arrest, exile, and subsequent ascendance.

Since 2003, clarifying the legal status of U.S. forces in Iraq has likewise been problematic. Initially, coalition officials planned to sign with Iraqi leaders a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which traditionally specifies rights and rules for U.S. servicemembers stationed abroad. But Iraqi officials balked, fearing they lacked legitimacy to ratify such a sensitive accord. As a result, the day before officially handing over power to Iraq in 2004, the coalition itself was forced to summarily issue an order granting broad legal immunity to contractors as well as troops. By 2007, those coalition-imposed immunity provisions generated a national backlash when Blackwater contractors killed fourteen civilians and were shielded from prosecution by the coalition order.


Our guest author is Ali Gharib, a national security reporter at the Center for American Progress.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that, amid a debate on impeaching the Iranian finance minister in Iran’s majles, or parliament, Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted that sanctions were having an impact on the ability of Iranians to do financial transactions abroad. Defending his cabinet’s handling of a $2.6 billion banking embezzlement scandal, Ahmadinejad mentioned the constraints on Iranian business. The Post’s Thomas Erdbrink reported:

Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore,” the embattled president said in a speech before parliament to defend his minister of economic affairs and finance against impeachment charges related to the scandal.

The frank admission from Ahmadinejad is likely to be heard any number of ways in Washington, depending on who’s doing the listening. For Iran hawks, who have insisted that sanctions aren’t working (and yet call for more), the news from Ahmadinejad might be a thorn in their side. For those who say some sanctions are misguided and more engagement is necessary to resolve the crisis between Iran and the West, this news could also be viewed as a set-back.

But neither view is entirely right. The issue at hand is the common conflation of larger, broad economic sanctions and those targeted at particular Iranian behavior or activity. Ahmadinejad’s statements yesterday weren’t about either nuclear sanctions or human rights sanctions (which have been effective and remain the morally right thing to do, respectively). Instead, the embattled president was referring to the economic sanctions which have cut off Iran’s financial institutions from the rest of the world. But the intended effect of this particular sort of isolation is not quite what its proponents probably intended. Indeed, if the current full-court press for more sanctions is any indication, Iran’s economic isolation backfired today.

Economic sanctions are, as now-Secretary of Defense and then-CIA director Leon Panetta said in 2010, supposed to "help weaken the regime." But that’s not what happened Thursday in Tehran. Ahmadinejad instead appealed to the duress placed on Iran by Western sanctions precisely to avoid the prospect of his cabinet falling apart because of the embezzlement scandal (which was unrelated to sanctions and seems not to have even touched the regime itself, meaning the office of the Supreme Leader). According to the Wall Street Journal, Ahmadinejad told the majles: "Iran is facing unprecedented pressures from international sanctions and the finance minister has a pivotal role in managing this situation."

From there, Erdbrink reported in the Post that it was this pressure on Iran that led powerful Ahmadinejad rival and majles speaker Ali Larijani to defend the government and bless the continued service of the finance minister:

The minister, Shamseddin Hosseini, was spared impeachment when a leading Ahmadinejad opponent, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, came to the government’s defense and urged the lawmakers to keep Hosseini in the cabinet — with a warning — on grounds that Iran already faces too many problems. The parliament then voted 141 to 93 against impeaching Hosseini…. Larijani, the influential speaker of parliament and former nuclear negotiator, pleaded with the lawmakers to forgo impeaching Hosseini, arguing that the embezzlement case affected the entire political system and that a more thorough investigation was needed. He also pointed to the increasing pressure on Iran. “We are not in a condition to increase the cost of running the country,” Larijani told parliament. “You have showed a yellow card to the minister, and that is enough for now.”

Still, Washington’s hawks will almost certainly press on. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has said he intends to push sanctions on Iran’s central bank mindful of the fact that it could hurt ordinary Iranians — or, as he put it, "take the food out of the mouths" of ordinary Iranians. It apparently doesn’t much matter that these broad economic sanctions, in this case, also helped the government paper over its problems, at least for the time being.