Paul KerrGerson's Iran Insights

Last week, Steve Clemons posted about an Aspen conference of foreign policy luminaries who discussed solutions to the Iran nuclear issue. I’ll be interested to learn what they came up with.

Anyway, Steve wrote that

…the single most important consensus that did seem to emerge from the discussion is that at some point in the not too distant future, President Bush will be handed a bleak, binary choice: either to authorize and launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear capacity and assets or to acquiesce.

One would hope that Bush’s FoPo team would be a bit more astute than that, but former speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote something the other day which suggests otherwise. Obviously, whether Gerson’s piece reflects administration thinking is anyone’s guess.

I hope not, because Gerson displays a staggering degree of ignorance. I particularly like this sentence:

“Iran’s destabilizing nuclear ambitions are not a guarded secret; they are an announced strategy.”

Uh-huh.

Observe the rest of Gerson’s Iran musings:

Behind all the chaos and death in Lebanon and northern Israel, Iran is the main cause of worry in the West Wing—the crisis with the highest stakes. Its government shows every sign of grand regional ambitions, pulling together an anti-American alliance composed of Syria, terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, and proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite other disagreements, all the factions in Iran—conservative, ultraconservative and “let’s usher in the apocalypse” fanatics—seem united in a nuclear nationalism.

Some commentators say that America is too exhausted to confront this threat. But presidential decisions on national security are not primarily made by the divination of public sentiments; they are made by the determination of national interests. And the low blood-sugar level of pundits counts not at all. Here the choice is not easy, but it is simple: can America (and other nations) accept a nuclear Iran?

In foreign-policy circles, it is sometimes claimed that past nuclear proliferation—say, to India or Pakistan—has been less destabilizing than predicted. In the case of Iran, this is wishful thinking. A nuclear Iran would mean a nuclear Middle East, as traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey feel pressured to join the club, giving every regional conflict nuclear overtones. A nuclear Iran would also give terrorist groups something they have previously lacked and desperately want: a great-power sponsor. Over time, this is the surest way to put catastrophic technology into the hands of a murderous few. All options have dangers and drawbacks. But inaction might bring the harshest verdict of history: they knew much, and they did nothing.

The war in Iraq, without doubt, complicates our approach to Iran. It has stretched the Army and lowered our reservoir of credibility on WMD intelligence. But Iran’s destabilizing nuclear ambitions are not a guarded secret; they are an announced strategy. If the lesson drawn from Iraq is that the world is too unknowable and complicated for America to act in its interests, we will pay a terrible price down the road.

As these events unfold, our country will need a better way of doing business, a new compact between citizens and their government. Americans have every right to expect competence and honesty about risks and mistakes and failures. Yet Americans, in turn, must understand that in a war where deception is the weapon and goal of the enemy, every mistake is not a lie; every failure is not a conspiracy. And the worst failure would be a timid foreign policy that allows terrible threats to emerge.

There are still many steps of diplomacy, engagement and sanctions between today and a decision about military conflict with Iran—and there may yet be a peaceful solution. But in this diplomatic dance, America should not mirror the infinite patience of Europe. There must be someone in the world capable of drawing a line—someone who says, “This much and no further.” At some point, those who decide on aggression must pay a price, or aggression will be universal. If American “cowboy diplomacy” did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

In other words, nothing anyone outside the White House thinks matters. We know Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, despite anything approaching certainty on the question. History will later vindicate us, regardless of how bad we F-up now. It’s not our fault that Europeans are wusses.

Sound familiar?

The cap’s coming off the glue, doctor’s orders be damned…

Comments

  1. CKR (History)

    Gerson’s rant makes sense in a world in which the only option is military force, and the best one is to nuke ‘em.

    I’d recommend strong action on the part of the US to very publicly eliminate some large part of its overlarge nuclear stockpile. Some public acknowledgement of Israel’s nuclear weapons and a serious run at eliminating them would be helpful too. Maybe a Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone.

    Our President also might tighten up the India deal, pace all those nuclear folks there who are worried about having their stockpile limited.

    Britain could chime in and say that they’re giving up, not updating, their Tridents.

    Our President could go to the UN on, oh say, the tenth anniversary of Reagan and Gorbachev’s meeting at Reykjavik, when they almost agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether (October 10) and announce these good ideas. Maybe it could be arm in arm with Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair.

    That would turn around the international environment. I’ll bet you would be able to hear minds changing in Iran, although maybe not Gerson’s or the other neocons’.

    But I dream…

  2. CKR (History)

    Er, that’s the twentieth anniversary of Reykjavik.

    Time flies when you’re having fun.

  3. Eric Hundman (History)

    I find it particularly interesting that Gerson assumes nuclear weapons equal great power status—he just states that assertion as fact:

    “A nuclear Iran would also give terrorist groups something they have previously lacked and desperately want: a great-power sponsor.”

    This statement hinges on the admittedly fuzzy definiton of “great power;” my definition of the term does not necessarily include countries like Israel and North Korea (with nuclear weapons), or even France and the UK.

  4. J. (History)

    Jon Stewart had Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco, on The Daily Show recently. He asked, tongue in cheek, “Is there anyone writing a “we did great” story about Iraq?” I would suggest that Gerson’s writing that book…

  5. Andy (History)

    I suppose it comes down to how much faith one puts into the circumstantial evidence that Iran has an active weapons program. Certainly Iran has expressed at least some interest in a weapons program, and it seems likely to me they are pursuing that goal. Unfortunately, the truth is that we’ll probably never have definitive evidence one way or another, and our leaders will have to make decisions based on incomplete and perhaps inaccurate information. That is the nature of the beast. The decision will be that much tougher and more contentious because of the sad political climate in the US (worldwide as well) and the history of intelligence mistakes with Iraq.

    It seems to me the heart of Gerson’s argument (despite the obvious assumptions and mistake he makes) is that the US simply can’t afford to take the chance with Iran. While I don’t entirely agree with it, his reasoning isn’t completely unsound either. Assuming we did have perfect intelligence demonstrating that Iran intended to acquire, or already had, a weapons capability, there’s still the question on whether an attempt to take that capability out militarily is possible, and if so, desirable in light of consequences both seen and unforeseen. Gerson argues that it is. Personally, both options look very bad to me and I’d hate to have only those two choices: A nuclear Iran or some kind of military action. Fortunately, we can put off this decision for a while and work on creating a better third option. Perhaps the worst case scenario is military action that fails to achieve the goal – we’d have a belligerent nuclear Iran on top of all the trouble an attack would cause.

    CKR appropriately ends his comment with “I dream” because that is exactly what nuclear disarmament is. Even if Israel and the rest of us could be convinced to give up their nukes, CKR’s assumption that Iran would give up their ambitions as well is the height of wishful thinking. But that won’t happen because the key to disarmament is verification – and it’s simply not possible to have 100% verification of disarmament. It’s too easy to stash some weapons or a small core capability away somewhere. Everyone realizes this and so disarmament is at a standstill.

    Finally, although nukes will not give Iran “great power” status (as Eric stated), they certain will give them an umbrella of protection. As a result, they’ll have a freer hand to sponsor terrorists and pursue a much more aggressive foreign agenda in general. I don’t buy into the 12th Imam theories making the rounds lately, so my assessment is that Iran is seeking a traditional deterrent capability. That capability means that Iranian support of proxy forces fighting the US and Israel can operate more openly and more aggressively because the cost of attacking Iran in response is much greater.

  6. Paul (History)

    Don’t assume all commenters are male.

  7. Andy (History)

    Paul – You’re right of course. Sloppy editing on my part – I usually catch the sexist language.

  8. Gil (History)

    I’m confused here. Are you saying that you think Iran isn’t trying to develop nuclear weapons at all or are you saying the only choices available are to do nothing or to bomb them when clearly at this point there is a process going forward that involves the UN and the Europeans. Because at the end of the day there is that simple binary choice to be made of either stopping them militarily or deciding to not stop them militarily. The political/international path is being taken now and we can have our own opinions about the possibilities of success for that. If that path succeeds in standing down the Iranians then great, we can all worry about something else. But if it doesn’t do the job the exact choice he mentions is the choice in front of us. Do something or do nothing. Attack or don’t attack. These are the options after diplomacy runs it course.

  9. CKR (History)

    My comment was intended to point up the possibility of a change in the dynamic by which countries identify themselves as “major powers” by acquisition of nuclear weapons.

    Clearly this would not happen in an instant.

    However, a strong statement like I recommend to President Bush (and I understand that others are making similar recommendations) would utterly change that perception.

    Although the United States and the Soviet Union have indeed been decreasing their nuclear arsenals, their rhetoric, explicit and implicit, open and leaked, has remained in the mode of implying that their nuclear arsenals are extremely important and will be kept in fighting shape.

    A change in this rhetoric, particularly if supported by Britain and Russia (and France and China?) would make a difference. Reagan and Gorbachev got everyone’s attention at Reykjavik.

    Add in pressure to denuclearize ALL of the Middle East, which would require openly facing up to the fact that Israel has a nuclear arsenal, and we just might have a winner.

    What’s the downside? The US and Russia aren’t about to nuke each other, and a couple hundred nukes would be plenty.

    We haven’t thought out deterrence completely in this new world, but the potential proliferators have to be aware that a traceable nuclear explosion would result in serious blowback.

    Looks like lots of upside and not much downside. What I’m dreaming is that the mind of one particular world leader and those of his advisors can be changed.

    As to the personal pronoun: t’ain’t the first time. 😉

  10. Anonymous (History)

    The Iranians have at least 2 reasons to pursue nuclear fuelmaking and get very, very, very close to a nuclear explosive device that have little to do with the nuclear weapon states:

    (A) national pride in technological achievement, which can sometimes shore up domestic support/approval; and

    (B) the rules—or at least the way the rules are generally read and interpreted—seem to allow it and don’t clearly limit a non-nuclear weapon state’s fuelmaking even when the NNWS (e.g., Iran) is found by the IAEA BoG to be in noncompliance.

    Disarmament is a dream, but the hawkish/dovish lack of imagination when it comes to dealing with self-defeating nonproliferation rules is a nightmare.

    (“Hello, State’s legal division? It’s me, Sustainable Readings of Nonproliferation Rules. Remember, you, ACDA and I used to try to get together every so often in the early and mid 1960s. Why have you been ignoring me?”)

  11. hass (History)

    “We can’t wait for evidence in the form of a mushroom cloud…”

  12. Andy (History)

    CKR,

    Once again, my apologies. I should know better, especially considering my wife is one of only two female nuclear engineers in her branch of military service.

    I agree that denuclearizing the middle-east is a noble goal worth working toward; however, it’s putting the horse before the cart. I think it’s unreasonable to ask Israel to give up its nukes while almost the entire Arab and Muslim world doesn’t recognize its right to exist and openly advocates its destruction. If a wider Middle-East peace could be achieved, then I think denuclearization is possible, but until that time comes Israel will not give up its weapons no matter the pressure, even from the US. Even if Israel unilaterally gave up their weapons, would that really convince Iran (and others) to end any program it does have? The rampant paranoia about Israel in the Muslim world leads me to believe that many would not actually believe the Israelis disarmed. Then there is Pakistan, which borders Iran. A coup in Pakistan could be a real nightmare in the region, so any Middle-East denuclearization plan should include south Asia as well – no easy prospect there.

    Even so, Iran would still pursue its civilian program, which is guaranteed under the NPT. One problem with the NPT, in my opinion, is that nations can pursue a “civilian” nuclear program almost to the point of weaponization. It allows NPT nations to maintain the ability to make weapons in as little as 6 months once they have the required civilian technology and infrastructure built to a sufficiently robust point. In the case of Iran, this is their likely course of action if their goal truly isn’t a covert weapons program.

    I do agree that the US could do more on the public stage in regard to nuclear weapons. I think the public talk of nuclear penetrators and other new and controversial uses were a mistake and have given proliferators and the foreign public excuses to support nuclear programs, both civilian and military. I’d also support a reduction in the number of warheads, but I would like to see that as part of a larger agreement with Russia, China, France, the UK and possibly others. Certainly the US could provide better leadership on this issue.

    I agree 100% that deterrence strategies need a long and hard look, especially in regard to unconventional employment of nukes. Attribution is a significant problem that wasn’t considered much during the Cold War. As a result the science and technology of attribution is lacking, though it is a recognized problem and research is ongoing. Still, if an unattributed nuke were detonated in the US tomorrow, finding those responsible could be a serious challenge.

  13. CKR (History)

    Apology accepted, Andy.

    A denuclearized Middle East, like any big international initiative, would not take place all at once.

    A first step would probably be from the United States (and, hopefully, Russia), to downgrade the prestige of nuclear weapons, like that October 10 Bush speech I’d love to see.

    Another step would be to admit that Israel has nuclear weapons.

    Another step would be to develop a regional organization that would oversee denuclearization and perhaps interface with the nuclear neighbors, including India and Pakistan.

    Israel’s giving up its nuclear weapons would be tied to security assurances from its neighbors, hopefully mutual.

    Things like this look like they can’t happen when you take too big a bite, but when you break them down into smaller steps, they become more conceivable. Further, each step produces a slightly different way of thinking that allows additional subsequent options.

    If you insist on solving the whole problem in one step, you usually can’t do it. See, for example, bringing democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun.

  14. Andy (History)

    CKR,

    I agree that small steps are needed. I just think that one of the first must be that parties to this denuclearization strategy at least recognized each other’s right to exist. Negotiations and security assurances cannot happen without that first step in my opinion. What good are security assurances from a nation that advocates your destruction?

    All this is not to say I don’t believe it’s not worth a try. I just think that given the very real hostility Israel faces, there is no possibility of them entertaining a nuclear compromise until fundamental issues like recognition are first resolved.

  15. Eric Hundman (History)

    CKR:

    I’ve been thinking a bit about your desire to lower the prestige of nuclear weapons. As you’ve mentioned, doing so would have many benefits, but I’d like to throw in discussion of a few of the problems it could cause.

    Prestige in this context means, I think, that nuclear weapons are given a special status in the minds of citizens and especially policy makers. You seem to be saying that this special status is one of the main barriers to disarmament and denuclearization. I agree that the unique perceptions of nuclear weapons (that they convey great power status, for one) make certain countries more inclined to pursue them and give nuclear weapons unique (and useful, in many cases) political effects, but such effects are not one-sided.

    However, a special perception of nuclear weapons—stemming from their prestige, as we’re calling it, or special status—is also thought to slow proliferation as a central factor in the persistence of the “nuclear taboo.” No one has really been able to satisfactorily explain why nuclear weapons haven’t proliferated much further and faster than they have so far, even though they undeniably have both political and military uses. The taboo is an oft-cited hypothesis that I think is certianly part of the story: for those not familiar with the argument, it basically says that nuclear weapons are seen as such horrible tools that many states are unwilling to pursue them.

    So, if we undermine the prestige nuclear weapons convey along with their special status, we may also undermine a factor preventing further proliferation.

    In the extreme case, for example, if we eliminate the special status of nuclear weapons and they are eventually seen as “no big deal” to possess, then why would it be such a problem that a country has a few of them? It is difficult to assert that the prestige of nuclear weapons doesn’t justify keeping them while also asserting that they are important (read: prestigious) enough to get rid of entirely.

    Part of the difficulty in addressing these nuclear problems stems from one of your earlier points: I think you are correct that deterrence has not been reexamined in sufficient depth following the end of the Cold War.

  16. andrew

    If Iran will not have nukes for 5-10 years, the forced choice seems to be self imposed. http://www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=ja06albright

  17. Max (History)

    Andy,

    You infer/refer to the supposed ‘statement’ of Ahmadinejad: – his alleged calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”

    The Iranian president is undeniably an opponent of Zionism or, if you prefer the phrase, the Zionist regime. But so are substantial numbers of Israeli citizens, Jews as well as Arabs.

    The Iranian president was expressing a vague wish for the future. He was not threatening an Iranian-initiated war to remove Israeli control over Jerusalem, as well-established translation sources confirm; Ahmadinejad was referring to time, not place (i.e.on the map). As serious researchers are aware, the words of Ahmadinejad (who was quoting Khomeini at the time), have been twisted to aid those who wish to whip up hostility towards Iran. Starting with Juan Cole, and going via the New York Times’ experts through MEMRI to the BBC’s monitors, the consensus is that Ahmadinejad did not talk about any maps. He was offering a vague wish for the future – i.e. the removal of the regime that has caused so much sufferring in that region.

  18. CKR (History)

    Good points, Andy and Eric.

    “What good are security assurances from a nation that advocates your destruction?”

    Security assurances clearly start from the assumption that all parties grant the others the right to exist.

    I try to stay out of detailed Middle East political discussions because my expertise lies elsewhere, so I can’t propose specific ways to deal with this. However, I’ll point out that different groups in the region have different views of Israel and different degrees of willingness to acknowledge its right to exist. We also may misunderstand some of the rhetoric, as Max points out.

    Early steps would include encouraging a less hair-trigger approach on all sides, including Israel’s. That would require a third-party mediator who could be seen as an honest broker. Too bad George Bush decided that wasn’t his role.

    I also think that bold steps, well-presented, could jump over some of the detailed difficulties, but, again, I don’t feel competent to make specific proposals.

    Eric, I think I would distinguish “prestige” (the sense that nuclear weapons grant increased stature to a nation in others’ eyes) from “taboo.” I think the two are related only slightly and that the “prestige” can be decreased without the “taboo” also being decreased. In fact, a serious downgrading of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenal, coupled with strong statements that the world cannot afford to use such weapons, could downgrade “prestige” and increase “taboo.”

    I have been mulling some related thoughts on this subject, and your comments and one of the articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs encourage me to write up those thoughts for my blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post them in the next day or so.

  19. CKR (History)

    Post is now up at WhirledView. Click on my name to get there.

  20. Andy (History)

    Max,

    I appreciate there are differences and nuances in translation. I don’t know Persian so can’t comment one way or the other. It’s also important to note that the Iranian President has little executive power in the foreign arena. Unlike the US President, he isn’t the CINC of the armed forces, cannot declare war, and doesn’t control the security and intelligence services. Still, he is the public face of the regime and translation differences aside, Iran’s hostility toward Israel, not just Zionism, is apparent.

    Ahmadinejad was not just expressing a vague wish for the future – he was expressing Iran’s stated policy. The only two factors keeping this “wish” from becoming reality are geography and lack of military capability. It’s clear the destruction of Israel is an Iranian goal as evidenced by their alliance with Syria (an unnatural alliance, I might add) and the significant support they give proxies such as Hezbollah. If Iran, Syria or any of the other countries openly hostile to Israel had the capability, they would surely attempt to destroy Israel as the Arab armies attempted to do in 1967 and 73. While Iran and hostile Arab nations must surely realize that Israel probably cannot be militarily destroyed, at least for now, they still take every opportunity to oppose it and ensure its people live under constant physical threat.

    CKR,

    I really appreciate your comments. I’ll take a look at the post on your blog. I think we largely agree that the US and other nuclear nations could do much more to reduce arsenals and work against further proliferation.

    Finally, I’d like to say that while it may appear from my comments here that I’m a blind supporter of Israel, that is certainly not the case. I feel that many of Israel’s actions and policies have at best been counterproductive. I hope its futile failure in Lebanon these past weeks will serve as a wake-up call to explore other, and hopefully better, methods to ensure its security. The Israeli’s need to realize they cannot eliminate radical elements such as Hamas and Hezbollah by force of arms alone, but that is probably best left for another discussion.

  21. hass (History)

    Funny – when moderate reformist Khatami was in charge, we were consistently told by the NeoCons that his efforts to reach out to the US should be ignored since Iranian presidents are nobodies. But when Ahmadinejad SUPPOSEDLY says something about wiping off Israel, all of a sudden Iranian presidents are to be taken at their word.

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