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August 30, 2012

The Narrowing Path on Iran

by Mike M

One more point on the endless Israel-Iran debate:  An Israeli strike will re-set the terms for U.S. objectives toward Iran, and not in a helpful way.  But then, Israel hasn’t been much in the business of setting a helpful context for U.S. grand strategy of late, so perhaps this should hardly come as a surprise.

First, consider the range of U.S. goals.  Many folks will have somewhat different lists and differently ordered lists.  But let’s say they are roughly the following:

  1. Constraining Iranian nuclear capacity to prevent a weapons capability;
  2. Deterring Iranian aggression against its neighbors, including via proxies;
  3. Deterring and limiting Iranian support for terrorist organizations; and
  4. Promoting long-term reform and change in Iran toward a more moderate, cosmopolitan and democratic regime.

Today, we pursue each of those goals in certain ways, and we understand the context and feasibility for them in certain terms.  For example, the regime is under pressure from a sense among its people that it has failed to deliver on key promises, in part because it has staked itself against the world community.  Meantime we seek goal (1) through multilateral negotiations backed by the coercive power of sanctions and the threat of ultimate military action.

So here’s the question:  “The Day After” Israeli strikes, how will the United States need to reconceive any or all of these goals?

One obvious implication has to do with nonproliferation.  It’s going to be much more difficult to keep Iran in a sanctions-and-inspections box after it’s absorbed an Israeli hit than it is today.  Tehran will have international sympathy, others are looking for excuses to roll back sanctions even now, etc.  The result will be a temporary delay to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but combined with much less capacity to rally the international community to keep it from rushing forward in the wake of the strikes.

A second shift in goals may have to do with reform and change.  There is some debate about this.  Some think a strike will shock the system and accelerate the moderation of the regime.  But the vast weight of expert opinion holds that strikes will harden Iranian public opinion, allow the regime to crack down on moderates, stoke nationalism, and generally scuttle efforts to mellow the system from within.

Both implications suggest that an Israeli attack could leave us on the doorstep of a pretty fundamental choice—between living with a nuclear Iran, or taking truly drastic actions to change the context.  For many reasons, this is a choice U.S. strategy has rightly sought to postpone, and if possible use time and events to permanently dodge.  It may be a secret agenda of such an Israeli action to force Washington to step up to it.

The only reasonable long-term strategy toward the Iran nuclear challenge has long been to hold Iran at a barely acceptable level of nuclear capacity, develop a nonmilitary strategy to promote the arrival of a post-revolutionary regime as quickly as possible, and hope the timelines all work out.  The problem has been, and continues to be, the definition of “barely acceptable.”  Tehran’s meaning is not the same as ours, and we debate the fine points of issues like enrichment capability.  Other parties, from Saudi to Turkey to Russia, have their views.  But the real sticking point is Israel, whose criteria for success lie at the far end of the spectrum.

There’s no guarantee things have to end up in military action.  Tehran has a demonstrated knack for offering a concession at the last minute to avoid punishment.  But some experts detect a worrisome whiff of wishful thinking in Tehran—a conviction that they would prevail in a crisis, that it would work to their advantage, that anyway there’s no credibility any more to U.S. or even Israeli threats.  And we may be rapidly approaching a critical moment at which Israeli and Iranian leaders diverge fundamentally in what they are willing to accept in a compromise—how they define “barely acceptable.”

Despite all this, the next steps are clear enough.  Cobble together a half-dozen Innovative Ideas for an Iranian program everyone could live with–the solution to the “barely acceptable” conundrum.  Gather a consensus global voice to make clear to Tehran this is its Very Last Chance before it loses what it’s got to Israeli bombs.  Have Washington urge, plead, demand that Israel give the negotiations sufficient chance.

And then we will see, by the end of the year or early next, whether the result is a pack of smiling and relieved diplomats emerging from a dank negotiating room—or a flight of Israeli warplanes headed for Iran.  If it is the latter, the context for U.S. policy and strategy will change irrevocably.  And if we take the implications of that moment seriously, we’ll have only a couple of serious options going forward, all of which carry serious risk.  Most notably, the hope for a peaceful, sustainable solution that rationalizes the interests of all the parties will very probably vanish in the smoke and fire of the Israeli attack.  And the likely outcome—because no president will want to absorb the short-term cost and risk of a full-scale confrontation—will be a slide toward a nuclearized Iran, cloaked in the rhetoric and busy diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing of a claimed effort to put the Humpty Dumpty of the sanctions and inspection regime back together again.

The emerging failure of this effort will be blamed on subsequent American presidents, for refusing to “do what was necessary” to stop Iran.  Sometimes, though, what is “necessary” to achieve an objective is restraining an impulse to do something counterproductive, which has the effect of ruling out the best possible options you’ve got left.

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