Update: wow – TPMCafe put this on their home page (it’ll probably only be there for today)
Cross-posted to TPMCafe
It seems the bitterness of the debate over Iraq has stifled rational discussion on what do to about Iran’s nuclear program. Many on the right are going down the same war-mongering path that got us into Iraq: doing everything they can to pump up the direness and immediacy of the threat, and rejecting any proposal short of attack with the now very tired analogy of Chamberlain-appeasing-Hitler. Many on the left see the Bush administration’s actions so far as too similar to what it did in the run up to the Iraq invasion, leading them to reject anything it says or does as dishonest. The war in Iraq has had such a corrosive effect on our political discourse that it’s hard to find intelligent, productive analysis on Iran these days. But there is some out there, and I’ve found at least some of it. First, Steve Clemens at the Washington Note has an excellent post from back in February on why the internal dynamics of Iranian politics matters in this:
…there are numerous forces inside Iran working overtime to impede Ahmadinejad from fulfilling his ambitions — while America and Europe are doing much to empower him and give him exactly what he wants.
The question of checks-and-balances in Iran is important — whether they are theocratic or democratic institutions. We need to understand how executive authority in Iran flows — or Europe and the U.S. may, out of ignorance, empower Iran’s president while undermining other players who keep the blustery rhetoric of Ahmadinejad just that.
This fiery, anti-Israel, nuclear-obsessed President in Iran failed to get his preferred Oil Minister past the Majles-e-Shura-ye-Eslami, or Islamic Consultative Assembly three times. Finally, he had to compromise with other power centers in Iran’s government — who wanted competent manager in that post rather than one of Ahmadinejad’s retainers.
…[Quoting Nasrin Alavi] “In fact the president has less power than any of his Islamic Republic predecessors. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has seemingly been startled enough by Ahmadinejad’s disruptive tendencies to grant the expediency council (a non-elected body headed by Rafsanjani) oversight of the presidency.”
…[Quoting Kamal Nazer Yasin] Hardliners evidently believe that confrontation with the West on the nuclear issue could help regenerate a sense of national purpose among Iranians. Political apathy has proliferated in Iran in recent years, due in large measure to the government’s inability to address pressing economic problems.
It seems that one of the highest objectives of European and American nuclear negotiators should be to pursue a diplomatic track with Iran that chokes off fuel to Ahmadinejad’s nuclear populism — and working with elements beyond his office and which appeal to Iran’s broader public would be a constructive step.
…The hardliners are facing rising opposition from a moderate faction, which appears to enjoy support from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei… Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of a radically conservative political agenda quickly prompted Ayatollah Khamenei to distance himself from the president’s faction. The supreme leader, apparently seeing a need for Iran to have a political counter-balance to the presidential faction, has reached out to centrists…
Given this political environment in Iran, Bush’s tack of ratching up the confrontational rhetoric strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do, as it will only strengthen Ahmadinejad’s hand domestically. Clemon’s also points out that Bush rejected a key opportuntity to work on defusing this issue back in 2003:
[Quoting Gareth Porter] Lawrence Wilkerson, then chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell, said the failure to adopt a formal Iran policy in 2002-03 was the result of obstruction by a “secret cabal” of neo-conservatives in the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran,” Wilkerson wrote in an e-mail to Inter Press Service (IPS).
The Iranian negotiating offer, transmitted to the State Department in early May 2003 by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, acknowledged that Iran would have to address US concerns about its nuclear program, although it made no specific concession in advance of the talks, according to Flynt Leverett, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Middle East Affairs.
Iran’s offer also raised the possibility of cutting off Iran’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and converting Hezbollah into a purely socio-political organization, according to Leverett. That was an explicit response to Powell’s demand in late March that Iran “end its support for terrorism”.
In return, Leverett recalls, the Iranians wanted the US to address security questions, the lifting of economic sanctions and normalization of relations, including support for Iran’s integration into the global economic order.
Leverett also recalls that the Iranian offer was drafted with the blessing of all the major political players in the Iranian regime, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.
Realists, led by Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were inclined to respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having passed on the offer.
Exactly how the decision was made is not known. “As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints,” Wilkerson told IPS. “But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W Bush.”
Clemons also suggests we emulate the Israeli approach to Iran:
Nearly everyone I spoke to in Israel who ranged in political sympathies from the Likud right to Maretz left thought that the tone of the [US] AIPAC conference had been too shrill and that Israel thought it wrong-headed and too impulsive to be engaged in saber-rattling with Iran at this stage… Israel’s national security thinkers and diplomats are on the side of logic — and it is in American national interests to hear the Israeli position…
On the question of what an attack on Iran might look like, Seymour Hersh created a lot of buzz a couple weeks ago with his New Yorker article, where he cites sources saying that the US might attack Iran’s “hardened” underground nuclear facilities with nuclear weapons. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis throws cold water on this notion, with a very detailed analysis explaining that if we wanted to take out these sites, we could do it with conventional weapons. However, he also wrote a post over a year ago where he knocks down one of the favorite talking points of the right – that the Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 significantly slowed Saddam’s nuclear program, and that we need to take this same approach with Iran. This is not only wrong, it would more likely accelerate the Iranian program:
Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory University, has written The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks [PDF] arguing that “closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not susbantially delay the Iraqi nuclear [weapons] program and may have even hastened it.”
…[Iraqi nuclear scientists] were also unanimous in dating Saddam’s pre-Gulf War effort to acquire a nuclear weapon through a clandestine uranium enrichment program to the days immediately following the Israeli attack. The effect of the attack was probably to transform a “virtual” bomb program into a very real one that may or may not have succeeded without the intervention of the Operation Desert Storm.
If Tehran is pursuing a virtual bomb, as I and others have suggested, then the military option will likely collapse diplomatic efforts, further radicalize the Iranian regime, and guarantee a crash program for the bomb.
Lastly, Richard Clarke and Steven Simon wrote a New York Times Op-Ed a few days ago laying out the chess moves that would likely follow any US military action:
Now, as in the mid-90’s, any United States bombing campaign would simply begin a multi-move, escalatory process. Iran could respond three ways. First, it could attack Persian Gulf oil facilities and tankers — as it did in the mid-1980’s — which could cause oil prices to spike above $80 dollars a barrel.
Second and more likely, Iran could use its terrorist network to strike American targets around the world, including inside the United States. Iran has forces at its command that are far superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field…
Third, Iran is in a position to make our situation in Iraq far more difficult than it already is. The Badr Brigade and other Shiite militias in Iraq could launch a more deadly campaign against British and American troops…
No matter how Iran responded, the question that would face American planners would be, “What’s our next move?” How do we achieve so-called escalation dominance, the condition in which the other side fears responding because they know that the next round of American attacks would be too lethal for the regime to survive?
Bloodied by Iranian retaliation, President Bush would most likely authorize wider and more intensive bombing. Non-military Iranian government targets would probably be struck in a vain hope that the Iranian people would seize the opportunity to overthrow the government. More likely, the American war against Iran would guarantee the regime decades more of control.
So how would bombing Iran serve American interests? In over a decade of looking at the question, no one has ever been able to provide a persuasive answer. The president assures us he will seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis. And there is a role for threats of force to back up diplomacy and help concentrate the minds of our allies. But the current level of activity in the Pentagon suggests more than just standard contingency planning or tactical saber-rattling.
I don’t have a smart conclusion where I lay out all the answers – I don’t think anyone has those answers. But the path we seem to be on now – where many Bush supporters are seeking to maximize hysteria (along with a media that likes scary, simple stories) by pushing this as some sort of cartoonish OK Corral showdown – does nothing but play into Ahmadinejad’s hands, and will take us to a very dangerous place.