May 21, 2013

If at First You Don't Succeed, Bomb, Bomb Again

Those who have been proved most wrong in the Middle East remain immune to the caution with which others now approach events in the region.In testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman made clear that the U.S. would continue to look for ways to raise the pressure on Tehran, even as it remained committed to a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But she also cautioned against steps that would foreclose diplomatic options or damage the international consensus that the administration has worked so effectively to forge. “As we move forward, it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far,” Sherman said.

Sherman was reiterating the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community: that the government of Iran, while continuing to move forward with its nuclear program and keeping its options open, has not yet made a decision to obtain a nuclear weapon. It shouldn’t be surprising that various members of the administration continue to highlight this assessment in public. First, it suggests that, as Iran has not yet taken the political decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon, such a decision could still be affected by a combination of incentives and disincentives from the U.S. and its negotiating partners in the P5+1 (the “permanent five” members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). Second, it pointedly avoids the sort of false, and ultimately disastrous, sense of certainty that accompanied government claims during the lead up to the Iraq War. 

The last several years have been humbling ones for Western analysts of the Middle East. Pretty much all of us have been proved wrong at one time or another—though, of course, some have been more wrong than others. But it’s interesting that it’s mainly those who have been proved most spectacularly wrong by the last decade in the Middle East who remain immune to the sort of caution with which others now tend to approach events in the region.

It’s also interesting how many of these people write for the Weekly Standard. Last week, the magazine featured a cover story by Reuel Marc Gerecht, in which the former CIA officer (specifically, an “Iranian targets officer,” his bio makes sure to inform readers) went against those foolish enough to think it makes sense to continue exploring options for easing hostility between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic before risking yet another war in the Middle East.

“Are Iran’s many Western apologists analytically challenged, deceitful, or just scared so stiff of another war in the Middle East that they secularize and sanitize the clerical regime?” Gerecht asked. Gerecht is certainly not afraid of war with Iran. He’s been calling for it since 2002. He likes to joke that he talks about bombing Iran so much that “even my mother thinks I’ve gone too far,” which he apparently thinks is funny rather than sociopathic. 

It turns out that “Iran’s many Western apologists” encompasses a pretty big and diverse group of former intelligence analysts, diplomats, grassroots activists, and foundations (full disclosure: one of which, The Ploughshares Fund, supports part of my work), bound together primarily through the fact that they disagree with Gerecht, who can just barely bring himself to grant that all these people “may well believe what they write about Iran.” Toward the end of last week, perhaps in an effort to make Gerecht’s piece look better by comparison, the Standard’s website ran a piece by journalist Lee Smith criticizing a new report from the Center for a New American Security, which advocates preparing for the eventuality of an Iranian nuclear weapon in the event that the U.S. is unable to prevent one. 

You might think that, especially in the light of recent history, preparing for any and all eventualities might be the most prudent course, right? Wrong: Preparing for an Iranian nuclear weapon is simply evidence of a lack of national willpower. “If prevention fails,” Smith wrote, in possibly the best one-sentence distillation of the neoconservative view of foreign policy I’ve ever read, “it is not because Obama is not able to stop Iran, it is because the commander-in-chief has chosen not to.” That’s right, friends: If we fail, it’s only because we didn’t want it badly enough. 

It’s easy to mock this sort of thinking. Indeed, we should. But we should also recognize how dangerously attractive the idea that we can create specific outcomes simply through the application of military force remains for many in Washington, especially against an enemy as easily condemned and caricatured as the Islamic Republic of Iran.The idea here isn’t that any option should be abandoned but that every option should be genuinely and energetically explored.

Fortunately, that number is not what it once was, at least for the moment. Jeremiads like Gerecht’s and Smith’s should be taken as evidence that less militaristic, more nuanced arguments for addressing the Iranian challenge are finding traction in the Washington policy debate, even if railing against the Islamic Republic remains one of the city’s easiest political lifts. The idea here isn’t that any option should be abandoned but that every option should be genuinely and energetically explored.

“The U.S. can still do a lot to dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear progress, but the decision ultimately lies in Tehran,” says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation and author of a new report on how a nuclear-armed Iran might behave. “Even military strikes against Iran are not guaranteed to end Iran’s nuclear know-how or to cease its desire for the ultimate form of deterrence.”

More than four years after President Barack Obama first attempted to reach out to the Islamic Republic, Iran remains a thorny and complicated challenge for policymakers. But the real policy divide in Washington today is between those who want to broaden the debate and look at every possible solution and those who want to constrain it in order to point us toward only one.