Focus on Iran’s Intentions, Not Its Capabilities


Nader Mousavizadeh, a former special assistant to Kofi Annan, provides a fresh, critical perspective on the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post.
According to Mousavizadeh, the Obama administration needs to focus on Iran’s intentions rather than its capabilities. We need to identify what Iran wants and find a way to come to a reasonable accommodation that can be accepted by all of the major stakeholders in the region. This is the only way to prevent our conflict with Iran from continuing to simmer until it eventually explodes.
Here are the key graphs:

By focusing on the means of Iran’s ascendancy — its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas — we are avoiding the vital question of ends. Concentrating on capabilities instead of intentions, we are missing the far more consequential opportunity to challenge the Iranian regime to a real debate about the country’s legitimate place in the regional security architecture and the deeply illegitimate ways Tehran seeks to achieve it….
…We need to reverse our starting point in engagement — away from the bomb and Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas — and discard the notion that bigger sticks and bigger carrots will alter Tehran’s strategic calculus. Our goal should be a new geostrategic environment in the Persian Gulf, in which Iran has fewer reasons to pursue overt nuclear weapons status, and in which it won’t trigger a cascade of conflict if it nonetheless decides to do so. Rather than allow capabilities over which we have little control to force our hand, we should seek a new framework of intentions in our diplomacy with Iran.
This means opening direct bilateral talks without preconditions, focused on the many areas of common urgent concern, beginning with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. By building trust through joint efforts in arenas where Iranian and U.S. interests greatly coincide, we can move toward candid acknowledgment of each side’s legitimate interests.

For more on the nuts and bolts of how to restructure our relationship with Iran, I encourage you to read, “Time For a U.S. Iranian Grand Bargain,” by New America Foundation/Geopolitics of Energy Initiative Director Flynt Leverett with STRATEGA Chairman Hillary Mann Leverett.
— Ben Katcher


20 comments on “Focus on Iran’s Intentions, Not Its Capabilities

  1. JohnH says:

    Thanks, Wigwag. This gets back to my initial point on this thread: the focus on Iranian intentions is largely misplaced–the real need is to focus on US intentions, the hidden agenda for Iran.
    As Leverett and Mann say, “To fix our Iran policy, the president would have to commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic.” It is the hostile American stance which makes negotiations impossible, not Iranian “intentions.” Sadly, the US regime seems politically incapable of sharing any control over the world’s energy resources.


  2. WigWag says:

    That was a very interesting article, JohnH, thanks for pointing it out. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett (of the New America Foundation)have a very interesting op-ed in today’s New York Times (Sunday, May 24th)that you might find interesting.
    It is entitled, “Have We Already Lost Iran?” and it excoriates the Obama Administration for its handling of Iran. It is particularly hard on the President, Secretary of State Clinton and Dennis Ross.
    It’s worth a look.


  3. JohnH says:

    It appears that elite opinion is starting to split on the Iran nuclear program. Finally, a prominent voice is willing to entertain the possibility (what took him so long?) that Iran is sincere in its desire for a civilian, not a weapons program.
    Now what story line will be invented to justify US seizure of Iranian energy resources?


  4. JohnH says:

    Wigwag–why should Iran bother to invest in refining capacity when it can simply convert its vehicle fleet to natural gas? Of course, it could also convert its electric power plants to natural gas, instead of nuclear. That would leave a lot less gas available for energy starved European markets and effectively slap down Washington’s challenge, which is that if Washington can’t control Iranian energy, then nobody can have it.
    Washington’s doggedly and willfully blind Iranian strategy has long since become counterproductive.
    What makes sense for Iran is a strong policy of deterrence. Anyone with that many energy resources would be stupid not to have one. However, deterrence need not be nuclear. I think the Iranians have deterrence figured that out. The proof is that Washington hasn’t already invaded, even though Iran has no nukes.


  5. WigWag says:

    “So I think WigWag should put up some evidence to back up the insinuations.”
    I have no proof, Dan. It is entirely possible that the Iranians have not made any final decisions themselves. But I do think its entirely reasonable to speculate that a nation with the third largest oil reserves in the world (138 billion barrels)might be enriching uranium for the purposes of bomb production instead of electricity production.
    Construction of nuclear fueled power plants cost between $3 and $5 billion (money Iran can ill afford)which is almost 10 times more than generating capacity from oil fired plants. Iran’s dearth of refining capacity is well documented and leaves it vulnerable to Western sacntions. It would be much smarter for Iran to invest its limited financial resources in refining capacity rather than nuclear power plants unless it has another agenda for enriching uranium.
    And for the reasons I mentioned in my comment above, I think it is entirely rational for Iran to seek nuclear weapons (e.g. national pride, the fact that its adversaries and potential adversaries have them, etc.) I think the Iranians are rational so I believe there’s a reasonably good chance they are pursuing these weapons.
    But as I also said, I don’t think it is particularly consequential one way or the other whether Iran obtains a fission bomb.
    I do understand that most people think it is extraordinarily consequential and that my opinion about this is a minority view. Or perhaps its a view that is unique to me.


  6. Dan Kervick says:

    Well, last I heard, the IAEA has no evidence that Iran has enriched uranium to weapons grade, or that there is any fuel-grade enriched uranium that has been diverted or is unaccounted for. And it is not disputed, even by those who think Iran has an active bomb program, that Iran does have an active nuclear power program.
    So I think WigWag should put up some evidence to back up the insinuations.


  7. WigWag says:

    JohnH, you say,
    “Again, you may not like Iranian policies, but they do not appear to be irrational at all.”
    I don’t think I’ve accused the Iranians of irrationality. If you read my comment above you will see that I think the Iranians are completely rational or at least as rational as everyone else.
    As for the centrifuges, that must be it; they’re enriching unranium to generate electricity.
    That explains it!


  8. JohnH says:

    Wigwag wonders why Iran has several thousand centrifuges spinning 24/7. Could be for the same reason that lots of countries have centrifuges spinning 24/7–electric power. Maybe, just maybe, the Iranians would prefer to use their vast energy resources for transportation and for future export revenues. Again, you may not like Iranian policies, but they do not appear to be irrational at all.


  9. JohnH says:

    JeffS–Yes, Iran did some crazy things during the early years of its revolution, like occupy the US embassy. Israel also did some crazy things in its early years, like ethnically cleanse 700-800,000 Palestinians. Yes, Iran sent their citizens to be slaughtered to defend the country against the invasion by Iraq, which was encouraged by the US. How would you propose they defend themselves?
    And, as Dan notes, countries evolve. When was the last time Persia/Iran invaded another country? Several hundred years ago?
    On the other hand, Iranian support of Hamas and Hezbollah is brilliant from an Iranian perspective. It costs them almost nothing–relations with Washington and Tel Aviv would be in the toilet regardless of any support for Hamas and Hezbollah. (The US wants energy resources and a paranoid Israel needs a perpetual, looming existential threat.)
    On the plus side, Iranian support of groups opposed to Israel gains them widespread support among Arabs and in the Muslim world generally. Moreover, it exposes the hypocrisy of US-allied Arab regimes and diminishes their already slim legitimacy with their own populations. As a result, US-allied dictators are less likely to go along with US moves to undermine or attack Iran for fear of backlash from their own people, particularly in the Shia regions of the Persian Gulf. Regardless of whether you like it or not, the Iranian strategy is a brilliant one from their perspective.


  10. Dan Kervick says:

    OK, good call WigWag. I hadn’t seen the 2009 numbers yet. Nasrallah’s popularity remains about where it was in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but has slipped a lot in Egypt. I would note a few things about the survey though:
    When respondents were asked to identify the countries that posed the biggest threats to them, Iran lagged far, far, far behind Israel and the United States, and only a little ahead of China. And a majority believes Iran has a right to its nuclear program. So much, I would say for the great Iran threat in the eyes of the Arab world, and for the sandy foundations of the hyped-up, made-in-DC, Sunni-Israeli “alliance”. The whole thing is a stupid Washington Hail Mary pass.
    The US darlings, Mubarak, King Hussein and King Abdullah, don’t seem to comprise a potent trio – although Mubarak seems somewhat more popular outside his country than inside it. Abdullah and Hussein don’t even make the list.
    France was extremely popular in the Middle East last year as well. Sarkozy has risen personally, but is still behind Jacques Chirac. The surge in Sarkozy’s popularity no doubt stems from the active role he played in *ending* the war in Gaza and efforts to get aid to the people of Gaza, while the outgoing US administration and the sycophantic US Congress were giving Israel a diplomatic blank check.
    Chavez’s popularity surge may be due to his recent calls for a petro-currency to displace the dollar, his high-profile visit to Iran and opening of a Venezuelan-Iranian bank, his support for Iran’s nuclear program, and his calls for a “south-south” dialogue and alliance against the northern powers.
    It’s hard to get a fix on some of these numbers and what they mean for the perception of current events because Telhami’s polls have a puzzling habit of mixing dead and retired leaders in with active leaders.


  11. WigWag says:

    Dan Kervick, I’m afraid that your statement
    “And given that Nasrallah has emerged as the most popular leader in the Arab world, Iranian support for Hizbolloh hardly bespeaks evidence of any deep radicalism, unless you prefer to regard the unpopular old guard of despotic US toadies in the region as the only moderates.”
    is not accurate.
    Nasrallah is not the most popular figure in the Arab world. Actually he’s relatively unpopular. I understand that you are citing data from the 2008 survey of public opionion in the Arab World put together by Zogby and Telhami. But the 2009 data is now out and Nasrallah’s popularity has fallen significantly. In fact, he is less popular in the Arab world than Osama Bin Laden. Believe it or not, his popularity is only a third as great as the popularity of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Nasrallah is even less popular in the Arab world than President Sarkozy of France and Sarkozy is the most pro-Israel President in French history. If you limit yourself to Arab leaders, he is only the 4th most popular, weighing in at a “stellar” 11 percent.
    Here’s the 2009 data in case you’re interested:
    Question: “Which two leaders outside your own country do you admire most?”
    1)Hugo Chavez-36%
    2)Jaques Chirac-18%
    3)Bashar al-Assad-18%
    4)Osama Bin Laden-16%
    5)Muhammad bin Zayed-15%
    6)Nicolas Sarkozy-14%
    7)Hassan Nasrallah-11%
    8)Mahmoud Ahmadinajad-10%
    9)Sadaam Hussein-9%
    10)Recap Erdogan-9%
    11)Muhammad bin Rashid-7%
    12)Hosni Mubarak-7%


  12. Dan Kervick says:

    Jeff S,
    It’s really not at all obvious that Iran now is “the same Iran” that did the things you mentioned. Revolutionary countries evolve, and Iran’s behavior over the past 15 years doesn’t seem all that similar to its behavior in the immediate post-revolutionary period.
    They aren’t at war; and they don’t go around invading embassies. As for Hizbollah, that group has evolved into a political party that has an accepted role in Lebanon’s politics and government, in good part because it showed itself more capable of defending the country than the previously dominant parties in the country. And given that Nasrallah has emerged as the most popular leader in the Arab world, Iranian support for Hizbolloh hardly bespeaks evidence of any deep radicalism, unless you prefer to regard the unpopular old guard of despotic US toadies in the region as the only “moderates”.
    Iran’s behavior in Iraq has been, despite stubborn US opposition to the fact, mostly constructive. They have helped restore order and build the political and economic capacity of the emerging Iraqi state, which increasingly looks capable of standing on its own two feet. They have reached out to develop ties with the Kurds, again despite stubborn and obstreperous US opposition to those efforts. They have resisted the Qaedist groups in the country and the reemergence of the Baathist gangters who used to run Iraq. Since the US would prefer to keep Iran absolutely isolated, our government has sought to portray all these Iranian efforts to build enduring neighborly relations with Iraq as “meddling”.
    Iranian support for Hamas and Hizbollah seems similar to the support large other states give to local groups who are able to act as a check on the belligerency of the states that are most threatening to them. Hamas and Hizbollah keep Israel occupied, and also send the message that Israeli hostilities against Iran could be countered. Given that Israel is packing a few hundred nuclear weapons, and makes threats against Iran almost daily, it’s easy to see why the Iranians would see such counter-measures as necessary.
    Right now, the US and Israel are the most immoderate actors in the region, the ones who continually resort to threats, militarism and violence to accomplish their aims, and who both currently have soldiers fighting and administering occupations outside their national borders in pursuit of agendas that are contrary to peace, and are futilely attached to the preservation of a dying order.
    I had some hope that Obama might be smart enough to grasp the emerging future, and figure out a way of acting boldly and aligning US policy on the right side of it. But so far, no luck.


  13. JeffS says:

    JohnH –
    First, my compliments on your various arguments. They are
    clearly highly sophisticated and articulate. You’ve obviously
    spent much time considering these opinions and you would, not
    doubt, prove to be a formidable opponent in debate on the Iran
    That said, the majority of your argument rests on the theory that
    Iran, and more specifically, the Mullahs who run it, follow the
    same common sense and world view as the rest of us. The
    unfortunate reality is that Iran does not subscribe to the same
    common sense philosophies as the rest of the developed world.
    Fact #1: This is the same Iran that, for years, sent its own
    citizens to the slaughter against Iraq in an unwin-able war.
    Fact #2: This is the same Iran that, in contravention of
    international law and protocol, attacked the US embassy in
    Tehran (sovereign US territory) and held its occupants hostage
    for a year.
    Fact #3: This is the same Iran that, for decades, has openly
    sponsored the activities and supplied Hezbollah, and now
    Hamas — at no point attempting to create a situation of calm by
    trying to bring opposing sides to the table to negotiate.
    The bottom line with Iran is that the combination of ancient
    national Persian pride, coupled with highly irrational utlra-
    religious leaders makes for a completely unpredictable and
    non-quantifiable situation. My sense is that it would be difficult
    for you to provide any sort of proof, based on past behavior,
    that Iran would behave in the ways you described above. If your
    argument is simply that of the old philosophy of Mutually
    Assured Destruction, this is not a credible argument. Iran has
    proven time and again a willingness to sacrifice its population,
    even in the face of much assured defeat. It would seem far more
    likely, based on past behavior and statements made in public,
    that the Iranian leadership would be only too happy to be the
    catalyst that sets off “the beginning of the end”.


  14. WigWag says:

    JohnH says,
    “So what’s the point of a nuke and all the costs and political baggage it carries?”
    Ask the Iranians. They’re the ones with several thousand centrafuges spinning 24 hours a day to produce enriched uranium.


  15. JohnH says:

    “If Iran wants a nuke…” Israeli and American warmongers’ whole case rests on the absolute certainty that they do.
    Wigwag makes the case that such a development would be of no consequence. I have written many times (without any pushback from others here), that Iran already has tremendous conventional deterrent capability, and has no need for a nuke–they can simply cripple the world’s oil supply by conventional means if attacked. They did it to Saddam’s oil infrastructure, and they could do it across the Persian Gulf. So what’s the point of a nuke and all the costs and political baggage it carries?
    So the whole nuclear issue is a red herring. Poor US-Iranian issues predate any putative nuclear development. But these real issues have been removed from public discussion, because they have become part of America’s broader hidden agenda in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
    And so the self-assured sophists prattle on about everything in the world except America’s true ambitions and intentions…


  16. Dan Kervick says:

    WigWag, I think you seriously underestimate the value of full trade relations with the United States, still by far the largest economy in the world. Obama has economic carrots galore. In addition to ending our own isolation with Iran, Washington could stop leaning on the US’s global partners to limit their economic relationship with the Iranians. Iran has a lot more economic opportunity to pursue than simply the oil business. They have a large and well-educated population, many resources and tremendous potential. But US policies are helping to keep much of that potential unrealized.
    Obama also has the carrot of diplomatic normalization which will open up doors and diplomatic opportunities for Iran around the world, and help them emerge from the rickety but not insignificant doghouse that is mainly guarded by the US alone.
    Your assertion that it is nigh impossible for the US and others to dissuade Iran from building a nuclear seems to be based on the presupposition that Iran is really eager to get a nuclear bomb in the first place. But in fact, there is very little evidence that they are really eager to get a nuclear bomb. If they were, one suspects they would be moving forward with that project much more aggressively. So, in fact, it might be remarkably easy to persuade Iran not to build a nuke. Of course, we won’t know unless we try.
    And if the US builds a solid new relationship with Iran, most of this Sunni anti-Shia alliance nonsense goes by the board. The DC suck-up operation run by Arab capitals will be switched off, and most will join in the economic merriment. The Shia-phobia seems to be confined to a minority alliance of privileged economic elites and a hard right group of reactionary fundamentalists, similar to our own Republican coalition of business elites and wingnuts. They majority in the middle seem more than willing to get along with Iranians.


  17. WigWag says:

    As usual the Ben Katcher post is provocative.
    The article by Nader Mousavizadeh is good as far as it goes, but while it demolishes some myths, it promotes others. In this, Mousavizadeh is no more or less guilty than everyone else with a horse in this race. The Israelis, the Obama Administration, the Sunni Arab states, the Iranians and the American realists advocating a “grand bargain” with Iran are all guilty of promoting half-truths that shed far more heat than light. The reality is that despite the numerous myths about Iranian nuclear weapons, for the most part an Iranian fission bomb (if it’s ever developed) would be largely inconsequential.
    Myth 1: Iran can be deterred from developing nuclear weapons.
    If Iran desires nuclear weapons (which it probably does) it will never be deterred from developing them. Iran is a nation of 71 million people; its population is highly educated; its culture is sophisticated and ancient and it is endowed with great oil wealth (despite the fact that its per capita income is pathetically low). Moreover, Iran is surrounded by adversaries and potential adversaries who possess nuclear arsenals far more robust in size and scope than Iran is likely to achieve in the near or medium term. Iran’s adversaries include Israel and Pakistan and its potential adversaries include Russia, India and the United States. And while Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors don’t yet possess nuclear weapons they are all implacable foes who would gladly see the regime destroyed and the nation marginalized if at all possible. In light of these facts it would be illogical of Iran not to aspire to a nuclear capability and there is no realistic way to prevent it from acquiring fission weapons if it wants them.
    Myth 2: Negotiations (whether or not in pursuit of the “grand bargain theory”) can deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
    Even if it’s inclined, the Obama Administration simply can’t offer Iran sufficient inducements to entice them to abandon their weapons program. Regardless of what the United States offers, Israel and all the Sunni Arab nations will remain hostile to Iran for the foreseeable future and nothing the United States or Europe says or does can change that. Israelis, within the lifetimes of hundreds of millions of people still alive throughout the world, witnessed the annihilation of over 50 percent of their co-religonists. Even if the upcoming presidential election in Iran produces a less verbose leader, the Israelis will never fail to view a nation whose leader threatened to wipe them off the face of the earth with the greatest mistrust. Suspicion between the Sunni and the Shi is many hundreds of years old; suspicion between Arabs and Persians is thousands of years old; the idea that the United States can erase this suspicion is preposterous.
    And while the Iranians will never find their immediate neighborhood less hostile, improved relations between Iran and Europe or the United States provide the Iranians with very little. Does anyone really believe that improved cultural exchanges between Iran and the West or reduced travel restrictions for Iranian citizens wishing to visit the West will be of any interest to the Mullahs who run Iran? Moreover, improved commercial relations are useless; Iran’s economy is in a shambles and they have nothing to sell except for oil. Its hard to believe improved relations with the West will change that. Iran already sells all the oil that it can produce. If President Obama thinks a carrot and sticks approach will work with Iran, he better think again; he simply doesn’t have enough carrots.
    Myth 3: If negotiations fail an enhanced sanctions regime will induce Iran to abort its quest for nuclear weapons.
    There will never be an enhanced sanctions program. China and Russia will never agree to a robust sanctions regime and will veto any UN resolution that seeks to impose one. The only product Iran sells, oil, will continue to have a market in China and throughout the rest of Asia regardless of any unilateral sanctions program the West chooses to employ. Iranians can buy all the consumer products that they need (and can afford) from China and if necessary they can purchase refined petroleum products from China, India or even Turkey. Sanctions simply won’t work. If the West seeks to institute them it will end up looking feckless.
    Myth 4: A military attack on Iran by Israel, the United States or both will eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability.
    A joint attack by Israel and the United States is unthinkable. Even the Sunni Arab regimes, that despise Iran, would consider a joint attack a “bridge too far” and would never countenance it. A lone Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (even if preapproved by the Americans) is fraught with peril. It is technically difficult and Israel would have to violate the airspace of either Turkey or Iraq to reach Iran; these States would never permit the over flight. If Israel violated these nations airspace without permission in an attempt to attack Iran it could have profound long term negative consequences for the Israelis. Even if Israel succeeded in destroying some Iranian installations they could never be assured that they destroyed all Iranian installations. Israel would also face a conventional response from Iranian proxies that it would undoubtedly find very unpleasant and Iran itself could respond conventionally through its recently developed long range missiles. Most importantly, even if Israel temporarily delayed Iran’s nuclear program, Iran would be incentavized by an Israeli attack to redouble its efforts to acquire a fission weapon.
    While the United States is far more capable than Israel of damaging Iran’s nuclear program, it would face many of the same obstacles the Israelis do; there may be nuclear installations that American intelligence has not uncovered; some may be in hardened locations that conventional weapons, even bunker busters, can’t destroy and there is always the risk of exposing innocent civilians to dispersed radiation. Even a successful American attack would incentivize the Iranians to redouble their efforts to obtain an atomic bomb.
    The only type of attack that might work is an attack not only on Iranian nuclear installations but a simultaneous attack on Iranian oil fields. By destroying the Iranian economy (the Iranians have no economic assets other than the oil fields) Iranian nuclear aspirations might be thwarted. But the cost to the world economy through increased oil prices would be so high, that such an attack is difficult to contemplate. With no good peaceful or military options, the United States, Israel, the Sunni Arab States, Western Europe and the rest of the world better get used to the idea of a nuclear armed Iran.
    Myth 5: A nuclear armed Iran is destabilizing.
    There is no reason that a nuclear armed Iran needs to be destabilizing. Iran wants nuclear weapons for the same reason Israel does; it is surrounded by implacable foes who are likely to remain hostile well into the future. They also want nuclear weapons for the same reasons the Americans, French, British, Indians and Pakistanis do; they signify power and prestige and are a source of national pride. But the weapons themselves have very little utility. The proof is that they’ve never been used since Nagasaki. The use of nuclear weapons against Israel, the United States or Europe would invite a devastating response in kind that forecloses almost any imaginable scenario where Iran’s nuclear weapons would have utility.
    Some people claim that because Israel is so geographically small that it is particularly vulnerable to an Iranian first strike. There is no question that an Iranian first strike could devastate most of Israel and kill a large percentage of the world’s remaining Jewish population. But Israel would maintain a second strike capability and unlike Iran, it possesses thermonuclear weapons not mere fission weapons. Yes, the Iranians could kill hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of Israelis. But Israeli hydrogen bombs could kill tens of millions of Iranians and render most of Iranian soil uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Israel has more than sufficient capabilities to deter any Iranian attack.
    Paradoxically, the more nuclear weapons Iran develops, and the more sophisticated its delivery capability gets, the safer the world is from an Iranian nuclear attack. Nuclear deterrence has worked extraordinarily well to prevent even conventional wars between nations that possess atomic weapons. The essence of deterrence relies on a robust second strike capability. All of the nations that could even be conceivable targets of an Iranian attack have a robust second strike capability. If necessary, the United States could easily enhance Israel’s second strike capability. In fact, the Germans are already doing so by gifting submarines to the Israeli navy. The Indians have done their part by green-lighting tests of Israeli long range missiles off its coast in the Indian Ocean (India will presumably be a large purchaser of these missiles).
    The danger to deterrence comes when a nation does not possess a second strike capability and thus feels the need to launch a nuclear attack at the slightest perceived provocation because it fears losing its nuclear deterrent. This “launch on warning.” hair trigger response is particularly dangerous. An Iran with more nuclear weapons and more sophisticated delivery vehicles will thus actually be safer for the rest of the world than an Iran with only a few nuclear weapons that it has trouble delivering. The theory on all of this was well worked out during the cold war and should be revisited.
    Myth 6: Iran is a proliferation risk.
    Iran is highly unlikely to proliferate its nuclear weapons to terrorist groups or to other nations. Once these weapons leave Iranian control, Iran can never be sure of what will happen to them. They could easily and inadvertently end up in the hands of Sunni extremist groups who are far more hostile to their apostate co-religionists than they are to Jewish infidels in Israel or Christian infidels in the United States or Europe. Nuclear weapons proliferated by Iran are as likely to end up exploding over Tehran as they are to end up in Tel Aviv, Washington, D.C. or London. After all, Sunni extremists would be far less inclined to destroy Muslim Holy Sites in Jerusalem or their Sunni brethren in Palestine than they would be to destroy Shia Holy Sites in Iran or kill hundreds of thousands of Shia apostates. Iran would be stupid to proliferate its nuclear weapons; there is no reason to assume that they are stupid.
    Myth 7: A nuclear armed Iran would cow the Sunni Arab States to adopt its policies; Iran would become a regional hegemon.
    Weapons that can’t be used don’t cow anyone. Israeli nuclear weapons didn’t prevent Hamas or Hezbollah from attacking Israel and British nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the Argentines from attacking Britain over the Falklands. Iranian proxies and Sunni extremists regularly attack American soldiers in Iraq, American nuclear weapons notwithstanding. If anything, nuclear arms in the hands of the Iranians will make the Sunni Arab states even more implacably hostile to the Iranians than they already are. There is no credible reason to believe that an Iran with nuclear weapons will change the strategic calculus in the Middle East one iota. It won’t alter relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians; it won’t alter relations between the Sunni and the Shia; it won’t embolden Hezbollah or Hamas anymore than they are already emboldened. It won’t change the relations between Christians, Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon. It won’t make the Muslim Brotherhood any stronger or any weaker than it already is. It won’t alter the relations between India and Pakistan or Pakistan and its tribal regions and it won’t change anything in Afghanistan. In short, a nuclear armed Iran won’t matter any more or less than Iran already does.
    Parenthetically some people claim that while Sunni Arab governments are hostile to Iran the Sunni Arab street feels differently than their autocratic rulers. Recent evidence suggests that this is not true. According to the annual 2009 census of Arab public opinion (conducted by Zogby and the University of Maryland), only 10 percent of Arab citizens consider the President of Iran to be a popular leader and the majority of Arabs say that a nuclear armed Iran is more negative than positive for the Arab world. The sad reality is that, in any case, Arab public opinion is largely irrelevant. If there was a time in the last 50 years when Arab public opinion played a decisive role in anything that has happened in the Middle East, I would like to know what it is.
    Myth 8: The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians should be considered to be on a separate track from the Western response to Iran.
    Recently Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama have been peddling the preposterous line that what happens between the Israelis and the Palestinians and what happens with Iran are unrelated. They have even gone so far as to suggest the absurd notion that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians could enhance a unified response against Iran. This is just silly. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, the Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq and the UAE already despise and fear Iran more than they despise and fear Israel. There is every reason to believe that they are far more concerned about American policy towards Iran than American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. These States would welcome an American or Israeli attack on Iran regardless of what happens between Israel and the Palestinians. An attack that hurt Iran and drove up the price of oil would be just what the doctor ordered for many of these nations.
    While putative Iranian nuclear weapons are irrelevant, Iranian conventional capabilities and its propensity to supply them to Hamas and Hezbollah remain highly relevant to the peace process. Regardless of what government is in power in Israel, the Jewish State will only relinquish control over the West Bank (Gaza is another story altogether) if Israel is convinced that it will be safer and more prosperous if it leaves the West Bank than if it stays. It is hard to conceive of any scenario in which Israeli security will be enhanced by leaving the West Bank if Iran maintains the ability to ship rockets that can hit Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel proper.
    The idea that Israeli safety can be insured by an international peace keeping force in the West Bank is also not credible. A UN operated force would inevitably be ineffective (they always are) and the Israelis would never go for it. A European force led by the French, for example, would be equally useless. All the Israelis need to do is look at how effective French peace keepers in Lebanon have been in preventing the rearming of Hezbollah to reject that notion out of hand. The only credible peace keeping force would be the United States military or NATO. It is hard to believe that either US or NATO forces relish the idea of patrolling a restive population with insurgent groups that are armed with Iranian weapons. American and British forces recently tried that in Iraq with very unhappy results. One simply can’t help but wonder how long any American or NATO peace keeping force would be welcome in the new nation of Palestine. How long before the population became as sick of them as they were sick of the Israelis? How long did it take the Iraqis to grow sick of the Americans? Iranian nuclear weapons matter hardly at all; Iranian conventional capabilities matter a lot.
    Whether you consider groups like Hamas to be appalling terrorists or heroic freedom fighters their resistance is pathetic in its futility. The Israelis are not like the French in Algeria or the Americans in Viet Nam; they have no where else to go and they have first hand experience with the results of appeasement. They cannot be defeated by Palestinian resistance and the consequences of that resistance only serves to enhance the already considerable suffering of the Palestinian people. Palestinian resistance aided and abetted by Iran only results in more dead and maimed Palestinians. The Iranians are doing the Palestinians no favor but the Iranians are consequential; not because of their nuclear aspirations but because of their conventional capability.
    Myth 9: A nuclear armed Iran is bad for Israel.
    For the most part Israeli security in unaffected by whether Iran comes to possess a nuclear arsenal. As long as Israel maintains a second strike capability and as long as Iran develops a robust enough capability that it is never induced to “launch on warning” Iran will be adequately deterred from ever using its nuclear weapons. On balance, a nuclear armed and belligerent Iran is probably a small net plus for Israel because it will push Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors closer to Israel. The evidence for this is that even the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons and the activities of Iranian proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah have already pushed the Sunni States closer to the Jewish State.
    If Iran does develop a nuclear capability, the United States will immediately place Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the rest of its Sunni Arab allies under its nuclear umbrella in the same way that Canada was under the nuclear umbrella of the United States during the Cold War. Just as Canada never felt the need to develop nuclear weapons in response to the Soviet Union because of American capabilities, the Sunni Arab nations will never need to develop nuclear weapons in response to Iran because of American protection (and unlike Canada or Iran, none of the Sunni Arab nations has a scientific or military establishment sophisticated enough to develop these weapons indigenously).
    Ironically, these Sunni Arab nations will also be under Israel’s nuclear umbrella. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that Iran attacked Amman or Cairo or Riyadh can anyone imagine Israel not obliterating Iran with its nuclear arsenal for fear that it might be next?
    A belligerent and hated Iran permanently deterred from using its nuclear arsenal by Israel and the United States is just what the doctor ordered for Israel. Iran will offer no real threat (beyond what it already offers) but because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend” Israel will have better relations with the nations that matter, its immediate neighbors.
    Myth 10: An Iran with nuclear weapons is a game-changer.
    No its not. For the reasons enumerated above, it hardly matters at all. Whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not, in the Middle East nothing changes. It’s still the same old, same old.
    The more things change, the more they remain the same.


  18. JohnH says:

    I continue to be amazed at the willful ignorance and total lack of curiosity among the foreign policy experts, such as those blogging at The Washington Note, about America’s objectives and ambitions.
    How can you be serious about advancing policy proposals and procedures, when you can’t even articulate what it is you are trying to accomplish?
    Clearly these folks are masters of self-assured sophistry, passionately arguing for positions which have no apparent reason for being.
    And the result? Trillions spent on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. that have no specific goal, no criteria for success, and no way out.
    It must be great work if you have the moral turpitude to stomach it…


  19. DonS says:

    From the post: ” . . .find a way to come to a reasonable accommodation that can be accepted by all of the major stakeholders in the region. This is the only way to prevent our conflict with Iran from continuing to simmer until it eventually explodes.”
    Could someone please explain exactly what “our conflict with Iran” means . . . aside from Israel’s concerns. (Which, BTW, Israel has pretty flatly made clear tht nothing Iran can do will satisy their concerns).
    Related is this MOA post:
    I had this comment:
    This morning my local paper carried an AP story that, but for one short paragraph about some official not believing Iran was near to creating a nuke, as nothing but an anti-Iran diatribe aimed at raising the level of anti-Iran sentiment in the US. Whose brilliant strategy is it to be so damn confrontational, as if we haven’t learned that threatening authoritarian regimes doesn’t just create more negatives for coming to accommodation. I know, we are run by the stupids, many of whom have no interest in accommodation and actually see endless war as our destiny.
    As to the middle east arms race, exactly what does this mean? Surely Israel already possesses all the arms necessary for any race for the next three decades. And the US warning Iran about tensions and conflicts in their own backyard? I think they already know, and have little reason to be grateful for attempted schooling by Americans with less than a sterling record and a lot of ME blood on it’s hands.


  20. JohnH says:

    Focusing on Iran’s intentions would be fine…if somebody would also clarify US and Israeli intentions. How can Iran engage in serious negotiations with outside powers who want nothing less than regime change and control over its vast energy resources and pipeline corridors?
    Or isn’t that the US agenda? Are we really to believe all the poppycock about the US and Israel being worried about hypothetical Iranian nukes?
    We still have no official clarification on why the US occupies Iraq, or Afghanistan, or even Kosovo for that matter. What agenda is being hidden?
    So let’s all agree to clarify intentions. My guess is that Iranian intentions will prove to be quite simple–surviving as a sovereign nation that receives most of the benefits from its energy resources. Now as for US and Israeli intentions, pray tell, what could they be? Funny how no one in official Washington will say!


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