Amid Tensions with Iran, “No Need for Hysteria and Panic”

December 6, 2011

Tensions on the ground and the political calendar in the U.S. have put concerns over Iran’s nuclear program again in the spotlight. A report out today and a presidential candidates’ forum tomorrow will highlight a one-dimensional approach – public threats of force.  But military and intelligence experts argue for a firm, but quiet and multi-dimensional approach.  They say that an Iranian nuclear weapon is neither inevitable nor the beginning of the apocalypse – and that a smart, realistic policy must be twinned with clear communication in order to avoid sleepwalking into war. As Ambassador James Dobbins and his RAND colleagues write: “Pure engagement has little short- or even medium-term prospect of attaining any of the three main U.S. objectives. Containment affects only Iran’s external behavior. Preemption deals only with the nuclear issue, and then only temporarily. Deterrence makes sense only if combined with containment and some minimal form of engagement, if only to prevent accidental disaster. Neither normalization nor regime change is a feasible short term objective. Realistic policy must be fashioned at some intermediate point across each of these three spectrums.”

An Iranian nuclear weapon is neither inevitable nor the beginning of the apocalypse. RAND’s team explains: “It is not inevitable that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons or that it will gain the capacity to quickly produce them. American and even Israeli analysts continually push their estimates for such an event further into the future. Nevertheless, absent a change in Iranian policy, it is reasonable to assume that, some time in the coming decade, Iran will acquire such a capability. Western policymakers shy away from addressing this prospect, lest they seem to be acquiescing to something they deem unacceptable and want to prevent. But there is a big difference between acknowledging and accepting another’s behavior. It is unacceptable that Iran should even be seeking nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty commitments, yet the U.S. government nevertheless acknowledges that Iran is doing so because that admission is a necessary prerequisite to effectively addressing the problem.”

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at Brookings and former member of the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, writes, “The acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability by Iran, especially if it comes with a surprise test of a bomb, will be a major turning point in the politics of the modern Middle East. Its impact will be destabilizing and unsettling. But it will not transform the fundamental nature of the military balance of power in the region. The international community through measures like UNSCR 1929 has already taken smart steps to prepare for the day after and to contain and constrain Iran’s ability to conduct dangerous moves to intimidate its neighbors… There is no need for hysteria and panic in considering the future of a Middle East with an Iranian nuclear bomb. We should continue to try to persuade Iran by diplomatic means not to cross the nuclear threshold. At the same time, efforts to sabotage and disrupt Iran’s program should get the resources they need. But at the end of the day, if diplomacy and covert action do not stop Iran, the region will not face the apocalypse.” [RAND, 2011. Bruce Riedel via NDU, 9/30/11]

“A concerted diplomatic effort on Iran is needed now to prevent the world sleepwalking into another war in the Middle East.”  Britain’s former foreign secretary David Miliband and Nader Mousavizadeh write, “At a time like this, diplomatic drive and creativity are needed more than ever. Now is the time to support, directly and indirectly, the pressures on a regime currently fractured on all matters except the nuclear programme. And in this endeavour, war talk weakens our hand – strengthening the most uncompromising forces within Iran and corroding global cohesion in opposition to the programme. Non-military options have not yet succeeded, but nor have they failed. However, exasperating the diplomatic track growing talk of a military option risks creating a logic all of its own, where the appalling consequences of a military strike are set to one side and a precipitate and unwise move to war becomes acceptable wisdom. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does international politics. It cannot be filled by nudges and winks about military options. A concerted diplomatic effort on Iran is needed now to prevent the world sleepwalking into another war in the Middle East.” [David Miliband and Nader Mousavizadeh, 12/2/11.]

Amid tensions, channels of communication with Iran are vital. Amb. Dobbins and his RAND colleagues further note, “Diplomacy is unlikely to yield substantial breakthroughs as long as the current Iranian leadership remains in power. The United States nevertheless needs reliable channels of communication with the Iranian regime in order to garner information, signal warnings, avoid unintended conflict, and be positioned to move on openings toward accord when and if one arises. Should Iran actually build and deploy nuclear weapons, such channels of communication will become all the more important. U.S. ambassadors in capitals and multinational posts, such as the UN, should be authorized to hold discussions with their Iranian counterparts within the framework of their existing responsibilities and instructions. These contacts should occur quietly and without fanfare. Eventually, if and when Tehran proves receptive, some privileged channel for more-comprehensive conversations could be established. The United States should negotiate an incidents-at-sea agreement with Tehran and set up other emergency channels for communication.” [RAND, 2011]

Military action will not provide a long-term solution to the Iran challenge. As Secretary of Defense Panetta explained last week: “Part of the problem here is the concern that at best, I think – talking to my friends – the indication is that at best [a strike] might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years.  It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they’re after.  Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at. That kind of, that kind of shot would only, I think, ultimately not destroy their ability to produce an atomic weapon, but simply delay it – number one.  Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah. Thirdly, the United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.  Fourthly – there are economic consequences to that attack – severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States. And lastly I think that the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret. So we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of that kind of an attack.” [Leon Panetta via Brookings, 12/2/11]

What We’re Reading

At least 58 people were killed and scores wounded after bombers struck Shiite religious observances in three cities in Afghanistan, detonating explosives amid crowds of worshipers in the first such sectarian attacks in a decade of war.

The radar-evading drone that crash-landed over the weekend in Iran was on a mission for the CIA, according to a senior U.S. official.

Turnout plunged as Egyptians in Cairo, Alexandria, and seven other governorates voted in runoffs to decide the initial round of the first parliamentary elections.

Syria said it has responded “positively” to an Arab League demand to let league observers into the country. Meanwhile, activists in the central city of Homs say militiamen loyal to President Bashar al Assad kidnapped and killed 34 civilians.

The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement made a rare public appearance at a Beirut rally to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura, saying his militant group is acquiring more weapons and members every day.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France jointly announced their support for changes to the European Union treaties that would call for expanded oversight of sovereign budgets and deficits in an effort to end the eurozone crisis.

International election monitors in Russia have found widespread evidence of election fraud in the recent Duma elections, which saw Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party winning fewer than half of the seats.

Oil giant BP has accused oilfields services firm Halliburton of destroying damaging evidence relating to last year’s oil well blast in the Gulf of Mexico in which 11 people were killed.

The Indonesian parliament ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, leaving eight countries remaining which have not ratified the treaty, including the United States.

Glyn Davies, the new U.S. envoy to North Korea, will travel to South Korea, China and Japan in an effort to restart six-party regional talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Opposition protestors clashed with security forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ahead of the announcement of the results of the Nov. 28 presidential elections, expected to give President Joseph Kabila a narrow majority.

The UN Security Council has expanded sanctions against Eritrea after officials in other East African states accused Eritrean leadership of supporting al Shabab, the Somali Islamist rebels.

Former President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire appeared at the opening of his trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.

Commentary of the Day

Kenneth Pollack writes that the United States has been wrong in the Middle East for 60 years, and Obama now has a brief window to get it right.

Andrew Osborn explains that the elections in Russia show that the middle class is increasingly disenchanted with Putin.

Christopher Caldwell examines the Eurozone crisis and states that either the currency will change to fit the politics or the politics will change to fit the currency.

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