Iran, Politics and Rejecting False Choices

January 17, 2012

Tensions with Iran continue to rise against the backdrop of the U.S. election campaign. But the job of the commander-in-chief is much more complex than the caricatured false choice of a military attack or “looking weak.” The job of the commander-in-chief is to balance strategic, military, economic and political concerns – to play “three-dimensional chess” and achieve U.S. interests without damaging others. Diplomacy is the means by which a president achieves this goal. With policy experts asking hard questions and urging caution, oil prices rising, Iranian opposition groups arguing against military action and the U.S. public giving the president high numbers on security and showing little appetite for a new war, the president has the time and space he needs.

Commander-in-chief plays “three-dimensional chess,” uses all tools. Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering, two senior diplomats who dealt with our most hardened adversaries during the Cold War, explain, “History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not… Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict. The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost.” Iran expert Gary Sick analyzes the challenge ahead:  “So what does the U.S. administration do in those circumstances? If this analysis is correct, it opens lines of communication with Iran; it pairs every negotiating move with a tough statement on Iran, keeping the public focus on the unyielding opposition to Iranian nuclear advances and threats; and it tells Israel in no uncertain terms to back off. That kind of three-dimensional chess is… complicated.” [William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 12/30/11. Gary Sick, 1/16/12]

Effects of an attack would be counterproductive to U.S. and international objectives. Human rights activists inside Iran, security and economic leaders all underline the downsides of a military response.

Security: Ambassador James Dobbins explains: “Threats of military action, and even more its actual conduct, will only have the opposite effect: reducing Iran’s isolation, increasing its influence, promoting domestic solidarity, and reinforcing the case for building and deploying nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” [James Dobbins, 11/16/11]

Economic: AFP reported yesterday that: “Oil prices rose on Monday as the market reacted to potential supply disruptions in Nigeria and Iran, while keeping a watch over fresh eurozone strains after last week’s ratings downgrades, analysts said… Commerzbank analyst Eugen Weinberg said ‘the war of words between Iran and the West is likely to keep the risk premium on the oil price at a high level.’” [AFP, 1/16/11]

Human rights and the Iranian opposition: A recent report from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that surveys 35 prominent Iranian civil society and cultural figures living inside Iran concludes that a pre-emptive attack would be ruinous for human rights and democratic change in Iran. “If war breaks out, democracy, human rights, and civil society will be the main losers,” one student activist notes. “The Iranian government would militarize and such a militaristic government has the potential to carry out widespread killings of opponents.”

Building on that sentiment, Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress quotes an opposition Nobel Laureate: “When I interviewed her last year, human rights activist Shirin Ebadi was unequivocal: ‘The military option will not benefit the U.S. interest or the Iranian interest,’ she said. ‘It is the worst option. You should not think about it… The Iranian people — including myself — will resist any military action.’ Similarly, dissident journalist Akbar Ganji has been adamant that talk of a U.S. military option is harmful to the cause of Iranian democracy. ‘If you do not have the threat of foreign invasion and you do not use the dialog of invasion and military intervention, the society itself has a huge potential to oppose and potentially topple the theocratic system,’ Ganji said last year. ‘Jingoistic, militaristic language used by any foreign power would actually be detrimental to [the] natural evolution of Iranian society.’” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, even said in 2009 that, “I’m convinced that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike; it may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts.” [International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 1/12/12. Matt Duss, 12/23/11. Karim Sadjadpour, 9/25/09]

President’s job is to weigh military, political, economic factors; public neither eager for war nor views Obama as weak on security. Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations asks, “Is it in the overall interests of the United States, given our worldwide security needs and economic weaknesses, to enter another war? And don’t fool yourselves, this would be war.” According to a CBS poll taken last November following a presidential primary debate focused on national security, a majority of Americans “say the threat posed by Iran, which has been developing a nuclear capability, can be contained by diplomacy.” And far from being vulnerable on national security, Obama continues to receive his highest marks from the public on handling terrorism and keeping America safe.

As Michael Cohen, NSN board member and columnist for Foreign Policy’s 2012 Channel, writes: “For decades, Democrats have bent over backwards to neutralize that image [weakness] by trying to sound as tough as Republicans on national security and occasionally supporting inadvisable foreign wars for fear of being attacked as weak (see: Vietnam, Iraq). But not since the 1940s, has foreign policy performance or acumen been seen as a Democratic advantage. This year it is… Obama’s success in wiping out the top echelons of al Qaeda, ending the unpopular war in Iraq, winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, and helping topple Qaddafi can be used to bat away GOP attacks — and perhaps be a rationale for why the president deserves four more years.” [Les Gelb, 1/17/12. CBS, 11/17/11. Michael Cohen, 11/16/11]

What We’re Reading

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to face a contempt of court hearing.

The U.S. is pressuring South Korea to reduce their oil imports from Iran.

Nigerian labor unions announced they will suspend nationwide strikes over rising fuel prices.

Martin Schulz, a German socialist, was elected president of the EU parliament.

Syria’s foreign ministry rejected the idea of Arab League troops entering the country.

Egypt requested a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to assist its ailing economy.

Newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina ordered the army to join the fight against drug cartels in the region.

Yemen’s foreign minister hinted that elections scheduled for next month could be postponed due to increasing violence throughout the country.

China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in over two years in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Israel and the U.S. postponed scheduled military exercises.

Commentary of the Day

Roger Cohen outlines the downsides of an Israeli strike on Iran.

Dennis Hickey analyzes the impact of Taiwan’s recent presidential election on U.S.-China relations.

Frida Ghitis argues that the U.S. can help shape Arab world by promoting democratic ideals.

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