Pressure and Possibility

January 4, 2012

Facing intense political pressure, with elections due in March, and economic and currency collapse brought on by sanctions, Iran has ratcheted up its military bluster in the Strait of Hormuz and sent conciliatory messages looking toward new talks on its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Iran’s regional support is dwindling as Syria’s travails continue and its former clients look for other supporters. Military and diplomatic leaders seek to balance a firm line in response to threats to the economically vital strait while avoiding escalation that aids only extremists in Iran. They have gone out of their way as well to debunk a shoddy case for war that overstates Iran’s regional power and understates the costs of force to the U.S., our economy and our allies.

Iran proposes re-opening nuclear talks as its economy, currency reel from sanctions.The Iranian foreign ministry said yesterday that it plans to attend a meeting with international negotiating group known as the P5+1. The New York Times summarizes the pressures Tehran faces: “Iran’s economy, already reeling from Western sanctions over its nuclear program, has been hit hard by discussion of new sanctions aimed at its oil exports, the world’s third largest. President Obama signed new legislation on Saturday that could penalize buyers of Iranian oil, and the European Union has openly talked of a boycott of Iran’s oil. On Tuesday, France urged the European Union to adopt stricter sanctions, including an oil embargo, by the end of the month. Iran’s currency, the rial, fell to record lows against the dollar on Tuesday, news agencies reported. Oil prices rose sharply in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, with the benchmark contract for crude up more than 4 percent to $102.91 a barrel. The attempts by Iran’s leadership to flex the country’s muscles on the world stage coincide with efforts to stamp out dissent at home ahead of planned parliamentary elections in March, the first ballot to be held since a disputed presidential vote in 2009 prompted national protests and a severe crackdown.” [ISNA, 1/3/12. NY Times, 1/3/12.]

Pentagon pledges stability in Strait of Hormuz. Yesterday, in response to an Iranian threat to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, the Pentagon spokesman George Little stated: “The deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades… These are regularly scheduled movements in accordance with our longstanding commitments to the security and stability of the region and in support of ongoing operations… The U.S. Navy operates under international maritime conventions to maintain a constant state of high vigilance in order to ensure the continued, safe flow of maritime traffic in waterways critical to global commerce… We are committed to protecting maritime freedoms that are the basis for global prosperity; this is one of the main reasons our military forces operate in the region.”

Over the holidays, the administration announced the newest arms sales to reinforce U.S. allies in the region. AP reports that, “The United States has announced a $3.48 billion arms deal with the United Arab Emirates as part of a wider American effort to build up missile defenses among Gulf allies to counter Iran… Amid rising tensions with Iran, the US arms deal is the latest in a series designed by Washington to bolster missile defense weaponry in Gulf states that are increasingly anxious over Tehran’s missile arsenal and nuclear program.” [Laura Rozen, Yahoo News, 1/3/12. AP, 12/31/11]

Shoddy case for war roundly rejected. As tensions mounted in recent weeks, experts across the political spectrum debunked various elements of the case for war, focusing on the article “Time to Attack Iran,” by Georgetown University’s Matthew Kroenig, which military, intelligence and academic experts united in calling “scattershot” and “inadequate”:

Paul Pillar, 28 year CIA veteran and professor at Georgetown University,notes that the case for war depends on one-sided analyses of its consequences: “When addressing the consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, the war proponents worst-case everything-the discussion is all about the most frightening, most aggressive things that Iran could conceivably do and the most deleterious repercussions one could imagine. But when addressing the consequences of an attack on Iran, everything is best-cased. Nothing but the rosiest assumptions are made about Iranian reactions and other effects of launching a war. This is not only a highly inconsistent mode of argumentation; it also presents a highly inconsistent picture of Iran.” [Paul Pillar, 12/22/11]

Dan Drezner, professor at Tuft’s Fletcher School and contributor to Foreign Policy Magazine, discredits the claim that Iran is gaining strength regionally:  “The SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] regime in Egypt has been a bit more friendly, but Turkey’s distancing is far more significant and debilitating for Tehran’s grand strategy.  Iran’s sole Arab ally [Syria] is in serious trouble, and its own economy is faltering badly.  The notion that time is on Iran ‘s side seems badly off.” [Dan Drezner, 12/22/11]

 Michael Cohen, of the American Security Project, notes the extravagant costs – and disappointing results – of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in taking on the argument that military response to Iran is a cost-effective option.”If there is one lesson that every serious foreign policy analyst should take from the study of armed conflict it is that war is utterly and completely unpredictable… Kroenig is asserting that rather than put in place a containment structure that ‘might’ cost several billion dollars, the more cost-efficient approach would be go to war. How is it possible to argue that containment would be a ‘substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis’ and not say the same thing about initiating military conflict?” [Michael Cohen,12/23/11]

 

[Matthew Kroenig, 12/11]

Diplomacy remains an effective, results-oriented, tool. William Luers and Thomas Pickering, two senior diplomats who dealt with our most hardened adversaries during the Cold War, recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post saying that, “History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not. Deployment of military force can bring the immediate illusion of ‘success’ but always results in unforeseen consequences and collateral damage that complicate further the achievement of America’s main objectives. 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.”

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy deLeon and Middle East expert Brian Katulis, both with the Center for American Progress, outline in a recent paper how a multi-pronged strategy can prove effective:

“Unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies: The Obama administration has made substantial investments in working closely with regional allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to respond to Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian support for terrorist groups….

An international coalition holding Iran accountable: The second main element of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is to engage global and regional actors to isolate Tehran diplomatically…The result is unprecedented international cooperation on many levels-at the U.N. Security Council, with key allies in Europe, and reaching out to include China and India. Working in this multilateral framework gives this effort broader legitimacy. The result is an Iranian regime that is more diplomatically isolated today than ever before.

 

Smart, targeted economic sanctions: The global diplomatic full-court press laid the foundation for the third key element of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran-economic sanctions that undermine supporters of the Iranian regime. And it appears the sanctions are having an impact: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted that Iran’s banking sector is facing serious problems as a result of U.S. and international sanctions.”

[William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 1/1/12. Rudy deLeon and Brian Katulis, 12/15/11]

What We’re Reading

The Free Syrian Army plans to kick off “huge operations” against “vital interests” of President Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Yemen’s embattled president Ali Abdullah Saleh has officially cancelled plans to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment.

Israeli and Palestinian officials met for the first time in more than a year and agreed to hold further preliminary talks in Jordan as part of an effort to renew formal peace negotiations.

Senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats discussed North Korea following leader Kim Jong Il’s death and whether that will delay resuming talks on the country’s nuclear disarmament and deliveries of U.S. food aid.

With the Muslim Brotherhood pulling within reach of an outright majority in Egypt’s new Parliament, the Obama administration has begun to seek closer ties with an organization once viewed as irreconcilably opposed to United States interests.

The Pakistani government has asked the panel tasked with rewriting the terms of engagement with the United States to speed up its work, amid whispers that strong bilateral cooperation on the ground will resume shortly.

The U.S. has agreed in principle to release high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay in return for the Afghan insurgents’ agreement to open a political office for peace negotiations in Qatar.

The U.S. military services must combine resources and tools to thwart any efforts by countries such as China and Iran to block America’s access to the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and other strategic regions, according to a draft of a Pentagon review.

Nine lawmakers of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who submitted their resignations from the party launched a new party to counter plans by the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to raise the nation’s sales tax and join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade consortium.

Scores of people have been killed after fleeing attacks by fighters from a rival ethnic group in South Sudan.

Commentary of the Day

Fawaz Gerges debunks myths about al Qaeda and the U.S counterterrorism efforts.

Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that the United States must pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy — or start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil.

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