Rhetoric vs. Reality on Iran Policy

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Rhetoric vs. Reality on Iran Policy

Amid a web of misstatements, GOP presidential candidates made several surprising assertions on Iran policy last night – offering interpretations and policy choices that were not merely factually wrong but run counter to the assessments of the military leaders the candidates have said time and again they would listen to in forming national security policy. The heated rhetoric on an issue that calls for cool thinking fails to capture what experts from across different across disciplines and political lines have said: diplomacy remains the most effective way to end Iran’s nuclear program.

Conservative politicians: Iran is a madman, war is the best option; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Iran is a rational actor, current path is most prudent. Just this weekend, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former CENTCOM Commander General Martin Dempsey  was asked by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria whether Iran behaves irrationally or pursues its national interests. Dempsey responded, “That is a great question, and I’ll tell you that I’ve been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008. And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.” Regarding a military strike, General Dempsey said, “that a strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their [Israel’s] long-term objectives.” As Clyde Prestowitz, a senior Commerce Department official in the Reagan administration and President of the Economic Strategy Institute, simply said:  “A strike is a really dumb idea.”

Yet last night Newt Gingrich explicitly, and Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney implicitly, questioned Dempsey’s judgment – surprising statements from men who have repeatedly advocated “listening to the commanders in the field” on national security. Santorum said, “When they are going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the ‘Great Satan’, the United States, we do nothing.  That is a president who must go and you want a leader who will take them on.  I will do that.” Meanwhile, Gingrich said, “If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons.” [VOA, 2/22/12. Martin Dempsey, 2/19/12. Clyde Prestowitz, 2/21/12]

“The choice between ‘war now’ or ‘containment later’ is a false one.” Colin Kahl, of Georgetown University and the Center for a New American Security, and formerly the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, explains, “paradoxically, the most likely road to containment is the very course war proponents advocate: a near-term preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There are two pathways to containment. The one administration critics emphasize—that president Obama would somehow choose to ‘live with’ a nuclear-armed Iran—is actually the least likely. Obama has made clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is ‘unacceptable,’ his Secretary of Defense has described an Iranian nuclear weapon as a ‘red line,’ and the administration has put in place unprecedented sanctions to pressure the regime to accept a diplomatic solution… In short, the least likely road to containment is the one being pursued by the administration.”

Kahl further explains, “A second, and far more likely, path to containment is to rush into war before all other options have been exhausted. A near-term U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran’s hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks. Consequently, in the aftermath of an Israeli or American strike, Washington would have to encircle Iran with a costly containment regime—much like twelve-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War—and be prepared to re-attack at a moment’s notice to prevent Iran from reconstituting its program. And with inspectors gone, it would be much more difficult to detect and prevent Iran’s clandestine rebuilding efforts. The net result would be a decades-long requirement to contain an even more implacable nuclear foe…  The result would be the worst of all worlds: an Iran emboldened to go for a bomb and a requirement for post-war containment without the international cooperation required to actually implement such a policy.”

He concludes: “In short, the choice between ‘war now’ or ‘containment later’ is a false one. The war hawks want would likely be a prelude to failed containment, not a substitute for it. Fortunately, there are other options and we still have time to pursue them.” [Colin Kahl, 2/22/12]

Diplomacy is the key to ending Iran’s nuclear program. In a recent piece discussing the anniversary of President Nixon’s historic trip to China, Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Winston Lord, Henry Kissinger’s closest aide and former ambassador to China, explain, “One can imagine present applications of this diplomatic tour de force, most usefully with Iran.” Similarly, Hans Blix, former IAEA director general and chief weapons inspector for the UN, said this week the priority must be “to diffuse the most acute things and prepare the road for further talks,” and that the international community must convey “all our offers are on the table, not just the threats.”

As Gelb has previously written, “As Western leaders back Iran into a corner and as they are locking themselves into a war policy they haven’t seriously contemplated and don’t really want, now is the time to offer a deal. The peace package is simple: Iran keeps its uranium facilities but with capabilities to enrich reduced to levels fit only for civilian use. Tehran also agrees to the tightest international verification procedures. The West lifts sanctions gradually as Iran complies with both reconfiguring its nuclear plants and accepts the necessary verification. For sure, President Obama has tried similar proposals before. This time, however, Iran may find that the biting economic pressures make the deal more palatable. For sure, neither I nor anyone else knows whether Iran will accept this time. But I do know this: if we don’t at least try the negotiating track, a war of untold uncertainties and dangers can come upon us.” [Les Gelb and Winston Lord, 2/20/12. Hans Blix, 2/22/12. Les Gelb, 1/30/12]

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Commentary of the Day

Luke Hunt sees Asia as the battleground between Iran and Western powers.

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