Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What to do About Iran

Iran has been in the news daily because of its nuclear ambitions and the reality that it has now enriched uranium. Enrichment is the first step in the process needed for both nuclear power on a large scale as well as for nuclear weapons production. A lively debate has spread across the blogosphere, and check out my longtime friend, historian and all-around scholar Zenpundit, for some good discussions.

From Zen's post, here are four options that can be considered from the U.S. point of view:

"Unilaterally demonstrate that Iraq was no anomaly and militarily devastate unfriendly states that try to acquire nukes - i.e. impose high potential costs on regimes having clandestine programs.

Build a Core-wide consensus to rewrite the NPT as a treaty with teeth backed by a stringent, updated, version of COCOM.

Bilaterally and multilaterally negotiate with rogue states piecemeal to buy them off for disarming completely( Libya Model).

Revise military nuclear warfighting doctrine and embark upon a weapons-building program that renders nuclear missiles too dangerous to use against the United States, perhaps with an entirely new class of nuclear or high energy weapons."

It seems that options I and IV are the type we would want to avoid at all costs. The world knows that, militarily, we have limited options. Public opinion has decidedly turned against the present war in Iraq, and I cannot imagine that this administration would be able to convince the public or Congress that we should continue to unilaterally try to nation-build, which is what it would turn out to be in Iran (replace the more radical factions that have gained power recently). We also do not have the financial resources at this point, with new record deficits projected into the foreseeable future. And, in addition to domestic realities that would prevent unilateral action, think about the reactions and possible consequences in the Middle East. Another attack on a Muslim state may very well unleash widespread jihad, making the insurgency in Iraq seem minor. I think, at least hope, we have learned a lesson in Iraq, and actually plan for the worst case scenario instead of looking at everything through rose-colored glasses, as we seem to have done on a massive scale in our supposed planning for Iraq.

Option IV not only will place Iran on the defensive and justify their need for weapons (as well as reinvigorate al Qaeda's quest for nuclear weapons), but will likely reduce what little international credibility we have left. We would have to look at the bigger picture, thinking in terms of what Russia may do, or China, or internal pressure that would be felt in Pakistan, as reactions to increased U.S. nuclear proliferation and hypocrisy about telling the rest of the world to not think of developing nuclear weapons, while we go ahead and do our own thing.

The U.S. has been proceeding along with versions of options II and III. We should get directly involved in talks with Iran, which is something they have requested. If necessary, we can hurt them economically and convince the rest of the world that Iran and nukes is a bad combination that the world does not want to see (and the rest of the world is largely at this point already). One thing we should watch for is any hard-line rhetoric from Israel, which could disrupt any negotiations. This is one time I think we need negotiations to work. It is not at all clear how talks will go with the current leaders of Iran. Any pressure that may be placed on Iran from other Mid-East nations would be useful, as well as from Russia. It is a pressure cooker that has just been turned on, and now it is a matter of timing to ensure it does not explode. There are clearly no easy or clear-cut options, and the Iranian regime is one that is most difficult to predict how they will react to carrots and sticks we offer. Iran has had the past three to four years to expand and build their infrastructure since we have largely ignored them due to Iraq, and now we are realizing the consequences (of placing them in the 'axis of evil' and then putting an army right next door...why should we be surprised that radicals have been able to put down moderates and then feel the need for nuclear weapons since they perceive us as a true imminent threat?).


mark said...

Hey Von,

There are no good options here. None. Only gambling on costs.

A nuclear armed Iran with the present regime is unacceptable and non-negotiable. It is also unacceptable to the Europeans - at least being declared openly is unacceptable.

The Iranians know this which is why they maintain the facade of " peaceful" research to gain the capacity for weapons-grade enrichment ( it is also, of course, illegal under the NPT which they have violated clandestinely and been caught. Peaceful programs do not need to be secret).

Our problem is that no other state is interested -other than Israel - in doing anything effective to stop Iran unless it would be to forestall a war. A nuclear -armed Iran is, in their view, America's problem, not theirs but since a war has spillover costs for them they'll consider taking real diplomatic and economic steps to pressure Iran.

Sad but that's life.

vonny said...

This is obviously a major problem. You are much more up to speed and expert with policy, both U.S. and European, Russian, etc., so a question for you, Mark, is how little 'big picture' thinking is placed in policy making? I understand the reality of politics is short-term thinking, but is no one talking about the complexity portion of international politics? Have concepts from, say, network theory been part of any nation's policy making and decision making? Globalization screams out for network teory.

Ripple effects can take time to permeate through a network, especially when it comes to global consequences, and they can remain in the periphery for years. How can other world leaders be so naive as to not see (long-term) some of the scenarios involving an armed Iran, or future nation-states or independent groups that attain WMDs? At the very least, are they not worried about effects that could occur on oil production and distribution? That makes it their problem.

mark said...

Wow ! Fantastic questions !

"so a question for you, Mark, is how little 'big picture' thinking is placed in policy making?"

Depends. The bureaucracy at State is mired in day to day minutia - the high-level appointees - SecState, Undersecretary, Deputy Secretary, Director of Policy Planning - are supposed to do this but in reality very few have that temperment or intellectual inclinations. Their daily schedule is driven by short-term concerns and very little time is set aside for "big picture think" ( Rumsfeld is a exception - he carves out time).

Wolfowitz was an obvious exception, as were George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger but the number of geopolitical strategists were few. The NSC is supposed to remedy the problem by bringing in outside experts to the policy process but the recent tendency to staff the NSC primarily from the ranks of the Pentagon, CIA and State and a few Beltway think tanks means it produces policy options remarkably similar to those of the Pentagon, CIA and State. Go figure.

"Have concepts from, say, network theory been part of any nation's policy making and decision making? Globalization screams out for network theory."

The military theorists like John Arquilla, John Robb, Tom Barnett understand network theory's implications and they preach it to varying extents but I'm not sure how far into the military this has penetrated. First you have to get buy-in from the TRADOC chiefs of the services and then it filters into the elite War Colleges for general officers then into service academies and then general training. My intuitive guess is the closer the military person is to counterterrorism, counterintelligence and SOF operational planning the more likely they " get it".

At the policy level - say deputy assistant secretary - at DoD, State, Negroponte's office, NSC, CIA - probably they have heard of it or been briefed but whether it is being used at that level is dubious. I would see that happening much more in the Intel and SOF community. Operators and analysts.

Finally, I think other world leaders are just as prone to wishful thinking, if not moreso, than ours are.