Get Real: The Case for Restraint With Iran

There are few areas of the world with a more troubling mix of geopolitical problems than the Middle East. The irony is that the war in Iraq, which has consumed so much of our country’s political and economic capital, may hold less far-reaching consequences than challenges posed in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

To the west, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff remains the sorest point in world relations, although new opportunities for reconciliation between the two sides have presented themselves in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s passing. To the east, the sobering prospect of Iran joining the nuclear club stands out.

It is this east-of-Baghdad trauma that I wish to address this afternoon.

In life, individuals and countries sometimes face circumstances in which all judgments and options are bad. The Iranian dilemma is a case in point. But it is more than just an abstract bad-option model, because at issue are nuclear weapons in the hands of a mullah-controlled society that has actively aided and abetted regional terrorists for years.

In reference to recent disclosures of enhanced Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as missile delivery systems to carry such weapons, concerned outside parties are actively reviewing options.

The Europeans have led with diplomatic entreaties; the Israelis with requests for the provision by the U.S. of sophisticated bunker-busting bombs; American policymakers with open-option planning, with neocon muscularity being the principal reported theme.

In the background are references to the 1981 preemptive strike by the Israeli Air Force against Iraq’s Osirak reactor.

At issue is the question of whether preemption is justified; if so, how it should be carried out; and, if carried out, whether intervention would lead to a more conciliatory, non-nuclear Iran or if the effects of military action would be short-term, perhaps pushing back nuclear development a year or two, but precipitating a new level of hostility against the U.S. and Israel in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world that could continue for decades, if not centuries.

Since the American hostage crisis that so bedeviled the Carter administration in the late 1970s, we have had a policy of economic sanctions coupled with comprehensive efforts to politically isolate Iran.

Four years ago, Sen. Arlen Specter and I invited Iran’s UN Ambassador to Capitol Hill, the first visit to Washington by a high-level Iranian representative since the hostage crisis.

On the subject of possible movement toward normalization of relations with Iran, I told the ambassador that while many would like to see a warming of relations, it would be inconceivable for the U.S. to consider normalizing our relationship so long as Iran continued its support of Hamas and Hizbollah. The ambassador forthrightly acknowledged that Iran provided help to both these terrorist organizations, but also noted, in what was the most optimistic thing he said that day, that his government was prepared to cease support to anti-Israeli terrorist groups the moment a Palestinian state was established with borders acceptable to Palestinians.

For decades in the Muslim world, debate has been ongoing whether to embrace a credible two-state (Israel and Palestine) approach or advance an irrevocable push-Israel-to-the-sea agenda. The implicit Iranian position, as articulated by the ambassador, is support for a two-state approach, but if the U.S. on its own, or Israel as a perceived surrogate, were to attack Iran, the possibility that such a compromise can ever become possible deteriorates.

While angst-ridden, the Muslim world understands the rationale for our intervention in Afghanistan, where the plotting for the 9/11 attack on the U.S. occurred. It has no sympathy for our engagement in Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, but if these two interventions were followed by a third in Iran, the likelihood is that such would be perceived, in the vocabulary of the Harvard historian Samuel Huntington, as an all-out "clash of civilizations," pitting the Judeo-Christian against the Muslim world. In the Middle East, it would be considered a war of choice precipitated by the United States. We might want it to be seen as a short-term action to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, but the Muslim world would more likely view it as a continuance of the Crusades: a religious conflict of centuries’ dimensions, with a revived future.

If military action is deemed necessary, the U.S. broadly has only three tactical options: (a) full-scale invasion, à la Iraq; (b) surgical strikes of Iranian nuclear and missile installations; or (c) a surrogate strike by Israel, modeled along the lines of Osirak.

The first can be described as manifestly more difficult than our engagement in Iraq, particularly a post-conflict occupation. The second presents a number of difficulties, including the comprehensiveness of such a strike and the question of whether all aspects of a program that is clandestine can be eliminated. The third makes the U.S. accountable for Israeli actions, which themselves are likely to be more physically destructive but less effective than the 1981 strike against Osirak.

In thinking through the consequences of military action, even if projected to be successfully carried out, policymakers must put themselves in the place of a potential adversary. A strike that merely buys time may also be a strike that changes the manner and rationale of Iranian support for terrorist organizations. It may also change the geo-strategic reason for a country like Iran to garner control of nuclear weapons.

It is presumed that the major reasons that Iran currently seeks nuclear weapons relates to: 1) Pride: a belief that a 5,000-year-old society has as much right to control the most modern of weapons systems as a younger civilization like America or its neighbors to the west, Israel, and to the east, Pakistan; 2) Power: the implications of control of nuclear weapons with regard to its perceived hegemony as the largest and most powerful country in the Persian Gulf, particularly with regard to its nemesis, Iraq, which not only once attacked Kuwait, but Iran itself, using chemical weapons; 3) Politics: the concern that Israeli military dominance is based in part on the control of weapons that cannot be balanced in the Muslim world, except by a very distant Pakistan.

The issue of the day from an American perspective is weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their development and potential proliferation to nation-states and non-national terrorist groups. The question that cannot be ducked is whether military action against Iran might add to the list of reasons Iran may wish to control such weapons: their potential use against the United States. Perhaps as significantly, American policymakers must think through the new world of terrorism and what might be described as lesser weapons of mass destruction, which might be dubbed "LWMD."

Any strike on Iran would be expected to immediately precipitate a violent reaction in the Shia part of Iraq, where the U.S. has some support today. With ease, Iranian influence on the majority Shia of Iraq could make our ability to constructively influence the direction of change in Iraq near hopeless.

And there should be little doubt that in a world in which "tit for tat" is the norm, a strike on Iran would increase the prospect of counter-strikes on American assets around the world and American territory itself. The asymmetrical nature of modern warfare is such that traditional armies will not be challenged in traditional ways. Nation-states that are attacked may feel they have little option except to ally themselves with terrorist groups to advance national interests.

We view terrorism as an illegitimate tool of uncivilized agents of change. In other parts of the world, increasing numbers of people view terrorist acts as legitimate responses of societies and, in some cases, groups within societies who are oppressed, against those who have stronger military forces.

If Afghanistan, an impoverished country as distant from our shores as any in the world, could become a plotting place for international terrorism, such danger would increase manifoldly with an increase in Iranian hostility, especially if based on an American attack.

If there exists today something like a one-in-three chance of another 9/11-type incident or set of incidents in the U.S. in the next few years, a preemptive strike against Iran must be assumed to increase the prospect to two-in-three.

And Iran, far more than Osama bin Laden, has within its power the ability not only to destabilize world politics, but world economies as well. Oil is, after all, the grease of economic activity, and a devastating Iranian-led cutback in supply cannot be ruled out.

Given the risk, if not the untenability, of military action, policymakers are obligated to review other than military options. One, which has characterized our post-hostage-taking Iranian policy for a full generation, is isolation of Iran. This policy can be continued, but as tempting as it is, there is little prospect of ratcheting it up much more, except in ways, such as a naval embargo on Iranian oil, that would be difficult to garner international support for and would, in any regard, damage us more than Iran.

The only logical alternative is to consider advancing carrots, without abandoning the possibility of future sticks, and increase our dialogue with this very difficult government.

A proposal that might be suggested is negotiation of a Persian Gulf nuclear-free zone, which would reduce, although given the high possibility of cheating, not eliminate entirely one of the reasons Iran presumably seeks nuclear weapons – fear that it may be at a disadvantage in a conflict with an oil-rich neighbor. In return, America could offer not only normalization of relations in trade but the prospect of a free trade agreement and expanded country-to-country cultural ties with Iran.

Here it should be stressed that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been educated in the United States. The country has strong democratic proclivities. While the apparatus of democratic governance is extensive, real power is controlled by the mullahs. Nevertheless, few societies in the world have more potential to move quickly in a democratic direction than Iran. And just as it is hard to believe that outside military intervention would lead to anything except greater ensconcement of authoritarian mullah rule, the prospect of a bettering of U.S. relations with Iran implies a greater prospect of a better Iranian society.

Finally, a note about arms control. If the U.S. wishes to lead in multilateral restraint, we might want to consider joining rather than rebuking the international community in the development of a comprehensive test ban (CTB). All American administrations from Eisenhower on favored negotiation of a CTB. This one has taken the position the Senate took when it irrationally rejected such a ban five years ago. The Senate took its angst against the strategic leadership of the Clinton administration out on the wrong issue. This partisan, ideological posturing demands reconsideration. We simply cannot expect others to restrain themselves when we refuse to put constraints on ourselves.

We are in a world where use of force cannot be ruled out. But we are also in a world where alternatives are vastly preferable. They must be put forthrightly on the table.