Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Time for a Revolution in America’s Iran Policy

Posted in Iran, U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on June 3, 2010

Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has some pointed words for President Barack Obama on his policy towards Iran…words, by the way, that I wholeheartedly agree with:

“I can’t figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what’s striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be. Ever since last year’s presidential election, the United States has been stuck with a policy that might be termed “Bush-lite.” We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won’t work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime’s hold on power. “

I’m still at a loss as to why the United States is so concerned about Iran getting a nuclear weapon in the first place. Granted, more nuclear powers is not necessarily what the country (or the world) needs right now. And the formation of a new nuclear power (especially in the Middle East) is a direct contradiction to the nonproliferation agenda the Obama administration is trying to accomplish (given Obama’s arsenal cuts with Russia and his nuclear security conference in April, it’s clear that he really does want “a world without nuclear weapons”).

But even with these setbacks- which could be categorized as minor at best- it doesn’t really warrant Washington hyperactivity on the issue. Officials in the White House and in Congress are losing a lot of hair on a problem that is not really detrimental to U.S. national security (and believe me, if you’ve looked at Congress nowadays, they need all the hair they can get). It’s almost as if they have forgotten the whole concept of deterrence…the theory that a state’s irrational behavior is kept in check by the irrationality of other states.

Contrary to popular belief, Iran is a rational actor in the international system, and one that fully understands what would happen if they in fact used a nuclear weapon against Israel or any other state. Any short-term benefits that a nuclear strike could achieve would quickly be suffocated by the strong countermeasure that would result, like the barrage of missiles and ICBM’s that would rain down on Iranian cities. And if the Iranian leadership’s number one concern is the preservation of its status and power- which is what they have demonstrated repeatedly over the past three decades- then the offensive use of nuclear weapons is not a smart policy tool anyway.

It may be time for President Obama to adopt a different stance vis-a-vis Iran. Drop American-led efforts to terminate Iran’s nuclear program (which isn’t a realistic goal anyway) and start taking a defensive posture in the broader Middle East.  Show Tehran that nuclear adventurism will not be tolerated, and send Iran a strong message that any offensive military action on their part will be met with an even stronger reaction from America and its allies.  Extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to America’s Arab partners is just the kind of posture that Washington needs to accomplish this objective.  Just like the United States used its nuclear umbrella to deter Soviet action in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, the United States can deter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf through a similar measure.

Sounds like a shallow policy prescription, but hoping that we can convince Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to change their behavior is an even shallower proposition.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen M. Walt at FP.com**


6 Responses

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  1. Frankier said, on June 3, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    We all know why the US are obsessed with Iran and just can’t see that it is a regional issue. Israel wants the world to believe that Iran is a global threat …. we know they are not.

  2. VilksSweden said, on June 3, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have always regarded their significant Shiite populations as being vulnerable to influence from Islamic leaders in Iran. The concentration of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population close to the country’s crucial oil-producing regions, where any revolt would cause maximum damage to the Saudi economy, has only added to the anxiety felt at times by the ruling family.

    In December 2008 the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, seemed to capture the mood of the Arab world when he addressed members of his ruling National Democratic Party. “The Persians (Iran) are trying to devour the Arab states,” he said.

  3. Charybdis said, on June 3, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Regarding the comparison with Iraq, I cannot but imagine the possibility that the Iranian mullahs perhaps are playing the same game as did Saddam Hussein; i. e. encouraging both neighbors and countries far away that they were developing something very dangerous, trying to instill respect and fear. After all, where had Mr Hussein hidden the Iraqi WMD:s?

  4. Don Bacon said, on June 3, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Why is U.S. policy stuck in this particular rut?

    Gee, could it be that The Lobby is dictating US policy?
    I know it’s hard to believe, but I think we ought to consider it.

  5. Ian said, on June 3, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    The problem is Bureaucratic. A bureaucracy has its own inertia and people that have been doing certain things, like sanctioning Iran, for the last 10-20 years are still there, running things, suggesting sanctions for Iran because that’s all they’ve ever done. Part of (a big part) Obama’s entry into the President’s spot was predicated on his ability to work that out of the system, providing the US with a more open diplomatic corps that is willing to compromise on some things to achieve the overall goal. Compromising is not the same as surrendering, despite what many many people say/think. It’s working together to provide an adequate solution for all parties involved. It also means, if you want to take the high road, you’re going to have to start it off, not wait for the intransigent member to do a complete about-face. They won’t.

    This is why I thought the Brazil, Turkey, Iran deal was an excellent step in the right direction. At the time, when Turkey said Obama had given the ok, it seemed like the US was finally doing something right. They knew they couldn’t openly negotiate with Iran because there is no trust between the two. So, third parties step in, provide the neccessary stepping stone to greater negotiations that, yes, will take time, but will most likely provide the answer the US is looking for. Then, the very next day, BAM, more sanctions. And you wonder why Iran inserted that “we’ll still make our own uranium” clause in there.

    Because they didn’t trust the US to stand by anything. They actually made a move toward (tiny, but still a move) what the US was looking for and the US slapped them in the face for it.

    So, in the end, Iran hedged its bets and the US proved that hedging bets was the right move for Iran, in their minds. And we’re back on the Spiral again. Intransigence vs. Asking too much at once.

    Maybe if they do this fast enough, they’ll both get dizzy and ask to stop for a bit and some rational thought will kick in.

  6. anan said, on June 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    Daniel R. DePetris,

    Iran’s regime is likely to unravel in the not too distant future. The large majority of Iranians oppose it. Probably 9 of the 11 Marjas in Quom and all the Marjas in Iraq, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan oppose Khamenei.

    Any country that seems to be backing the Iranian regime is likely to suffer a large backlash of Iranian anger. This has tied Obama’s hands.

    Noticed how carefully Russia and India have been distancing themselves from Khamenei, to the point where the Iranian regime is publicly bashing Russia and subtly bashing India? China publicly supports sanctions against Iran and has distanced themselves from the Turkish/Brazilian/Iranian deal. China has reduced oil imports from Iran by 50% at a time when China’s oil imports are soaring. Why do you think all this is? Could the large public demonstrations yelling “Death to Russia” have something to do with Russia’s, India’s, and China’s distancing from Khamenei and the IRGC Kuds force?

    America backed Khomeini twice in ways that have greatly angered the Iranian people. In 1953, the US backed Khomeini, Kashani and the Quom Clerics in their bid to remove the communist Mossedegh [who Khomeini saw as a Soviet quisling] and reinstate the Shah. in 1978, Carter again backed Khomeini when Khomeini removed the Shah he had helped put in power in 1953.

    Iranians have still not forgiven America for backing these two Khomeinist coups. Now you want America to support the Khomeinists [i.e. Khamenei and the IRGC Kuds force] a third time? When do you think the Iranian people would forgive us for that?

    What Khamenei and the IRGC Kuds force most want is support against the Iranian opposition. This is something that Obama and most of the international community rightly don’t want to give the Iranian regime.

    Having said this, I see no reason why a democratic, free and responsible Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons. Ditto with Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Iraq and many other countries.

    The reason Iranian nukes are so emotional is because of mentally retarded statements about destroying Israel and the likelihood that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would lead to nuclear weapons in the hands of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Brazil, UAE, Kuwait, and many other countries.

    Don’t know about you, but the prospect of Saudi, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian nukes doesn’t exactly thrill me.

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