Brzezinski Lists Washington’s Iran Options if Talks Fail

Last week I attended an event hosted by the Arms Control Association and the National Iranian American Council on how to make diplomacy work with Iran. I wrote about it here. Keynote speaker Zbigniew Brzezinski was the last to speak and showed up minutes before he took the stage. The former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter politely denied an interview request with Voice of America before making his way to the podium, whereupon he joked about being presented with — as a child — the opportunity to become the foreign minister of Iran during the Shah’s era.

Around this time last year, the famed geostrategist was urging the Obama administration to engage Iran when few were so bold. Now, when many are talking about diplomatic strategies to avoid a costly war, Brzezinski is discussing US options if diplomacy fails.

Brzezinski emphasized that he prefers a “negotiated outcome that meets to some extent the principle desires of our negotiating side but doesn’t necessarily humiliate the Iranians”, and that war would be an “act of utter irresponsibility” and “significant immorality if the United States was part of it.” He also showed a little of his characteristic pep when he stated that the US shouldn’t follow like “a stupid mule, whatever the Israelis do.” But his focus on what to do if talks head nowhere — as they have in the past — suggests he’s not optimistic about their prospects.

There have been some positive signs from the White House. On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US wants bilateral talks at Brookings’ Saban Center. The administration also expressed opposition to yet another sanctions bill approved on Friday by the Senate. But as Josh Rogin notes in his report, the Obama administration has often touted the sanctions regime pushed by Congress even while criticizing it. Add to this Iran’s own paranoid, hardening domestic political environment, and Brzezinski’s position is hard to dismiss.

Following are 4 options Brzezinski offered should talks fail. From the transcript:

Then, what really are our options in that setting?  My bottom line answer to the question which I have just posed is that there are no good options.  But there are, of course, still options, but they range from the worst to the least bad.  But at least, there’s a choice.  The least attractive – the worst, in fact, would be if the United States and/or Israel, or jointly, attacked Iran.  I think that is a fact.  I have spoken to that many times.

So let me merely say in brief that this would produce a regional crisis and widespread hatred, particularly for the United States because the United States would be seen as the deciding partner in such an undertaking, whether jointly with Israel or subsequent to Israel or by the United States alone.  The United States would be drawn into, therefore, a protracted conflict in the region, first of all with the Iranians and perhaps the Iranian people as well.

For while the attitudes of the Iranians by and large, to the extent that we can tell, towards the United States are not hostile and on the whole, in the larger cities, quite benign, a conflict in which the United States was acting as, in their perspective, an aggressor and engaging in military action would certainly precipitate long lasting hatred for the United States.  And that would be a fact of life in that part of the country, and not an insignificant one since it would involve some 85 million people.

In the more immediate perspective, of course, there would be regional disruption.  The region would be literally set aflame with the conflict probably spreading through Iraq to Syria, creating one large belt of conflict, complicating our withdrawal from Afghanistan, particularly in the western parts of Afghanistan where Iran has the capacity to make life miserable for us.  It would be disruptive of course in terms of the security of oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz, even if it was kept open by the United States.  But still, even then the price of insurance for the flow of oil would dramatically increase.

And there is a further uncertainty involved in that kind of an operation, namely how successful would it be.  In fact, in estimates by Israeli experts regarding Israel’s potential to be decisively effective, are pessimistic.  And American estimates depend on the scale of the American attack.  Even a relatively modest attack by the United States would inflict in any case serious casualties on the Iranians, precipitating the death of a large number of Iranian scientists and probably, in some cases given the location of the facilities, also civilians.

And there is still the unknown factor of what happens if radiation is released as a consequence of these attacks.  And that could be a significant factor in terms of civilian casualties, particularly in places that are larger, semi-metropolitan.  And of course, some facilities that would be destroyed are located – for example, Isfahan.

All of that, I think makes an attack not a very attractive remedy for dealing with the problem, a problem which then would pale in insignificance compared to the consequences of the attack once the dynamic consequences were set in motion.  So I dismiss that as a serious alternative.  I think it would be an act of utter irresponsibility and potentially a very significant immorality if the United States was part of it.

A second alternative, not either very good – neither are very good is a campaign of covert subversion – ranging from sabotage through assassinations, maybe even to cyberwarfare – directed at Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring an effective nuclear weapon.  I think the result of that is troublesome, not in terms of its immediate outcome because the asymmetry of capabilities between the United States and Iran is so wide that obviously Iran would be much more negatively affected.

But in the longer run, we cannot entirely dismiss the fact that inherent in such a strategy one sets in motion a degradation of the international system, a degradation of the international rules of the game, which could prove, in the longer run, very damaging to American national interests, if one assumes that the United States wishes to be essentially a status-quo power, not one that precipitates massive disruptions of the international order, but has a national interest in consolidating the international order and, indeed, even in expanding its international effectiveness.

So the losses in that sense to American national interests of such a campaign would be significant.  And it is not clear that they would necessarily lead to the desired – otherwise desired outcome, namely deprivation of Iran of capability to have a militarily significant nuclear potential.  Indeed, implicit perhaps in that second strategy would be an eventual outcome very similar to the first strategy, that the United States would find it necessary, would find itself compelled or driven by others into undertaking option one, but making it even in a more negative context.

The third not desirable option, but perhaps somewhat less immediately destructive, is of course a policy of the continuous imposition of sanctions on Iran that would range from painful to strangulating.  That is to say, a policy in which one assumes that at some point Iran would accommodate and accept an outcome which otherwise was not achieved in the process of negotiations.

This is a complicated undertaking because it’s very difficult in that context to clearly distinguish between what sanctions are designed to achieve the nuclear objective, and which ones are designed to achieve other objectives on the grounds of which they were initially imposed.  For example, support for Hezbollah and for other so-called terrorist organizations.

In other words, will we be trying to change the behavior of the regime?  Would we be trying to force it to comply with our position on the nuclear issue?  Or would we be trying to change the regime?  Careful discrimination of this context is very difficult to achieve and, hence, it is also very difficult to envisage an outcome in advance that would be clearly productive insofar as the original point of departure for the sanctions is concerned.

And that brings me to the fourth and least – the least objectionable of the bad options, all of that being based on the assumption that we’re not able to achieve our desired outcome by serious negotiations.  And that is to combine continued painful, but not strangulating sanctions – and be very careful in that distinction – with clear political support for the emergence of eventual democracy in Iran, an objective with which I think many Iranians would associate themselves.

And at the same time an explicit security guarantee for U.S.-friendly Middle Eastern states, including Israel, modeled on the very successful, decade-lasting protection of our European allies from an overwhelming Soviet nuclear threat, and also modeled on the successful protection of South Korea and Japan from the recently emerged North Korean threat, and perhaps earlier on, implicitly but not explicitly, from possible Chinese intimidation.

We succeeded in that policy over many decades and with good result for all concerned, including the Soviet Union and us, including the Russian people and the American people, and certainly to the benefit of those whom we were protecting.  We now know, for example, from secret Soviet war plans, that the Soviets were contemplating, even in the case of the conventional war in which they were moving westward, the use of nuclear weapons against cities.

For example, on the third day of a Soviet offensive, according to Soviet war plans, tactical nuclear weapons, several of them, were designed or were targeted for use against Hamburg – a very large urban center.  And there were others in Western Europe, depending on how the offensive was moving forward.  All of that was avoided by a policy of deterrence that was credible.

This is then the fourth option, which is not the same as the achievement of our objective, but it is an option which creates a condition which might endure for quite a while, because it is difficult to imagine any Iranian regime embarking on a nuclear adventure if it simply has the bomb.  What does that mean, it simply has the bomb?  Has it really been tested?  Is it already related to delivery system?  Does one use it when one has only one?  Does one wait until one has 10?

One has to consider in these circumstances the consequences of their use.  And given an explicit commitment by an overwhelmingly stronger nuclear power, which has demonstrated a willingness to protect with others with credibility and commitment, I think that at least is some degree of assurance that we are gaining time in a very turbulent setting, in a very turbulent time.  And that in itself is an advantage.

This is not an argument for it to be the central focus of our policy.  Obviously a negotiated outcome that meets to some extent the principle desires of our negotiating side but doesn’t necessarily humiliate the Iranians and forces them into an unconditional surrender, so to speak, is still preferable.

But short of that, if in fact the negotiations do not succeed in the near term, I think a shift by the United States to a combination of sanctions, but oriented specifically to the promotion of internal democratizing change and at the same time to serve as a deterrent and involves all of our friends in the Middle East, is the best option – or it’s the least objectionable options of the options that have failed otherwise in the achievement of their ultimate objective.

Photo: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance, 1977. White House Staff Photographers. 

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.