Diplomacy is Still Washington’s Best Option for Iran

by Jasmin Ramsey

Two conversations are presently occurring in Washington about Iran. Hawks and hardliners are searching for new ways to force the Obama administration to tighten or impose further sanctions, and/or discussing when the US should strike the country. Meanwhile, doves and pragmatists have been pointing out the ineffectiveness of sanctions in changing Iran’s nuclear calculus (even though the majority of them initially pushed for these sanctions) as well as the many cons of military action. Although the hawks and hardliners tend to be Republican, the group is by no means partisan. And these conversations do converge and share points at times, for example, the hawks and hardliners also complain about the ineffectiveness of sanctions, but in the context of pushing for more pressure and punishment.

That said, both sides appear stuck — the hawks, while successful in getting US policy on Iran to become sanctions-centric, can’t get the administration or military leaders to buy their interventionist arguments, and the doves, having previously cheered sanctions as an alternative to military action, appear lost now that their chosen pressure tactic has proven ineffective.

Hawks and Doves Debate Iran Strike Option

On Wednesday, the McCain Institute hosted a live debate that showcased Washington positions on Iran, with the pro-military argument represented by neoconservative analyst Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and Democrat Robert Wexler, a member of the US House of Representatives from 1997-2010, and two prominent US diplomats on the other side — Ambassadors Thomas R. Pickering, who David Sanger writes “is such a towering figure in the State Department that a major program to train young diplomats is named for him”, and James R. Dobbins, whose distinguished career includes service as envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia.

Only the beginning of this recording (I can’t find any others) is hard to hear, and you won’t regret watching the entire lively discussion, particularly because of Amb. Pickering’s poignant responses to Pletka’s flimsy points — she inaccurately states IAEA findings on Iran’s nuclear program and claims that, even though she’s no military expert, a successful military operation against Iran wouldn’t necessarily include boots on the ground. In fact, experts assess that effective military action against Iran aimed at long-term positive results (cessation of its nuclear program and regime change) would be a long and arduous process, entailing more resources than Afghanistan and Iraq have taken combined, and almost certainly involving ground forces and occupation.

Consider some the characteristics of the pro-military side: Wexler repeatedly admits he made a mistake in supporting the war on Iraq, but says the decision to attack Iran should “presuppose” that event. Later on he says that considering what happened with Iraq, he “hopes” the same mistake about non-existent WMDs won’t happen again. Pletka, who endorsed fighting in Iraq until “victory” had been achieved (a garbled version of an AEI transcript can be found here), states in her opening remarks that the US needs to focus on “what happens, when, if, negotiations fail” and leads from that premise, which she does not qualify with anything other than they’re taking too much time, with arguments about the threat Iran poses, even though she calls the Iranians “very rational actors”.

While Wexler’s support for a war launched on false premises seriously harms his side’s credibility, it was both his and Pletka’s inability to advance even one indisputable interventionist argument, coupled with their constant reminders that they don’t actually want military action, that left them looking uninformed and weak.

The diplomats, on the other hand, offered rhetorical questions and points that have come to characterize this debate more generally. Amb. Pickering: “Are we ready for another ground war in the Middle East?”, and, “we are not wonderful occupiers”. Then on the status of the diplomatic process: “we are closer to a solution in negotiations than we have been before”. Amb. Dobbins meanwhile listed some of the cons of a military operation — Hezbollah attacks against Israel and US allies, interruptions to the movement of oil through the vital Strait of Hormuz, a terror campaign orchestrated by the Iranians — and then surprised everyone by saying that these are “all things we can deal with”. A pause, then the real danger in Amb. Dobbins’ mind: that “Iran would respond cautiously”, play the aggrieved party, withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kick out IAEA inspectors and accelerate its nuclear program at unknown sites. Then what, the audience was left to wonder. Neither Pletka nor Wexler offered an answer.

The Costs of War With Iran and the C-Word

While watching the McCain debate, I wondered if Pletka and Wexler would consider reading a recently published book by Geoffrey Kemp, an economist who served as a Gulf expert on Reagan’s National Security Council and John Allen Gay, entitled War With Iran: Political, Military, And Economic Consequences. This essay lays out the basis of the work, which mainly focuses on the high economic costs of war, so I won’t go into detail here, but yesterday during the book’s launch at the Center for National Interest (CNI), an interesting comment was made about the “C-Word”. Here’s what Kemp said during his opening remarks, to an audience that included everyone from prominent foreign policy experts and former government officials, to representatives from Chevron and AIPAC:

You certainly cannot, must not, underestimate the negative consequences if Iran does get the bomb…But I think on balance, unlike Senator McCain who said that the only thing worse than a war with Iran is an Iran with a nuclear weapon…the conclusion of this study is that war is worse than the options, and the options we have, are clearly based on something that we call deterrence and something that we are not allowed to call, but in fact, is something called containment. And to me this seems like the most difficult thing for the Obama administration, to walk back out of the box it’s gotten itself into over this issue of containment. But never fear. Successive American administrations have all walked back lines on Iran.

Interestingly, no one challenged him on this during the Q&A. And Kemp is not the only expert to utter the C-Word in Washington — he’s joined by Paul Pillar and more reluctant distinguished voices including Zbigniew Brzezinksi.

Diplomacy as the Best Effective Option

Of course, if more effort was concentrated on the diplomacy front, as opposed to mostly on sanctions and the military option, Iran could be persuaded against building a nuclear weapon. Consider, for example, US intelligence chief James Clapper’s statement on Thursday that Iran has not yet made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon but that if it chose to do so, it might be able to produce one in a matter of “months, not years.” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “[Iran] has not yet made that decision, and that decision would be made singularly by the supreme leader.”

It follows from this that while the US would be hard pressed in permanently preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon (apart from adopting the costly and morally repulsive “mowing the lawn” option), it could certainly compel the Iranians to make the decision to rush for a bomb by finally making the military option credible — as Israel has pushed for — or following through on that threat.

So where to go from here? Enter the Iran Project, which has published a series of reports all signed and endorsed by high-level US foreign policy experts, and which just released it’s first report with policy advise: “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy”. There’s lots to be taken away from it, and Jim Lobe, as well as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have covered it, but it ultimately boils down to the notion that the US needs to rethink its policy with Iran and creatively use the leverage it has gotten from sanctions to bring about an agreement. Such an agreement will likely have to be preceded by bilateral talks and include some form of low-level uranium enrichment on Iranian soil and sanctions relief if Iran provides its own signifiant concessions. The report also argues for the US to engage with Iran on areas of mutual interest, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the Wilson Center report launch event, Amb. Pickering summed up the status of negotiations with Iran as follows: “Admittedly we should not expect miraculous moves to a rapid agreement, but we’re engaged enough now to have gone beyond the beginning of the beginning. We’re not at the end of the beginning yet, but we’re getting there.” Later, Jim Walsh, a member of the task force and nuclear expert at MIT pointed out that 20-percent Iranian uranium enrichment, which everyone is fixated on now, only became an issue after Iran stopped receiving fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor and began producing it itself. In other words, the longer the US takes to give Iran a deal it can stomach and sell at home, the more the Iranians can ask for as their nuclear program progresses. “The earlier we can get a deal, the better the deal is likely to be,” he said.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.