by Ali Gharib
There’s a lot wrong in Vox‘s interview with Michael Doran, the neoconservative Hudson Institute scholar, on diplomacy with Iran, which bears the very Vox-ish headline “This is the case against Obama’s Iran deal that everyone should hear.” Let’s start with just one problem.
Doran’s analysis of President Obama’s Middle East aims begins with the premise that the administration sought off the bat to avoid wars in the region at any cost—Doran calls it Obama’s “fundamental assumption that the United States should pull back from the Middle East.” Never mind that Obama ramped up a covert war in Yemen or that he joined the Libya intervention. Still, there’s some truth to this Obama doctrine: the president clearly wants to avoid dumb wars of the sort that Doran’s former bosses in the George W. Bush administration got into (to which, in the case of Iraq, Doran lent encouragement before entering government service).
From here, Doran goes over the various ways Obama could accomplish his goal to “pull back” from the region. This from his interview with Vox‘s Max Fisher:
The minute you say you’re going to pull back, then you have to answer the question, “What new order am I going to leave in the region?” You have to have some notion of how you’re going to stabilize the region and keep its worst pathologies from affecting the United States.
The only answers are either “I’m going to build up my allies as a defense against my enemies,” à la the Nixon doctrine, which he didn’t do, or “I’m going to put together a club of stable powers, and we’re going to have a concert system.” [A concert system, like the 19th-century Concert of Europe, is a set of countries with roughly equivalent power that balance one another to create a stable international system.
Fisher’s follow-up question was so close to getting at what’s wrong with this argument:
But if Obama wanted to do that [pull back], then why not do it by promoting allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel and perhaps Turkey, all of which are already quite powerful in the region?
Oh, right! If only Obama had the common sense to do the easy things, like, y’know, make record military sales during several of the past years to our closest Gulf Arab allies! What’s that you say? Obama has made record military sales of advanced weapons systems to Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the surrounding sheikhdoms, as well as Israel? And Obama’s security cooperation with Israel is, by all accounts, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s, “unprecedented”? He’s even supporting Saudi Arabia with intelligence in an ill-conceived war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen? Well, that hardly comports with what Doran is telling us.
Now, this is not to say Obama doesn’t want détente with Iran—he probably does: ending decades of enmity with a bitter rival has its own inherent value, not to mention hamstringing the country’s nuclear program. But if Doran is working off the binary of either building up allies or détente with Iran at any cost as a means of “pull back,” then the verdict is already in.
There’s some irony in that because, in the Vox interview, Doran rejects the binary supporters of diplomacy tend to haul out—that those who oppose diplomacy are pushing for war. (My own preferred rendering of this is that opponents of diplomacy are moving us back to the path to confrontation with Iran.) “President Obama is putting us and our allies before an ultimatum—either an Iranian nuclear program or disaster—and I just think we have many more options than that,” Doran tells Fisher.
And here lies the big problem with Doran’s argument. He vacillates between saying Iran is hell-bent on developing a nuclear weapon (the Iranians “belong to a category of regimes, like the North Koreans, that calculates that if they can get this weapon then the world will treat them differently”—how’s that going for North Korea?) and saying they’re rational and would give up their whole nuclear program if only we threaten them hard enough, which he expresses at the end of the interview:
If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,” he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,” he would think twice.
That’s Doran’s alternative to the deal currently on the table. Sanction them harder (never mind that Doran goes on at some length about how hard it is to put sanctions on).Threaten them with force, and mean it.
When Doran’s big Mosaic magazine piece came out—the one where he synthesizes his theory about Obama’s secret, grand strategy of détente with Iran—Israel Institute head Michael Koplow largely agreed with the thesis. But Koplow demurred in one area, the utility of the nuclear deal with Iran:
Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?
Read that last parenthetical interjection twice. Then read this 2010 Wall Street Journal opinion piece where Doran lays out a plan for regime change in Tehran. Now there’s a clear alternative to the nuclear deal.