Tuesday, September 26, 2006

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So what's our Iran policy right now?

I blogged in the spring about my puzzlement and confusion regarding U.S. foreign policy towards Iran. On the one hand, it was clear that certain elements of the Bush administration were not big fans of either direct or indirect dialogue.

On the other hand: [E]ven if this skepticism (towards negotiations and incentives) is warranted, exactly what is the hawkish set of policy options on Iran? Is there any coercive policy instrument that is a) publicly viable; and b) would actually compel Iran into compliance without negotiations?
I'm even more puzzled today.

First, Bill Gertz has a Washington Times exclusive that is clearly designed to torpedo one diplomatic option:

Iran is close to an agreement that would include a suspension of uranium enrichment but wants the deal to include a provision that the temporary halt be kept secret, according to Bush administration officials.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has been working with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani on the enrichment-suspension deal that could be completed this week.....

According to the officials, the suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran would be for 90 days, so additional talks could be held with several European nations.

Many U.S. officials are opposing the agreement as a further concession to Iran, which continues to defy a United Nations' call for a complete halt to uranium enrichment. A Security Council resolution had given Iran until Aug. 31 to stop its enrichment program or face the imposition of international sanctions. Tehran ignored the deadline, but diplomacy has continued.

Some in the State Department are supporting the deal, which they view as a step toward achieving a complete halt to uranium enrichment.

However, other officials said that keeping any suspension secret would be difficult and that it would drag the United States into further negotiations with Iran.

The officials opposed to the deal want any agreement on uranium suspension to be announced publicly.

Also, any suspension of enrichment would require International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to verify that work has stopped at Iranian facilities. The inspections would likely be disclosed, exposing any secret arrangement with Iran on suspension.

Failing to publicly announce the suspension also would be a face-saving measure for the Iranian government.

Officials said President Bush is not happy with the secrecy demand, although he continues to support the use of diplomacy to solve the problem.

I have to wonder if Gertz asked his editors to headline his article, "A Story That By Its Very Existence Will Alter The Facts Reported In Said Story."

OK, so clearly diplomacy is not the policy du jour of this administration when it comes to Iran. How about sanctions? Here we come to Condoleezza Rice's comments to the Wall Street Journal editorial board:

QUESTION: What do you think about a gasoline embargo on Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I just – I don’t think that it was anything that you have to look at it in the near term and I’m not sure that it would have the desired effect. One of the problems that we have is if indeed you would like not to have a situation in which you reinforce the leadership’s desire to make their people feel that America is anti-Iranian people, then you want to stay away from things that have a bad effect on the Iranian people to the degree that you can. You know, we’ve talked – people have talked for instance about barring Iranian students or barring Iranian – there was at one point the World Cup, you know, bar them from the World Cup or something like that.

The Iranian regime has been pretty insistent on a line of reasoning that this is not between the United States and the Iranian regime; this is between the United States and Iran, the culture, the people, its great national pride. And that’s something we really do have to fight against and some believe a gasoline embargo might play into that.

If you read the whole interview, it's clear that Rice favors financial sanctions ("Iran is not North Korea. It’s not isolated and it is pretty integrated into the international financial system. And that actually makes its potential isolation more damaging to Iran than for instance North Korea which, as you notice, has not been too thrilled with even the rather modest financial measures that we’ve taken against North Korea.").

That said, rejecting the gasoline embargo strikes me as a huge mistake. Iran is also not like North Korea in that there's actually a middle class in Tehran and environs that like their cheap gasoline very much, thank you. I concede that the possibility of a nationalist backlash is there -- but just because Ahmadinejad is painting the conflict as a civilizational one does not mean that Iranians are buying it. There's a decent possibility that of a lot of Iranians taking out their economic frustrations against Ahmadinejad's government -- especially after Iran's government spends so much on Hezbollah.

So, to review: there are administration efforts to sabotage the available diplomatic option, and the most powerful economic sanction has been rejected in the near term. I don't think financial sanctions will bite as much as the secretary, in part because it always takes a long time to implement and after the 1979 asset seizures the Iranians have moved down the learning curve on evading those kind of strictures.

What's left in the policy tool kit besides force?


UPDATE: Fareed Zakaria offers some suggestions that I am quite sure will be ignored by the Bush administration.

posted by Dan on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM


Ahh, the proprietor forgets some old favorite approaches of administrations in the past and present:

* Making the big frowny face;

* Passing UN resolutions, and then condemning the UN for its impotence when it doesn't enforce it;

* Banning the sales of flying carpets;

* Blaming the Democrats when Iran gets nukes for not fully supporting the War on terror.

Seriously, one wonders if those condemning the NIE leaks will be able to excite themselves over this leak. Because sabotaging a policy via leak is pretty serious business.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

There are still many diplomatic options available other than secret ones. But diplomacy requires both time and friends to help it along, and this administration seems to have little of either.

But given the actions to date of the current US administration, I am surprised that one option in the tool kit hasn't been used, and yet it's so simple and cost-effective: assassination.

Few would take an option like this seriously, but why not Bush? It's cowboy-tough, it reminds the world of American dominance, and will get the attention of the bad guys, defined as anyone who disagrees with the US. It saves lives. (And can be publicly denied for further effect.)

It's ballsy and merits consideration.

And don't say it's unethical. The US crossed that line a long time ago.

posted by: Racer X, Speed Racer's (unbeknownst to him) brother on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

That is their destination, force. At least that is some group in the adminsitration's destination: VP.

posted by: Chris on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

The most used tool in the tool box is still available; do nothing. So far, it is an underestimated tool.

As far as anyone can tell, the Iranians are years away from developing a bomb, so there is time to do nothing. Also, there is not much of an alternative right now; no one knows whether the military option will solve our problems, but it might enflame the Middle East. Not a great prospect. And sanctions are highly unlikely to work quickly and might also create problems in the near term.

So, why not wait for a while and hope things will change for the better? Let the Europeans talk and maybe in a year or two the Iranians are in a mood to negotiate again.

It has worked with many problems in history.

posted by: Harmen on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]


You don't understand the bloodlust that this administration has.

posted by: Hugo on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Given the Axis of Evil.
Given the restatement this week that they would do Iraq All-Over-Again.
How can they be on ANY PATH BUT attacking Iran?

What alternative? Immediate agreement to stop nuke activities and permit massive daily inspections by Americans...

posted by: Jimmny on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Short term policy? Make a lot of noise about the Iranian threat to keep the public scared in the runup to elections.

Long term polcy? Use of force. The only questions is when, how much, under what pretext, and if any additional parts of Iran will be left glowing in the dark after the fallout settles.

posted by: Anon E. Mouse on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Oh, they have a plan, Dan. Really and truly, they do! But if they tell anyone what it is (especially Congress), the terrorists will win!

Now, be a good boy and shut up -- or once that new detainee "compromise" described by the Post last night passes, you just might find yourself labeled a potential assistant to terrorists by the President (who will have the power to do this single-handedly) and then permanently, er, detained.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Dan has spent enough time in academia to know that questions about school policy are not always answerable by ascertaining what is in the pedagogical "tool kit." Government may look different, but it isn't.

During Bush's first term foreign policy and policy on national security affairs was dominated by the Vice President's office and the office of the Secretary of Defense. Though that dominance has faded somewhat both the Vice President and Defense Secretary are tenacious bureaucratic warriors with well deserved reputation for not giving up any turf they do not have to. They are not about to let the State Department, which they distrust, drive policy toward either North Korea or Iran, but no longer have the ability to shut State down completely. Within the administration this produces a policy stalemate, which in turn produces a stop-and-start public appearance as the administration first rejects options to move toward negotiations, then makes a negotiating proposal, then finds itself unable to reach agreement on how to react to its potential interlocutors' responses.

A President out of his depth on foreign and national security affairs and heavily dependent on his senior officials is unable to impose order on his administration; a consistent policy direction, pointing one way or another, should emerge but never does. I don't doubt that a number of administration officials have well considered views on what ought to be done about Iran, but as a practical matter it isn't possible to easily separate the question of what the policy should be from that of who should make the policy. It is the fact that the latter question is never finally decided that gives the Bush administration its appearance of approaching the Iran problem like a man using ice skates for the first time.

posted by: Zathras on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Given events in this administration, and in past administrations as far back as Reagan, it appears error to assume there is a single policy here.

Rather the federal government has multiple policies on most national security subjects, each advanced with varying degrees of success by different factions, and a President is just another faction for these purposes. How successful a given President is influenced, but not determined, by his success in advancing his own policies, and how effective those are, relative to what the other factions are up to.

Reagan at least made his policies well-known, and was wildly successful by objective measures of success.

The leading opposition within the Executive Branch to the policies of President Bush is clearly based in the Central Intelligence Agency, at least since Colin Powell left the State Department.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Zathras and I just posted almost simultaneously on what seem to be flip sides of the same coin.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

I don't think that's true. It seems clear that many Central Intelligence Agency officials take a dim view of the policy preferences of the Vice President -- for good and persuasive reasons -- but as I suggest upthread the influence of the Vice President while still much stronger in this administration than in any of its predecessors is not what it was. This is partly because the policies Cheney has sponsored have not worked out well, partly also because the appointment of a Bush intimate as Secretary of State has increased that department's influence.

There is nothing inevitable about policy stalemate in the executive branch. A strong President who knows his own mind can in our system overwhelm opposition within his administration, even when he is not personally popular. Bush is not that kind of President, certainly not in the foreign affairs area. His weakness is a product of his limited knowledge of and interest in both foreign affairs and the details of policy, and has left him dependent on a small group of senior officials, disagreements among whom he seems unable to ever finally resolve.

posted by: Zathras on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

As far as anyone can tell, the Iranians are years away from developing a bomb, so there is time to do nothing.

So when would the appropriate time to act be? One day before, as far as we know, they will have a functional bomb? One year before?

Considering the accuracy of our Iraq intelligence, do you really find it prudent to try to cut this as close as possible? Europe has so far showed no interest in doing anything to stop Iran, so yet again if anything is going to be done it's going to have to be done by us.

posted by: Justin on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]


This isn't a deadline for a paper. The international situation is fluid, any many things can happen in the next five years that will put certain options on the table and take others off. The situation as it stands now, characterized by American overextension in Iraq, E.U. indifference and Israeli turmoil, will not remain indefinitely. So, the smart move is to watch the situation as it develops, try to arrange things to your advantage, and make a move when the situation favors it.

posted by: Adrian on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

All roads to resolution run through Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi. The key is to open up to, make nice with, Russia and enlist it as an ally in the containment of a nuclear Iran.

A determined, large nation with as much oil and natural gas as Iran cannot be contained via sanctions. Any Iranian government would desire nukes for reasons of national prestige. So we need to admit that sooner or later Iran will get nukes, and start thinking of ways that a nuclear Iran can be hemmed in, contained, balanced.

The key to containing Iran obviously lies witht the powers in its vicinity: the gulf state sunnis to the west, Russia to the north, China to the east, India to the southeast. The specific recipe for containing Iran has to include elevating the role and importance of these powers in the region, especially Russia's role. The grand bargain might encompass some or all of the following:

-- fast-track WTO membership for Russia + a reduction in US pressure on Russia's southern flanks (ie removal of troops and advisers from C. Asia and the Caucasus) in exch for enhanced US-Russian anti-proliferation efforts against Iran

-- encouragement of China and India's assumption of a heightened security role in the region, perhaps through a formalized collective-security group formed along the lines of OSCE

-- play off Iran and the sunni Gulf states by asking them to meet in a regional security conference focused on the future of Iraq. Threaten the sunni sheiks and emirs with creation of a shi'ite republic in the south of Iraq unless they contribute police forces to stabilizing Baghdad and Anbar.

posted by: thibaud on 09.26.06 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

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