January 31, 2006
In his State of the Union speech tonight (more on that tomorrow), President Bush rightly stated that the world cannot tolerate the acquisition of nuclear arms by Iran. Indeed, if the most "roguish" regime of all gets its hands on nukes, then who is to stop any other country from following suit? The Nonproliferation Treaty, which is already riddled with tacit "asterisks," would lie in complete tatters. As in the confrontation with Iraq in 2002-2003, however, the United States is left without any truly good options in the showdown with Iran right now. In Monday's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl discusses the "ugly question" of what to do about Iran. Since the government in Tehran has made it plain since last summer that it has no reason whatsoever to make a deal, the U.S. government has hardly any leverage against them. Deciding how to proceed now therefore depends on our ultimate intent: to contain Iran, or to attack it. I am skeptical of the utility of the former course (see Jan. 20), but there may be some purpose to be served if Iran's acquisition of a nuclear arsenal can be delayed long enough for political reform movement to get restarted in Iran. Otherwise, I frankly don't see the point. Even many of the liberal opponents of the theocrats in Tehran favor the nuclear weapons program, unfortunately. National pride runs deep in the homeland of ancient Persia, and President Bush was wise to pay respect to the people of Iran in his speech tonight. Diehl seems to lean toward following through with the military threat, if need be, and he complains that the Bush administration does not seem to be acting in a consistent way in this showdown. Diehl correctly observes that Iranian leaders believe that we need relations with them more than they need us, which is why sanctions are unlikely to have any real effect. (Of course, economic measures hardly ever achieve their stated objectives; they merely serve to "send a message" and make the people of the sanctioning country feel better.)
It is interesting that Ivo Daalder and Philip Gordon expressed similar trepidation about the unpleasant choices we face in the January 22 Washington Post Outlook section. Not surprisingly, since they are part of the Brookings Institution crowd, they come down on the side of sanctions rather than a military strike on Iran. Like all good liberal internationalists, they believe that rallying the world community is the highest priority. I would not deny that would be a desirable intermediate goal in this situation, especially if Iran does succeed in crossing the nuclear threshhold, in which case world peace would be in grave danger. From an analytical standpoint, however, their piece is marred by exaggerating the role of international agreements and regimes in constraining the nuclear ambitions of ambitious middle-size countries such as Sweden, South Korea, Brazil, or the Ukraine. In each case, I would argue the decision to shun nukes had much more to do with the regional security situation (i.e., the local balance of power), and the enormous economic costs that would be entailed by proceeding. From a realist perspective, international rules play a secondary role in determining foreign policy behavior; power is what it's all about.
The real underlying problem in this showdown is that democracies are simply not well-suited for waging a war of wills, especially democracies with deep internal divisions such as ours is at present. In my mind, debating our best course of action toward a rogue regime such as Iran is unlikely to yield a satisfactory solution. It is far more important for leaders of both parties to reach a consensus on how to proceed, because without a minimal degree of national unity, the threat of U.S. military action will carry little weight as seen from Tehran. Our two countries have been at loggerheads for most of a generation, and the theocrats have become adept at taking advantage of our internal divisions. You can be sure they were paying rapt attention to the sharply divided U.S. Congress as President Bush spoke tonight. Whatever we do, it is important to remember what both articles emphasized: That the government of Iran believes it has the initiative, and this will not change until the United States takes some very serious action. That is why what President Bush had to say about energy independence in his speech this evening was so important. Were the American people listening? Are they truly prepared for yet another U.S.-led war in the Middle East, and the possibility of further sacrifices and energy price hikes?