Edition 6 Volume 31 - August 07, 2024

Bush's new approach to Iran

Toward a cold peace? -   Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Rest assured that the next campaign to persuade us that war and sanctions are inevitable is around the corner.

An unwelcome policy change -   Aluf Benn

The old "it's not our problem but a global problem" line has gradually been abandoned.

Leisure of the theory class -   Mark Perry

War might be diplomacy by other means, but it is not diplomacy.

Bush's disastrous flip flop -   Michael Rubin

Iranians play chess while Americans play checkers.

Toward a cold peace?
 Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

There is a discernible progression in the rapprochement between the United States and Iran, even during the presidency of George W. Bush. This progression was forced upon the Bush administration by the emerging new regional order in Western Asia and North Africa and the reshuffling of world politics toward a "post-imperial" era. Let me sketch a few signposts of these developments in the following paragraphs.

It has been one of the rather more salient effects of President Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq that the United States has lost its power to push and shove states, much less societies, toward accepting the "war on terror" as a global reality. Today, the United States cannot enforce its legitimacy as the universal "Leviathan" anymore. The country's short indulgence in the "unipolar transition moment", the period immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union, is over. If it could attack Iraq without a clear international mandate; if it could turn a terrorist attack on its soil into a global war--then nobody is safe.

States and societies, especially in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds, feel compelled to protect themselves from this penetrative source of instability, not least because governments are increasingly scrutinized by assertive civil societies from Cairo to Riyadh. These have made it that much more difficult for authoritarian states to favor regime survival over national interest. Incidentally, this is why US presidential candidate Barack Obama constantly stresses the necessity to repackage the American brand. What he is trying to do, in essence, is to re-position the United States in world politics, not in order to pacify its foreign policy but to re-appropriate the country's diplomatic power to legitimate future adventures. This is meant to make it easier for the allies of the United States to re-navigate toward an explicitly pro-American position.

So does it really matter if it is the erudite liberal or the macho neo-conservative who enforces the universal "embrace" of the idea of America? It does, in one very significant way: today, the neo-cons' ability to pool diplomatic power to legitimate aggression is minimized (even sanctions against Mugabe's Zimbabwe were vetoed). The slick, charismatic liberal who looks and speaks as if he understands the despair of the voiceless, on the other side, may get the benefit of the doubt.

This brings us to the logic behind the Bush administration's decision to let Undersecretary of State William Burns join envoys from France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany in talks with Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Neoconservative supporters of aggression against Iran (and the wider Muslim world) such as Michael Rubin, Patrick Clawson, Michael Ledeen and John Bolton, all of them neatly organized in the American Enterprise Institute and all of them huffing and puffing about the possibility that there could be a peaceful solution to the current standoff, are right. What they allegorically call the "policy of appeasement" was forced upon the Bush administration by a range of interdependent developments in world politics, some of them rather novel.

There were the many signals made by Europe, Russia and China, that they will not tolerate yet another war in Western Asia. There was the systematic protest of the Arab and Muslim world about the unresolved conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan. In the US there has been the containment of the "Israel lobby" brought about by a bold and honest assessment of its disastrous impact on US foreign policies. Then there is the influence Iran exerts in the very places the Bush administration wants to push ideologically and politically toward a pro-American and pro-Israeli direction, especially in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, but also in Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. There is the transnational appeal of the "liberal-Islamic" narrative that many Muslims are increasingly habilitating as an alternative to the "American" counter-narrative and there is increasingly global and organized anti-war movement, that continues to pre-empt the myths and lies concocted to lure us into conflicts. Finally, there is the structural crisis in the world economy exacerbated by the high oil price.

To those factors we may add two additional ones that indicate why the ideologues mentioned above are now shouting from the margins rather than from within the White House. First is the professional and realistic assessment of Iran's capabilities and intentions by the US intelligence and defense establishment. Thus far they have resisted efforts, concocted by the anti-Iranian cabal under the auspices of US vice President Dick Cheney, to lure them into the war campaign. And secondly, they have met resistance in the opposition to war expressed through the functioning organs of US (and Israeli) civil society.

Taken together, these factors have yielded this moment of "cold peace" between Iran and the United States. They obliged the Bush administration to adopt a rational approach. Iran and the region have narrowly escaped yet another disaster. A cold peace between the countries, characterized by diplomatic scuffles rather than military threats, may ensue. A sigh of relief? We cannot afford it. Rest assured that the next campaign to persuade us that war and sanctions are inevitable is around the corner.- Published 7/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam has taught comparative politics and international relations at SOAS since 2024. He is the author of "Iran in World Politics". His newest book entitled "A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations" will be published in November 2024.

An unwelcome policy change
 Aluf Benn

The Bush administration's decision to engage diplomatically with Iran was seen in Israel as an unwelcome change of heart. For several years, Israel has advocated a strong-arm strategy toward Iran aimed at halting its nuclear program through severe sanctions and threats of military action. More recently, Israeli leaders have escalated their rhetoric vis-a-vis Iran, contributing to speculation about an impending attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel has become increasingly impatient over the failure of sanctions to change Iranian behavior even as the nuclear "point of no return" quickly approaches.

American detente with Iran removes any idea of military action from the table. As long as there are talks there will be no bombs. And if America proceeds with its plan to open an interest section in Tehran due to be announced later this month, it will supply the Iranians with the ultimate human shield. Neither the US nor Israel is going to attack the nuclear facilities at Natanz, Arak or Isfahan when American diplomats are on the ground. Israel would not want to be held responsible for a second American diplomat-hostage drama or worse.

Israeli and American officials spend hours talking about the Iranian nuclear issue, but their perspectives are different. Israel sees a nuclear Iran as the ultimate threat and at minimum as an irreversible change of the regional power balance for the worse. Moreover, Israel views force as a legitimate and effective counter-proliferation tool, as shown in the bombings of Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria's suspected reactor last September. The global silence over the Syrian operation could be interpreted as tacit approval and stands in stark contrast to the wide condemnation of Israel after Osiraq.

As the world's superpower, the United States faces a more complex strategic reality than Israel. It has to worry about rising oil prices dominating its economy. Its army is deployed in Iraq, rendering it a perfect target for Iranian retaliation. Unlike Israel, America has a track record of achieving nuclear disarmament through diplomacy; Libya and North Korea are two recent examples. And above all Americans, after decades of living with Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons, perceive much less of a threat from Iran than do Israelis.

Recent months have witnessed a growing disparity between American and Israeli assessments and positions regarding Iran's nuclear threat. As the Bush presidency entered its final year, America was clearly losing any appetite for another war in the Middle East after Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans worried far more about their skyrocketing gas prices than about the ever-growing number of centrifuges in Natanz. The National Intelligence Estimate, published last December, gave Iran a partial acquittal and was interpreted in Israel as a self-inflicted restraint on American freedom of action.

At the same time, Israel has become less and less patient with what it perceives as a futile diplomatic effort to halt the Iranians. The Israeli establishment hoped and wished that Bush would do away with the threat through a last-minute bombing. The conventional wisdom held that the outgoing president would not want to leave a nuclear Iran as his lasting legacy or that he would allow Israel to attack, just as he gave a green light to the bombing in Syria.

Publicly, Israel has toughened its message. The old "it's not our problem but a global problem" line has gradually been abandoned. At first, Israel presented a counter-NIE to Bush, aiming to persuade him that Iran is indeed developing nuclear weapons. In April, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went on record stating, "I want to tell the citizens of Israel that Iran will not have a nuclear capability." Minister Shaul Mofaz, head of the Israel-US strategic dialogue and a prime ministerial hopeful, threatened Iran outright with an attack. Israeli officials were openly advocating a shipping blockade and an embargo of refined oil products against Iran.

All to no avail. The world wouldn't listen. Only the Iranians responded, with tough rhetoric and missile testing. Previously, Bush had appeared to accept the Israeli hard line, as when he called the bombing of Syria's reactor "a message to Iran" and in his Knesset speech in May. But by June Bush hinted that he was tilting toward diplomacy: he announced in Europe that he was leaving behind "a multilateral framework to work this issue" while Washington issued a string of leaks and public statements as well as diplomatic messages indicating its strong opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran and a "no go" warning against Israeli over-flights of Iraq. As compensation, the Pentagon pledged to supply Israel with a sophisticated early warning radar. Israeli officials did not like the American message, and defense minister Ehud Barak asked the administration in late July not to forego the military option. Nevertheless, it was a last-ditch effort.

Now Israel has to adapt to the new phase of American-Iranian diplomacy. Its main goal should be to maintain its vital interests, first and foremost to resist any linkage between Iran's and Israel's nuclear programs. It may still raise the military threat, but given America's resistance this would be used mainly as a diplomatic bargaining chip.- Published 7/8/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Aluf Benn is editor-at-large of Haaretz.

Leisure of the theory class
 Mark Perry

In 1919, America's best military thinkers got together to discuss what strategy the US would adopt if attacked by Japan. The resulting volume, approved in 1924, was called "War Plan Orange". The strategy stipulated that after a Japanese attack, the US would reinforce its bases in the Philippines and central Pacific, gather its battleships in California, then sail west to engage the Japanese Imperial Fleet in a decisive battle that would take place somewhere in the western Pacific. After its victory in this battle, the US Navy would starve Japan into submission by blockading Japanese ports. And so, just like that, the war would be over. Won.

Military historians wryly acknowledge that within minutes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, "War Plan Orange" was removed from the navy's files and thrown into the nearest trashcan. If Pearl Harbor proved anything it was that the importance of battleships had been eclipsed by aircraft sent aloft from floating airfields; that the Philippines could not be held; that there would be no "decisive battle" and that the Japanese islands would not be starved into submission. Other than that, the plan was perfect.

It is with this in mind that I recently read Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt's study on the consequences of military action against Iran--published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy under the title, "Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran". Released in June, critics of the report described it as "filled with academic constructs" and "sophisticated policy considerations" that were "brought together to justify the conclusion that going to war against Iran is in America's best interests".


Clawson and Eisenstadt's paper is nearly exhaustive in laying out the challenges that face American policymakers, plumbs the depths of how a military action might "prevent" and "deter" Iran's nuclear program and counsels great care in understanding the "risks and uncertainties" in using force against the Tehran government. That is to say, "Last Resort" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the US military does and why. It's gibberish. The US military does not engage in military campaigns to "prevent" or "deter," but to "destroy the enemy's will to resist" and, as army doctrine notes, "to defeat the enemy". Where did Americans ever come up with the idea that military force prevents war? War is not a game of winks and nods and nudges, of messages sent and received. It is remorseless. It is unpredictable. And once begun, the leisurely think tank intellects (who, after all, don't have to send their sons or daughters to fight) are never heard from again. All that they have written is consigned to its rightful place--in the same round tin whose maw welcomed the US plan in the Pacific.

"Last Resort" is not "War Plan Orange". Rather, it is chillingly similar to the "Central Agreement". The "Central Agreement" was written by senior Japanese military officers in mid-1941. In it, the Japanese High Command concluded that, after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, they would construct an impenetrable naval perimeter. After a year or so of attempting to pierce this barrier, they believed, the American government would conclude that a war in the Pacific could not be won and would be too costly to fight. The United States would get the message: we would sue for peace. The miscalculation by the Japanese was not in underestimating American tenacity (we actually have a low tolerance for death in combat), but in the nature of war itself. War might be diplomacy by other means, but it is not diplomacy.

No one knows this better than the US military, whose senior officers--and most prominently Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--have made their opposition to a military attack on Iran clear. This is not simply a nicety. Mullen's statements have been clear and authoritative: we do not have the forces available to launch an attack, we cannot be certain that an attack once launched would be successful and, in what stands as a monument to understatement, doing so would be "extremely stressful". For anyone who knows anything about the place of the military in American society, saying that a military operation would be "extremely stressful" is well outside of the kind of public statement that is normally accepted of a "can do" senior military commander. "Yes sir, but what you've ordered is extremely stressful?" If Eisenhower were president, Mullen would be fired.

George W. Bush has gotten the message. In the wake of Mullen's numerous statements, the president deployed an American diplomat to talk to the Iranians--or at least to sit with them at the same table. It's a start. Of course, as president, Bush may order an attack on Iran if he so wishes and with little regard to the whims of an already tamed Congress. He may well do so. But in the face of a military that is increasingly dependent on reserves to fill its Baghdad billets (soldiers who normally spend their time filling sandbags during hurricanes), I very much doubt it. Rather, it seems that our president has belatedly concluded what any taxi driver in Washington could have told Clawson and Eisenstadt: that their study has as much relevance as "War Plan Orange", that the "last resort" has already been reached. Thankfully it's much, much less stressful. It's called diplomacy.- Published 7/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Bush's disastrous flip flop
 Michael Rubin

Press and pundits applauded George Bush's decision last month to send a representative to Geneva to join a meeting with Iran's nuclear negotiator. Barack Obama, the 2024 presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said, "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy." Sen. John Kerry, the 2024 Democratic presidential nominee, said the decision might be "the most welcome flip flop in diplomatic history".

To bring the Islamic Republic into compliance with its international commitments through peaceful means is a noble goal. Nevertheless, the White House reversal was the wrong move at the wrong time. Just as democracy is about more than elections, diplomacy is about more than just a willingness to talk. Absent the preliminary work necessary for its success and attention to timing, diplomacy can accelerate conflict.

Washington's insistence that Tehran cease its nuclear enrichment makes sense. While proponents of diplomacy call this a precondition, abandoning such a demand both unilaterally sets aside three UN Security Council resolutions and enables Iranian officials to run down the clock as they near irreversible nuclear capability.

Even if the White House waffles back to its earlier position, the damage is done. By establishing--and then voiding--the redline laid down by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States would not talk until the Islamic Republic suspended its uranium enrichment, the Bush administration undercut the credibility of future redlines. Indeed, this is the message that many Iranians have taken. On August 1, 2024, for example, Ali Reza Hosseini, an employee at the Strategic Studies Institute at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, urged the Iranian leadership "not to take the secretary of state's ultimatums seriously".

This raises the probability that Iranian officials will misread the determination of Bush or his successor administration to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving a military nuclear capability. Where self-described realists and progressives see flexibility, Iranian officials see weakness. "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated," stated Mohammad Ja'far Assadi, newly-appointed chief of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces, on July 16, 2024.

Diplomacy absent opponent sincerity does more harm than good. The West has already suffered for its efforts to accommodate Tehran. Between 2024 and 2024, European Union engagement with Iran led to a near-tripling of trade. Rather than use its hard currency windfall to build civilian infrastructure and improve the economy, the Iranian leadership invested perhaps 70 percent of its hard currency and oil windfall into its military and nuclear programs.

Such an allocation is not the result of regime hardliners controlling appropriations, for the bulk of the work on Iran's covert nuclear program coincided with a period of reformist resurgence and so-called dialogue of civilizations. On June 15, 2024, the semi-official Fars News Agency provided lengthy excerpts from a panel discussion with Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami-era government spokesman. He lambasted not the content of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's nuclear policy but rather its style, and urged a return to Khatami-style diplomacy. "We had an overt policy that was one of negotiation and confidence-building," he explained, "and a covert policy that was continuation of [our nuclear] activities." He recommended that the Iranian government should "prove to the entire world that we want the power plants for electricity [but] afterwards we can continue with other activities."

Indeed, he signaled that Tehran may see the incentive package the White House signed on to in an entirely different light than the western diplomats who offered it. "As long as we were not subjected to sanctions, and during our negotiations, we could import technology," Ramezanzadeh explained. "We should have negotiated for so long, and benefited from the atmosphere of negotiations to the extent that we could import all the technology we needed."

Iranian officials gloat. They welcomed US concessions as affirmation that defiance succeeds. Meanwhile, with 6,000 P-1 centrifuges and a 4.8 percent enriched feed Tehran can produce 20 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium in just 16 days, a period between International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Iranians play chess while Americans play checkers. That Tehran's nuclear program has progressed so far is a testament to the Iranian strategy. In contrast, Bush's move has little to do with a well-thought out strategy and is more a flailing attempt to change legacy. As Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, the price of Bush's flip-flop will be high: Iranian overconfidence, erosion of future UN Security Council resolution effectiveness and forfeiture of future redline credibility. With its diplomatic card wasted, the next US president will have a stark choice: allow the Islamic Republic to go nuclear or accelerate the application of far more costly measures.- Published 7/8/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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