Tuesday, February 23, 2010

James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh's essay on adjusting to Iran's nuclear capability

We have a situation where bombing will not stop Iran from becoming nuclear capable, sanctions will not stop it, there will not be a regime change that would stop it and the US is not willing to offer enough in negotiations that Iran would disclaim nuclear capability. Just as important as that these statements are true, is the fact that these statements are widely accepted and by now form the US conventional wisdom about Iran's nuclear program.

2010 looks like it will be the year the United States and the West move out of denial about Iran's nuclear program and begin the process of adjusting to it. The West is still hostile to Iran, and the nuclear program will still be used as a pretext to impose as broad sanctions on the Iranian economy and people as the US can muster. The US long term hope is still that Iran bows to pressure the US can impose and becomes a pro-US neo-colonial dictatorship like Egypt. But 2010 is the year the US is beginning to accept that its dream for Iran will not come true for a long time, and in the interim, it will be facing, from now on, an Iran that could, if pressed build a nuclear weapon.

Part of this process is represented by a very detailed article "After Iran Gets the Bomb" by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh - two of the United States' most prominent authorities on Iran at the US' Council for Foreign Relations. There are many statements in the article that deserve to be examined closely and corrected, explained or completed.

Here we have the article's opening paragraph:
The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to become the world's tenth nuclear power. It is defying its international obligations and resisting concerted diplomatic pressure to stop it from enriching uranium. It has flouted several UN Security Council resolutions directing it to suspend enrichment and has refused to fully explain its nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even a successful military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would delay Iran's program by only a few years, and it would almost certainly harden Tehran's determination to go nuclear. The ongoing political unrest in Iran could topple the regime, leading to fundamental changes in Tehran's foreign policy and ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But that is an outcome that cannot be assumed. If Iran's nuclear program continues to progress at its current rate, Tehran could have the nuclear material needed to build a bomb before U.S. President Barack Obama's current term in office expires.
This is what old Americans would describe as a "doozy" of an opening paragraph. The first statement is an assertion without any reservation that Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon. How this statement works is that the US has a custom definition of 'weapon' that, in practice as of now, only applies to Iran. Lindsay and Takeyh will come back to their strange definition of 'weapon' later, but it does not mean what it means for the other nine nuclear powers. I'm not going to call it a lie, because they really believe in their definition but it is misleading and they demonstrate in this article that they know it is misleading.

"Iran is defying its international obligations" is the second statement. I'm really bored of this argument because if I was to prove it is a false statement, that would have no impact on the reality in Iran. If Lindsay and Takeyh were to prove it is a true statement, it would also have no impact. Everyone can agree that the UN Security Council arbitrarily invented these obligations for Iran.

The IAEA board could just as easily invent a voluntary and non-legally binding "requirement" of Israel that it disarm and join the NPT as a non-nuclear state. At that point the UN Security Council could, with far greater legality and justification than was the case with Iran, make this "obligation" a legal requirement. Israel would ignore an obligation created in that manner, assuming that it really is legal. Iran is ignoring that obligation. Any sovereign country would ignore it, but I've already discussed this obligations stuff too much.

The third statement: even a successful nuclear strike would not work to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability is a key statement that I do not remember seeing expressed by the US foreign policy establishment even last year at this time. Even though it was true by then.

The fourth statement is that Iran could have enough material to build a bomb before Barack Obama leaves office. I'm not sure how to put this. Iran has enough material to build a bomb today. Lindsay and Takeyh make a true statement, but it is not clear why they choose the end of Obama's term as a marker instead of any other time. An assertion that Iran does not have enough material today to make a weapon but will by the beginning of 2013 really does not make sense by any definition of "enough material". It is just a puzzling statement.

Lindsay and Takeyh come to what was, until recently, the pivotal point of the discussion of Iran's nuclear program, the distinction between a nuclear capability - which is legal and that several NPT non-weapons states have and a nuclear weapon which is illegal until and unless Iran notifies the IAEA that it is exercising its right to pull out of the NPT.
The advent of a nuclear Iran -- even one that is satisfied with having only the materials and infrastructure necessary to assemble a bomb on short notice rather than a nuclear arsenal -- would be seen as a major diplomatic defeat for the United States.
This is the weird definition of nuclear that only applies to Iran. (It will later apply to any state in the Middle East other than Israel because Israel depends for its strategic security on being able to make unanswerable catastrophic threats against its neighbors.) Lindsay and Takeyh skip over the fact that their definition of "nuclear Iran", is not only legal, it is the state the NPT guarantees its non-weapons signatories will be assisted in reaching.

NPT signatories are to refrain from building an actual explosive device and certify to the IAEA that they have not taken any plutonium, uranium or thorium out of their civilian nuclear program and diverted it to a military program. NPT signatories have no other NPT obligations beside that. And they are guaranteed that they will have access to nuclear technology "without discrimination" in return, as well as access to nuclear technology from weapons states and other non-weapons states on favorable terms.

The argument that Israel does not have to account for its nuclear program because it is not an NPT signatory misses the point that Iran is being asked to go beyond its NPT terms, and to respect an obligation custom built for it by the UN Security Council. It also misses the point that by not signing the NPT at all, Israel is further, not less far out of international norms regarding proliferation than Iran.
Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government's power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively.
This raises the question of what the US foreign policy community describes as "friends" in the Middle East. It really is not hyperbole to describe the relationship between the British empire and the rulers of the Middle East before World War II as colonial. The children of those rulers today are in the same relationship with the United States. If King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is not a puppet, then there never was any such thing as puppets.

Lindsay and Takeyh will show us an example later, but more than any strategic considerations, and certainly more than any popular or legitimacy considerations, the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others in the region are, as the Shah was before Iran's revolution, responsive to US concerns and priorities. This subject-superior relationship, euphemistically referred to as "friendship" by Lindsay and Takeyh is delicate and costly to maintain.

Another important and striking paragraph;
Even if Washington fails to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it can contain and mitigate the consequences of Iran's nuclear defiance. It should make clear to Tehran that acquiring the bomb will not produce the benefits it anticipates but isolate and weaken the regime. Washington will need to lay down clear "redlines" defining what it considers to be unacceptable behavior -- and be willing to use military force if Tehran crosses them. It will also need to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region.
The United States misreads Iran's expectations of benefits from its nuclear program. US analysts also have an exaggerated view of the potency of US threats even now, but even more after Iran has the capability to break the US and Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly if it were to perceive the need. But the most interesting concept Lindsay and Takeyh discuss is "the balance of power in the region."

The balance of power in the Middle East is far more fragile than anywhere else in the world because the US is constrained by its commitment to ensure that the about five million Jewish people who live in Palestine have an overwhelming military advantage over their much larger neighbors. A Saudi Arabia that builds enough military capability to balance an unrestrained Iran or Iraq is inherently militarily powerful enough to dominate or at least rival Israel, which means it could impose a one state solution that would end majority rule for the five million Jewish people.

Israel's survival requires, in the minds of US and Israeli strategists, on Israel being militarily permanently unrivaled.
Most Israelis believe the key to enduring peace in the Middle East is convincing Israel’s adversaries that ejecting Israel through force is an impossible task not worth pursuing. Essential to inducing that sense of despair is Israel’s ability to continuously trounce its enemies on the battlefield and suffer far fewer losses than it inflicts.
The danger of a powerful Iran, whether that power is nuclear or conventional, is that it will prompt especially Saudi Arabia, but also Jordan and Egypt to disregard or potentially disregard US directives that it remain militarily prostrate before Israel.

Lindsay and Takeyh speak euphemistically because it is uncomfortable to directly examine how delicate Israel's regional position is, and how much effort the US has to exert, how far the US has to go, even in sacrificing more direct and traditional regional interests, to keep the region viable.
Iran has vociferously defended the Palestinians, but it has stood by as the Russians have slaughtered Chechens and the Chinese have suppressed Muslim Uighurs.
This argument is parenthetical to the thrust of Lindsay and Takeyh's point, but it is a weak argument that I'll discuss since they brought it up. The United States has not provided more effective support to either the Chechens or Uighurs than Iran, which means that the proposition that Iran does what it can in each case cannot be discounted. But on the other hand, by drawing the parallel, the US puts itself into the group with Russia and China of parties that commit atrocities against Muslims.

But back to Iran's nuclear program:
During the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, nuclear weapons were seen as tools of deterrence against the United States and Saddam Hussein's regime, among others. The more conservative current ruling elite, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards, sees them as a critical means of ensuring Iran's preeminence in the region. A powerful Iran, in other words, requires a robust and extensive nuclear infrastructure.
I've never seen any indication that Ahmadinejad's motives for wanting a nuclear program is different from Rafsanjani's. I've heard again and again and again from Ahmadinejad and from all across Iran's political spectrum (but especially from Ahmadinejad) that Iran calculates that weapons are not effective in achieving policy outcomes. Ahmadinejad often uses the example that nuclear weapons did not help Israel achieve political outcomes in Lebanon or Gaza. He also notes that they did not save the Soviet Union.

Takeyh and Lindsay produce an explanation of Iranian's motives that is not based on what Iranians have said, but one can only guess based on their own imaginations and projections of their own fears.
However, obtaining nuclear weapons is unlikely to help Iran achieve these aims, because nuclear weapons, by definition, are such a narrow category of arms that they can accomplish only a limited set of objectives. They do offer a deterrent capability: unlike Saddam's Iraq, a nuclear Iran would not be invaded, and its leaders would not be deposed.
Wow. John Bolton on the Daily Show earlier this year said that if Serbia had been nuclear capable, the US would not have been able to bomb it. Bolton is a fringe figure in US foreign policy, a caricature of an unthinkingly hyper-aggressive militarist. Lindsay and Takeyh are solidly mainstream figures who are now saying openly that a nuclear capability would prevent Iran from being bombed, invaded and occupied the way Iraq was.

How much is it worth for a country to avoid the fate of Iraq? What Lindsay and Takeyh are saying, and I wonder if they realize it, is that it would be astoundingly irrational for Iran to accept the restrictions they argue Iran should accept on its nuclear program.
Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft.
Iran does not believe in chemical or biological weapons. By now that is part of the lore of the country. I read again and again how proud Iranians are of the decision by Khomeini not to use chemical or biological weapons against Hussein while he was using them against Iran. And it is a good point. But the anti-aircraft weapons is a different story. Giving Iraqi or Afghan insurgents anti-aircraft weapons would be an escalation, but I've always interpreted Iran's restraint as holding that option in reserve exactly as part of a campaign of retaliation against a US provocation such as attacking Iran's nuclear program.
Nor is it likely that Iran would become the new Pakistan, selling nuclear fuel and materials to other states. The prospects of additional sanctions and a military confrontation with the United States are likely to deter Iran from acting impetuously.
I want Lindsay, Takeyh and the rest of the US foreign policy establishment to believe this, but it really is not true. Iran will be willing and able to extend a nuclear capability to Syria certainly. Egypt and Saudi Arabia would only have to ask. Iran is very clear that it is willing to share its technology, after it breaks the Western embargo in nuclear expertise, with any Muslim country.

Iran does not have Israel's unique security needs. Iran would thrive without problem in a region with multiple nuclear capable states like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, or Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Only Israel is threatened by this capability but it seems Lindsay and Takeyh lose sight of that.
China's pursuit of the bomb in the 1960s prompted fears that Japan would follow, but nearly half a century later, Japan remains nonnuclear.
I'm not sure how to explain this. Japan is non-nuclear? Exactly in the context of its competition with China, a Japanese politician rightly noted that Japan could build thousands of nuclear warheads. The definition of nuclear capable as nuclear only applies to Iran and countries that Israel perceives a need to threaten.

But with this background, we can go to the main point of the article. Exactly how the US should manage a nuclear (capable) Iran.
When Washington publicly presents its policy on how to contain a nuclear Iran, it should be explicit: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, materials, or technologies; and no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. It should also make clear that the price of Iran's violating these three prohibitions could be U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary, up to and including nuclear weapons.
US strategists thinking as if the year was 1950 and the US was by far the most industrially powerful nation in the world. Iran is not a territorially aggressive country. If not for Saddam Hussein's invasion, Iran likely would never have fought a war since its revolution. But "no transfer of nuclear materials or technologies" is absurd. Muslim countries, contrary to the US abuse of the IAEA board and UN Security Council in Iran's case, have a right to nuclear technology and the injustice of the US denying that right is not sustainable any more. Iran will also continue to support groups the US calls terrorist.

Lindsay and Takeyh confirm Nick Burns' description of US strategy of containment regarding Iran. Unless conditions change drastically and quickly, I see essentially no chance of a US attack on Iran. The US military foreign policy communities understand fully that war with Iran would harm US interests - and have understood this for years now. The eagerness for war that the US displayed in 2002, the idea that if the Security Council didn't pass resolutions, the US would just go to war and leave the council irrelevant, does not exist in the United States today. In 2002, the United States believed it could accomplish political aims in Iraq through war. Today, that feeling does not exist regarding Iran.

Instead the US seems to have settled on a strategy of containment. The US will try to get sanctions on Iran's economy that are as strict as possible and then wait. Hopefully Iran will buckle under the pressure of these sanctions eventually and produce a new Shah, Sadat or Hosni Mubarak. It is a strategy that does not have a good chance of succeeding, but it calls for waiting, rather than for sudden aggressive moves that would be more harmful to both sides.

Except for trying to increase the burden of sanctions, that will only increase hostility and provoke retaliations that will harm US interests, the strategy the US is settling on is the best that could be hoped for given the fact that the US views the region primarily through the lens of protecting Israel. Here we have Lindsay and Takeyh on containment.
Containment could buy Washington time to persuade the Iranian ruling class that the revisionist game it has been playing is simply not worth the candle. Thus, even as Washington pushes to counter Iran, it should be open to the possibility that Tehran's calculations might change.
Lindsay and Takeyh close their essay by demonstrating that they don't understand why Iran is not today led by the Shah.
An Islamic Republic that abandoned its nuclear ambitions, accepted prevailing international norms, and respected the sovereignty of its neighbors would discover that the United States is willing to work with, rather than against, Iran's legitimate national aspirations.
A lot of euphemisms here. A lot of concepts that Lindsay and Takeyh are uncomfortable saying directly, possibly even uncomfortable thinking directly. "Abandon nuclear ambitions" means accept an Israeli monopoly of nuclear capability in the region, meaning accept that Israel can threaten to cause catastrophes on its neighbors without any retaliation. "Accept prevailing international norms" I think means recognize Israel and accept its legitimacy. "Respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" means to accept the legitimacy not only of Israel, but of the string of colonial protectorate states the US maintains in the region to prevent a threat to Israel from emerging.

What Lindsay and Takeyh are asking of Iran is that Iran take the considerations of US voters into account in its policies in preference to Iranian voters, the overwhelming majority of whom do not accept Israel's legitimacy, much less any need for Israeli regional primacy, for Israel to be able to threaten while immune to threats from others. They possibly do not realize it, but like the Leveretts and nearly the entire US foreign policy community - left to right, they believe colonialism is a good thing if it's good for Israel.

However, this article represents the first steps toward US acceptance of Iran's nuclear program. This article does not hope against hope that the Green Revolution will effectively reinstall the Shah. It does not call for futile airstrikes. It does not call for attempting to tighten sanctions to force a near-term change in Iranian policy. I expect that over the course of this year, the consensus of the US foreign policy will publicly reach this position if it has not already.

1 comment:

lidia said...

I suppose "greens" still cannot gat that they are no longer of use for USA. I would pity them, but I prefer NOT being made to pity Iraninas who would suffer from "green coup"