Losing The Forest Of Iran Policy For The Trees Of A Nuclear Deal

February 10, 2015 § 9 Comments

There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.

Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.

Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.

Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. 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)?

The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.

The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.

Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.

For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.

Hagel And The Israel Lobby

December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.

I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.

The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding,  and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.

Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.

None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least –  is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.

Turkish Ambitions Vs. Turkish Limits

September 20, 2012 § 3 Comments

Spend five minutes listening to Turkish politicians or reading their speeches and you immediately get a sense of how high Turkey’s ambitions are. The best recent example of this is a speech Ahmet Davutoğlu made in April in which he declared, “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” adding that “even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Hugh Eakin captures this notion of immense Turkish ambition in a piece that uses Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plans to build an enormous new mosque overlooking the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey’s grand strategic plans. As Eakin notes, Turkey under the AKP wants to lead the Sunni Muslim world and take charge of the Middle East while building up Istanbul in a style reminiscent of development in Gulf states.

I think that some of what Eakin writes is either wrong or goes too far; for instance, he implies that Turkey is turning away from the West which is neither true nor even possible given Turkey’s presence in NATO and the fact that over 60% of its trade is with the EU. The thrust of Eakin’s piece is that the AKP is moving Turkey in a more religious direction, but the talk of increased religion misses the point in two ways though; first, Turkey is and always has been a  traditional/conservative/religious society once you move away from Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities, so I don’t think it is the government that is driving a religious revival, but rather a religious revival that is emboldening the government. Second, what should be the greater concern is not the move toward more overt acceptance of religion but the move toward more overt authoritarianism, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the AKP transforming into a typical Turkish proto-authoritarian party. The focus on Islam is misplaced here, in my view, and risks overlooking the greater danger that is brewing. In any event, Eakin is making a larger point about Turkish ambitions, and it is certainly an accurate one.

Walter Russell Mead also wrote about Turkey earlier this week, but his argument was that Turkish ambitions are about to be dashed. In a typical  Mead-ian historical flourish, he compares Erdoğan to Woodrow Wilson:

Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)

Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.

 Mead argues that Kurdish and Alevi discontent, bad relations with Turkey’s neighbors, and the slowing Turkish economy portend a tough road ahead for Turkey, one in which it will have to find dependable allies and work with them to restore a sense of calm and stability. In other word, Turkey’s (and Erdoğan’s) ambitions of becoming a great power are misplaced and the moment has passed, if it even ever really existed.
These two articles are a good study in contrasts and point to what will be the most intriguing thing to watch over the next couple of years when it comes to Turkey, namely whether Turkey tempers its ambitions as it recognizes its limits. There is no doubt that Turkish ambitions and goals have been sky high, but they have slammed against the brick wall that is the Syrian civil war. Ankara’s foreign policy is close to being in shambles for the first time under the AKP, there is a huge problem of PKK terrorism and (separately) a growing desire for Kurdish autonomy, tensions with Iran over energy and newfound wariness of its nuclear program, and of course the stream of refugees coming over the border from Syria, not to mention domestic discontent over Ankara’s Syria policy more generally. Much of this morass has emerged in the past year alone, and yet in many ways the government is still operating on the assumption that Turkey is about to become a world power. There are a host of structural limits on Turkey and problems if its own making that are combining to make that dream disappear, yet there isn’t much evidence yet that the government realizes or acknowledges the new reality that it has to deal with. How Turkey navigates between its ambitions and its limits is going to determine its success in the years ahead.

A Rare Miss From Walter Russell Mead

March 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

WRM is one of my favorite analysts because he is uncommonly thoughtful and erudite and often brings up points that I would not have thought to consider on my own. His latest missive on the Kadima election, however, is an anomaly for him as it seems like he dashed it off without really considering what actually went on over the past few weeks in Israeli politics. He contends that Kadima dumped Livni in favor of Mofaz because Kadima voters want to compete with Netanyahu on Iran and other defense issues, and that by “wrap[ping] itself in the khaki” the party is moving to the hawkish right. This sounds plausible as a surface explanation if you just look at Mofaz being a former defense minister and IDF chief, but it ignores the scope of the entire primary campaign, during which Mofaz explicitly campaigned on social issues rather than defense issues. It also breezes past the fact that Mofaz is on record as advocating negotiations with Hamas and that he blasted Netanyahu today for advocating a strike on Iran that Mofaz deems premature at this point and described as disastrous and ineffective. Most devastatingly, Mofaz blew out Livni on the strength of the 25% of Kadima’s voters who are Arab Israelis and who voted for Mofaz at a 71% clip. I agree with Mead that Mofaz is likely to eventually join the Likud coalition, but this election was certainly not an effort on the part of the Kadima rank and file to become more hawkish, nor was it a referendum on defense and security issues. In fact, it was precisely the opposite. Like I said, WRM’s analysis is all the more surprising considering how high he has set the bar for himself with his work, so I am confident that he simply wasn’t paying terribly close attention to the Kadima primary.

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