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Posts tagged ‘Iran’

What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Does Khamenei Believe Obama’s Threats?

By Taylor Marvin

Last week President Obama addressed West Point’s graduating class in what was widely acknowledged as the clearest explanation of his second term foreign policy yet. In a speech stressing that not every global problem requires American military action and celebrating the role of multilateral diplomacy, Obama’s comments on Iran were nothing new. While praising the coalition-building that has facilitated extremely harsh sanctions, Obama warned that despite ongoing negotiations “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” While welcoming the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis — “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force” — Obama implicitly reminded that if the Iranian regime does not cooperate it risks an American effort to violently put a stop to its nuclear ambitions.

American observers alternatively characterized the speech as an example of foreign policy realism or not realism, suggested that it provided little guidance on Syria and Iran, and warned that Obama’s reluctance for war would embolden America’s enemies. Has it? Via Lobe LogIranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Wednesday that the United States has indeed taken the threat of force off the table. As the New York Times reports:

Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

“They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

While defiance and harsh statements by Khamenei is not new, his apparent dismissal of US threats appears to be:

Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the past has repeatedly said the United States was intent on attacking Iran, but incapable of doing so, has apparently now concluded — at least in public — that military action from the United States should not be expected.

Arash Karami has more.

Does Khamenei, who is ultimately the final voice for major decision within the Iranian government, actually believe that the principles outlined in the president’s West Point speech indicates that the United States will not risk strikes on Iranian nuclear infrastructure or, in a broader option, government and military targets?

There are three broad possibilities. The first is that Khamenei’s statement is simply posturing. The Supreme Leader has an incentive to increase his own standing among audiences within the regime, Iranian society, and the world by making Iran appear strong and the United States weak. The Iranian government and Supreme Leader especially defines itself in opposition to the West, and especially the United States. Talk is cheap, and stating that the risks of striking Iran are so high that the US government will not back up its threats is a means of demonstrating Iranian strength to both Iranians and sympathetic Muslims around the world, and strengthens Iran’s position in its competition with Saudi Arabia for a leading position in the Middle East.*

But even if Khamenei believes that Obama would not follow through on threats against the Islamic Republic, Obama will only be in office for another two and a half years. While authoritarian leaders often appear to have problems internalizing the significance of democratic countries’ constraints on executive power and elections, Khamenei should realize that many of the potential Republican presidential candidates would be far more likely to attack Iran, meaning that in the longer-term the American ‘realization’ of airstrikes’ risks is not set in stone. If this is the case, then Khamenei’s statement is just another variety of the unconvincing posturing — “even more dangerous” seems a stretch — that some elements of the Iranian government appear so weirdly prone to.

A second possibility is that Khamenei does believe that Obama would not order airstrikes if Iran appeared to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon or negotiations somehow catastrophically broke down, but that he is wrong. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Khamenei seeks to avoid US strikes, this threat is sincere, and Khamenei has somehow come to believe that it is not credible, then a serious and dangerous miscommunication has occurred. An Iran that interprets a perceived American reluctance to attack as a green light for a nuclear weapon could easily stumble into a war that it did not foresee.

If this is the case then Obama must seriously reconsider his rhetoric, avoid admissions by the US government that strikes would be risky (in effect, lie), or somehow demonstrate his resolve. Critics have often argued that the Obama administration’s failure to follow up on its anti-weapons of mass destruction red line in Syria has weakened his credibility everywhere. While is a mistake to judge credibility in one crisis based on another — governments have priorities, after all — its plausible that Khamenei sees US inaction in Syria as a precedent.

However, it is important to note that striking Syria could just further decrease the president’s credibility with Iran if a disgruntled American public decisively turned against the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. If the Iranian leadership sees an unsuccessful American air campaign against the Syrian Assad regime as constraining the United States it could interpret threats as even less credible than before.

The third possibility is that Khamenei believes Obama will not strike Iran, and that he is right. As analyst Matt Duss remarked in a February 2012 conversation with Jamie Fly, there’s reason to think that privately the Obama administration is just “not interested” in war with Iran, though whether Obama could escape his rhetorical hands-tying when it came down to it is an open question. While President Obama has downplayed hopes of a lasting diplomatic end to the crisis and emphasized that no option is off the table, the rest of his foreign policy does suggest a reluctance to stumble into unnecessary wars. Despite the problems of linking American resolve on Syria and Iran too closely, they are somewhat related: The Obama administration ultimately elected to not to use force to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite a prior commitment to do so. And while rhetorical commitments and three decades of sometimes violent confrontation obviously make Iran a special case, commitments to block nuclear proliferation suffer from an inherent credibility problem when the United States did not use military action to prevent North Korean building a bomb.

Alternatively, Khamenei may be correct without Obama — or anyone else outside his inner circle, really — knowing it. Neoconservative urging aside, the Obama administration is unlikely to actually make the serious decision to attack Iran unless it feels that it has no other choice. If the Iranian regime would like to avoid strikes it may have made the conscious decision to pursue a nuclear program popular with ordinary Iranians while refraining from baiting American strikes. Of course this is a difficult balance to strike, but Iran has successfully done so for the last decade by simply not giving any concrete indication that it is rushing towards an actual bomb, rather than meandering towards nuclear capability. If this is the case then Khamenei might be saying that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions” not because Obama’s threats are not credible but because he plans for Iran not to give Obama reason to follow through on them.

Which of these possibilities are the most likely? I have no idea, and you’ll have to ask a Persian-speaking Iran specialist.

*For an excellent, if dated, account of this competition see Vali Nasr’s 2006 book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.

The Nuclear Shortcut

By Taylor Marvin

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Iranian F-14s, via Wikimedia.

Writing at Duck of MinervaJarrod Hayes profiles the brewing disagreement between US and UK policymakers over British nuclear weapons. Many Americans fear that as the UK defense budget shrinks, the British will be tempted to cut their conventional forces — which American policymakers hope will continue to operate alongside their US counterparts — to free up funds for the UK nuclear force. The costs of capable modern conventional forces have grown so great that, in Hayes words, “the established nuclear powers in the West will face increasingly difficult questions about [nuclear] arsenals that serve no practical military purpose.”

Hayes concludes that as the costs of fielding competitive conventional forces grows, “the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat” will increasingly be seen as the mark of great powers, not nuclear weapons.

There are numerous reasons to suspect that this is the case. First, while nuclear weapons are often viewed as a physical confirmation of great power status — the fact that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear armed is surely relevant — not all aspiring world powers decide to pursue nuclear weapons. Of the G4 nations that hope to reform the UN Security Council, only India possesses nuclear weapons; despite the opportunity to do so, Brazil, Germany, and Japan do not (though, of course, Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to forego nuclear armaments). Indeed, the decision to actually acquire nuclear weapons appears to be more often driven by security concerns than the desire for great power prestige: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all appear to perceive nuclear arms as a necessary deterrent against foreign threats.

Secondly, nuclear weapons are comparatively cheap compared to other indications of great power status. As Hayes notes, the costs of world-class conventional forces are much greater than nuclear weapons. This holds for other components of nuclear forces: the accurate rockets and advanced submarines needed to create a second strike-capable nuclear force are far more difficult to engineer and costly than nuclear warheads themselves. The same is true of other demonstrations of national greatness. While successful civilian space programs suffer from none of the prestige costs associated with nuclear weapons — they don’t threaten to destroy civilization — the ability to send humans into space is reserved for a much more exclusive club than nuclear weapons.

But nuclear weapons will remain attractive for aspiring regional powers, especially those facing extraordinary security situations, for precisely the reasons Hayes outlines. Iran is — of course — a good example. Iran’s leaders perceive themselves as threatened by the United States, a perception heightened by Washington’s previous overthrow of an Iranian government, various American officials’ public belligerent rhetoric, and Washington’s support for an anti-regime terrorist organization. Direct security concerns are not the only reason Iranian policymakers desire nuclear capability: the legitimizing effect, both within and outside of Iran, of achieving prestigious nuclear capability in the face of Western resistance and the desire for greater freedom to influence the region likely also play a role.

However, nuclear weapons, or more likely, the ability to quickly produce them, are the only way for Tehran to achieve these security goals, because Iran has zero chance of ever matching US conventional military capabilities in the region. Before the 1979 revolution Iran attempted to become the foremost local power in the Middle East. The Shah’s government had a considerably greater opportunity to chase this goal than today’s Iran. Flush with oil revenue, Washington was willing to sell the Pahlavi government the most advanced weapons systems money could buy: among other toys (really, that’s the only term for how the Shah approached weapons procurement; Pollack relates an amusing anecdote about the Shah “reading magazines such as Jane’s Defense Weekly as if they were shopping catalogues”) the Shah’s government purchased American main battle tanks, F-14 fighter aircraft, Cobra helicopter gunships, and was overthrown just before acquiring four US-built advanced air defense destroyers based on the world-class Spruance class.

But of course, the Shah’s military never came close to rivaling US power in the Persian Gulf region. While the Pahlavi government’s weapons purchases were put to great use in the Iran-Iraq war, weapons systems acquisition in and of itself is not sufficient to build a competitive military — human capital resources like training and doctrinal flexibility are far more important. Today’s Iran faces far more barriers to building a competitive military. Sanctions on Iranian oil exports restrict available funding, and unlike the Shah today’s leaders in Tehran faces steep barriers to purchasing weapons systems from abroad. Today, Iranian military hardware innovation is mostly restricted to fabricating spare parts for rapidly aging Western weapons and knock off missiles far less advanced than their international equivalents. Indeed, Iran’s recent embarrassing attempts to showcase an obviously fake “stealth fighter” is arguably evidence of just how decrepit its indigenous weapons industry really is.

Iran cannot further its own security goals through conventional military forces, so instead Iran’s deterrence strategy must favor “unconventional” assets, in both senses. In an open conflict with the US Iran would use asymmetric area-denial strategies to restrict the movement of US maritime forces in the Persian Gulf, and its irregular proxies to punish vulnerable US interests and allies. Similarly, nuclear capability would allow Tehran to, in its leaders’ minds, offer the ultimate deterrent blocking US aggression, a deterrence impossible to achieve with conventional military forces.

It is debatable how realistic Iran’s nuclear ambitions are. While the status quo (Western reluctance to strike Iran; Iranian reluctance to acquiesce to a nuclear deal that does not favor their interests) favors Iran, there is an ever-present risk that Israel or the US will try and forcefully delay Iran’s nuclear development. But Iran’s chances of achieving a workable deterrence that allows it to expand its own interests are greater if it pursues nuclear, rather than conventional, power.

Domestic Constraints on Diplomacy

By Taylor Marvin

Why have negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program continued to stall? The simplest potential answer is that Iranian and P5+1 negotiators simply have incompatible minimally acceptable outcomes. Another theory is that fundamental differences between Iranian and Western negotiating styles have led to misunderstandings. Dina Esfandiary highlighted this possibility recently, noting that P5+1 negotiators misread to them-unacceptable Iranian offers “as a sign of their unwillingness to talk rather than an opening to negotiations.”

Another explanation for diplomacy’s slow progress is that one or both countries’ negotiators are too diplomatically constrained to offer, or accept, an otherwise mutually-acceptable bargain. Patrick Clawson recently discussed this possibility in the context of internal IRI divisiveness: what if the Iranian regime is too divided and dysfunctional to actually agree to anything? Even if P5+1 negotiators were to offer a “unilateral US unconditional surrender,” Clawson speculated in Foreign Policy, infighting among factions within the IRI regime might make even this best-case deal unworkable. Even if the P5+1 was willing to offer their counterparts everything they wanted, it’s unclear if Iranian negotiators can actually be counted on to represent the relevant policymakers back home.

But this argument misses the most important ramification of internal Iranian division. The Iranian regime’s disunity may hamper its ability to offer prospective carrots, but it also limits the efficacy of America’s stick — if internal divisions constrain diplomatic options, they arguably also constrain the ability of the American government to coerce Iran. Of course, deterrence will always be an easier face of coercion than compellence, particularly when successful compellence must influence numerous policymakers holding competing preferences. The specifics of Iran’s internal dynamics heighten this difficulty. While the Iranian regime as a body does not appear to derive its legitimacy from opposition to the West, individual politicians certainly can. Infighting gives these politicians a political incentive to avoid a settlement. It’s unlikely the threat of US strikes on nuclear targets will have any practical compellence effect on these domestically-vulnerable leaders, weakening the effect of coercion on the relevant policymaking body as a whole.

Rather than a threatening prospect to be avoided, US airstrikes could a political positive for hardliners alarmed by the prospect of a repeat of 2009’s post-election unrest. “An American strike,” Alireza Nader recently wrote in the New York Times, “would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy — and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.” This isn’t novel logic. History is full of unpopular regimes that overcame internal legitimacy crises by focusing domestic discontent around an external foe. The same prospect of diversionary conflict drove the unstable Argentine junta to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982, though the threat of domestic unrest and prospect of regime instability is nowhere near as severe in today’s Iran than early-1980s Argentina. But importantly, the US appears to not grasp the implications of this perceived vulnerability: at the exact moment when Iranian conservatives seem more concerned about their domestic position than any time since the 1980s the United States doing everything it can to help the regime credibly present it as an implacable external enemy.

This doesn’t imply the Iranian regime faces any real prospect of collapse. Nader’s characterization of the regime as wobbling and wheezing is overblown, and American hopes the Iranian government will conveniently collapse are chimerical. But unqualified American hostility that empowers its adversaries is simply bad US foreign policy. “What Iran’s leaders would like more than anything,” Matthew Duss recently argued, “is another Dick Cheney or John Bolton, someone willing to play the villainous role that Iran’s anti-American propaganda narrative requires.” For Iranian political figures benefiting from the America-as-aggressor narrative, the positive (for them) implications of a US strike is a powerful incentive to avoid a diplomatic settlement.

This is why the “stick” argument Clawson embraces is so misguided. Clawson closes his piece by warning Iran that it should either “accept a generous offer to resolve the nuclear impasse or be prepared for the consequences.” But the same internal division Clawson highlights makes these “consequences” an entirely uncompelling threat! Given that the status quo favors the Iranians — the decision to escalate the crisis rests on the Americans and Israelis — relying on threats to coerce Iranian compliance over diplomacy isn’t likely to succeed.

But part of why these arguments persist is that, barring a unexpected breakthrough, diplomacy doesn’t appear to be workable. This impasse can be partially attributed to Iranian disfunction, but internal politics arguably constrains American diplomacy as much as it does Iran’s. The Obama administration’s Iran policy is limited by a domestic political arena that is at once too united and too divisive. The American foreign policy establishment’s reflexive hostility towards Iran makes it difficult to imagine the US proposing a feasible diplomatic solution, and partisan politics works to prevent the administration from moderating its demands.

Foreign policymakers inhabit a broader establishment that constrains their actions. These constraints are significant, and the specifics of American agenda-setting within divided government allow US hawks to constrain politically acceptable diplomatic options to their own preferences to a greater extent than their dovish peers. Most voters don’t care about foreign policy and embrace exceptionalist rhetoric that legitimize interventionist policies and makes threat inflation politically valuable. Just as IRI internal divisions allows hardliners’ preferences to limit both diplomacy and the compellence value of American sticks, in America the spectrum of credible diplomatic offers is benchmarked around the most hawkish members of the US foreign policy establishment. While this is no reason to discount the very valid reasons for opposing the Iranian regime — its barbaric human rights record is the most obvious — it is important to recognize that institutionalized hostility towards Iran within the American governing establishment significantly constrains P5+1 diplomacy.

The constraints these attitudes place on policymakers is obvious. After all, much of the Republican hostility to Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is based on his view that a destructive war would represent a fundamental failure of foreign policy; a complete truism to dispassionate observers. Worse, when Jennifer Rubin claims Iran — home to a population a quarter of America’s, bereft of international allies, and armed by a decrepit military — is “our greatest national security threat” she is voicing a mainstream Republican talking point, not a fringe position. Commentators may persuasively argue that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are hugely overblown, but their arguments makes little practical difference because the political constraints built into the modern American foreign policy establishment marginalize challenges to nuclear alarmism.

Clawson contrasts Iranian divisiveness by noting that American bills targeting Iran “typically enjoy stunning levels of support,” but discounts the possibility that this too is a barrier to successful diplomacy. If American threats do not appear sufficient to compel Iran — and they do not — successful diplomacy must involve some degree of mutual compromise. But again, it’s unclear if American policymakers possess the domestic political capital to accept a potentially mutually satisfactory deal. While “sanctions relief” is reportedly on the table in the next round of talks, Republicans are sure to view dialing back sanctions in exchange for anything less than complete Iranian capitulation as another example of Obama’s “unserious” attitude towards national security.

These domestic political constraints aren’t limited to setting the boundaries of plausible diplomatic options. It’s worth remembering that American attitudes have already blocked potentially workable solutions. As related by Trita Parsi in his history of the Obama administration’s first term diplomacy with Iran, the potentially mutually-agreeable Iran-Brazil-Turkey-led Tehran Declaration was derailed in part by US domestic political pressures. “The impression, right or wrong,” Parsi quotes an Obama administration official as saying, “that was created was that we could not take yes for an answer”; an example of constrained diplomacy if there every was one.

Compromise is an integral part of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s possible diplomatic constraints on both sides of the negotiating table make that necessary mutual trade a nonstarter.

No, Iran’s Leaders Aren’t Irrational, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

The LA Times reports that the Iranian government, alarmed by a falling birthrate that threatens future welfare programs and productivity, is offering incentives to couples that have children.

“The government’s new family plan, which seeks to increase marriage and birth rates among those who are between 20 and 30 years old, offers a number of incentives to couples who choose to have larger families. Not only are they promised low interest rates on loans when they buy apartments, but working mothers are offered generous maternity leave, supposedly topped off with a gold coin after the birth.”

Hmmm. This strikes me as good news, for reasons I can’t clearly recall. Oh right. Last year Lee Smith wrote an idiotic Tablet piece claiming that Iran’s low birthrate was evidence the entire country was populated by suicidal maniacs impervious to the logic of deterrence:

“Perhaps most tellingly, the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today—suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.”

So if the government’s trying to raise the birthrate above replacement rate, the regime must “wish to live.” Great news! I, of course, expect Smith to calmingly explain that the danger of the nuclear crisis’ now over, any moment now.

Why’s Iran So Terrible at Lying?

By Taylor Marvin

Ever Friday Political Violence @ a Glancean academic blog by political scientists I edit, solicits readers’ answers about some open question in political violence or international relations. I wrote the question this week: why are Iran’s attempt to fake technical achievements so consistently amateurish?

It’s not the fact that Iran attempts to fake high-profile technical achievements that is surprising: the entire space race between the US and USSR was founded — and, more pertinently, funded — on the national prestige value of technical advancements. Instead, what’s surprising to me is how obviously amateurish these attempts are. For example, what’s the point in showcasing a mockup “stealth fighter” obviously built at, say, 6/8ths scale? There’s little additional cost and technical requirements associated with building a more convincing mockup. Given that these hoaxes are widely mocked in the outside world, either the IRI policymakers responsible for these attempted public relations campaigns consistently overestimate the gullibility of outside observers, or they’re intended purely for internal audiences.

It’s important to note that these exaggerated or fabricated accomplishments aren’t mid-level operations. President Ahmadinejad was present for the recent space monkey showcase — which, at best, involved a botched photo release — indicating that the stunt had the approval of at least some high-level leadership. Even allowing for the possibility that senior IRI decisionmakers are consistently mistaken about how convincing their trumpeted fabrications actually are, it’s still puzzling that leadership in a reasonably-sophisticated state capable of reasonably-complex operations in other spheres would be this incompetent.

That leaves the alternative explanation that these stunts are purely intended for internal audiences, and that policymakers judge their damage to Iran’s external prestige worthwhile. But again, I’m not sure that this strictly makes sense. In the USSR authorities were able to suppress news of space program disasters or setbacks like the 1960 Nedelin catastrophe or failure of the N-1 moon rocket program, and anyway had plenty of genuine high-profile successes to deservedly celebrate. In the modern era information is far more difficult to suppress. It is unreasonable to think that educated Iranians are significantly less likely to spot obvious fabrications like the recently showcased stealth fighter; the Qaher 313’s fakery would be immediately apparent to any enthusiast familiar with images of F-22 or other modern fighters.While these stunts may play well to uneducated or poor audiences, it is likely the regime could devise alternative PR stunts capable of convincing the uneducated while avoiding international mockery.

So does anyone have a better explanation?

In Space, No One Can Hear You Lie

By Taylor Marvin

Iran’s claim to have launched a live monkey into space on a suborbital rocket is false, the Times of London reported today — the monkey shown before flight is clearly not the same creature purportedly recovered. It is unclear if Iranian officials are attempting to cover up the death of the test creature in flight, or if the proclaimed launch happened at all.

The lack of international confirmation of the launch suggest that it was not conducted at all. But despite the amateurish qualities of the deception, it is unsurprising that the Iranian government would make false claims about the country’s space program. Iranian officials have a history of heavy-handedly exaggerating their country’s purported technical exploits for propaganda purposes. When the Iranians showcased a captured American RQ-170 drone in late 2011, they insisted that they had taken control of the aircraft in flight by spoofing its GPS systems; an unlikely claim.

The rational for these false claims is clear: it’s politically important that the Iranian government present itself as a technologically capable power unhampered by international isolation and impoverishment.

Iran’s history of exaggerated or false claims about its space program is not unprecedented. National space programs are important propaganda tools unmatched as a demonstration of national pride and technical skill. Given heavy rockets’ inherent dual use nature, they’re also a demonstration of military prowess that can be positively spun to neutral audiences as unobjectionable scientific advancement. Given these high stakes, authoritarian regimes capable of restricting news of space program failures have every reason to do so.

Space dog Laika, via Wikimedia.While the USSR could rightly pride its unmatched record of early Space Race achievements, Soviet leaders were highly aware of their space program’s propaganda value. The Soviets maintained for decades that Laika, a dog launched aboard the early satellite Sputnik 2, was painlessly euthanized in orbit; instead, she died in considerable distress from overheating during her first day in space. This falsehood fit into the larger purpose of the entire program. The prestige value of the Soviets’ space program had to be maintained, mandating that failures be concealed and successes trumpeted by the propaganda machine. The zero-sum soft power competition between the US and USSR left little room for transparency — the international prestige granted by space successes, after all, had considerable impact on real world power politics. Accordingly, Soviet achievements were often considerably exaggerated.

As the American space program began to ramp up, the Soviets hurriedly sought additional firsts to follow up their initial record achievements. One notable success was the 1964 Voskhod 1 mission, the first spacecraft to carry three men into orbit. But, as Greg Goebel notes in his comprehensive history of the race to the Moon, the frantic pressures of the space race meant that shortcuts had to be taken — shortcuts that could be obscured by Soviet restrictions on open information. As a larger capsule roomy enough to hold three cosmonauts in spacesuits would take too long to build, the Soviet space leadership elected to delete the spacesuits. Goebel quotes lead Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev’s deputy Vasily Mishin:

“Fitting a crew of three people, and in spacesuits, in the cabin of the Voskhod was impossible. So — down with the spacesuits! And the cosmonauts went up without them. It was also impossible to make three hatches for ejection. So — down with the ejection devices!

Was it risky? Of course it was. It was if there was, sort of, a three-seater craft and, at the same time, there wasn’t. In fact, it was a circus act, for three people couldn’t do any useful work in space. They were cramped just sitting! No to mention that it was dangerous to fly.”

While not a lie, the Soviet celebration of Voskhod 1 was certainly an exaggeration of its actual engineering merit, and evidence of a program that prized propaganda over safety.

While America’s freedom of the press made it impossible to conceal major disasters in the US space program — if the horrific Apollo 1 fire had happened in the USSR, it would not have been public knowledge — NASA officials were similarly aware of the importance of propaganda. Early American astronauts were depicted as flawless demigods in the press, while knowledge of the astronauts personal failings were suppressed. My 1960 copy of Seven into Space, an all-American celebration of the Mercury program, celebrates the astronauts as simultaneously humble and superhuman, all while ignoring both the divisions within the program and coordinated press campaign designed to depict the astronauts, and by extension America, in the most positive light possible.

While this historical press campaign was nowhere near as dishonest as Iran’s fake spacefaring monkey, it was driven by the same reasons. Like its Soviet rival, for all its talk of noble exploration the early American space program was just as motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as national prestige concerns — as the Iranian program is today. In this high stakes game there’s no room for any failure, whether technological or personal. In national space programs what governments admit to is driven less by honesty than what they think they can get away with

Nationalism For Us, Not For Them

By Taylor Marvin

Thomas L. Friedman has a new column out. While it’s arguably futile to critique his writing — Friedman’s been penning self-congratulatory paeans to conventional wisdom for a decade now — but it does touch on an interesting fallacy that dominates US foreign policy thinking: the belief that the US’ policy preferences are so evidently righteous that their appeal is universal. The key to resolving foreign disputes, it follows, is not moderating US preferences, but taking them directly to the people and bypassing intransigent foreign leaders. Friedman makes this point most strongly with regards to Iran:

“Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb.”

For someone who prides himself on his travel record and whose propensity for quoting insightful taxi drivers is viewed as a running joke, Friedman seems to have little ability to empathize with the people he speaks for. Iranians aren’t all ignorants who only need the US government to spell out its position in Farsi to happily accommodate American demands — they’re autonomous human beings fully capable of holding views contrary to the United States’. Friedman’s inability to reach this obvious conclusion is striking.

International concern over Iranian nuclear program is justified. But think of how American opposition to their country’s nuclear program looks to Iranians: the United States, which remains the only state to use nuclear weapons in combat, insists that it and other nations can maintain nuclear weapons capability, but Iran cannot. This prohibition, in Iranians’ view, is even more unjust coming from the United States: many are old enough to remember the brutality of the American-supported Pahlavi regime, and the terror of US-abetted Iran-Iraq war. Is it surpassing that reasonable people within Iran would object to America’s attempt to forbid them from accessing what they see as a prestigious and security-assuring technology? Is it really logical that the only barrier to a US-Iranian accord is that the US hasn’t made the message simple enough? Isn’t it possible that the median Iranian objects to the “offer on the table” itself, and its implicit coercion?

This lack of empathy — the ability to recognize the biases of others — is the core deficiency in Friedman’s worldview. Friedman’s entire schtick is that the world is flat, fundamentally simple, and readily understandable. If the world is as simple as Friedman claims, then reasonable people divided by culture and national experience cannot hold fundamentally different interpretations of the world; if policymakers can just express their positions clearly, opponents will come to an accord. The US and Iran haven’t failed to reach a mutual understanding not because they hold mutually exclusive views of each other and their own security, but only because American leaders haven’t made themselves clear. Friedman argues that the US should “say to the Iranian people over and over: ‘The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.’” But of course this is a fallacy. To many, if not most, Iranians the blame for economic stagnation rests on the outside world, whose sanctions threaten their livelihoods and health. To them the reason that “the risk of war hangs overhead” is not their own leaders, but a belligerent United States that threaten regime change. Attempting to convince Iranians otherwise plays into regime messaging’s hands.

Friedman counsels that incoming-Secretary Kerry should “break all the rules” by talking directly to the people. But this rests on the assumption that foreign populations must agree with the US’ liberal worldview — an assumption that denies them the agency to hold legitimate grievances against the US hegemon. Is it any wonder his column reeks of condescension, not measured wisdom?


Daniel Drezner has a similar critique of Friedman’s column. Drezner correctly notes that the nuclear program is broadly popular in Iran, and that the US is unlikely to win a propaganda war within the country. I would note that the IRI’s nuclear policy is as much driven by path-dependent public opinion as it is a top-down government imposition, and that the regime — historically inclined to nationalistic populism — likely is “listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question” anyway. However, Drezner’s piece is valuable, and the dual arguments that US public diplomacy is at best counterproductive within Iran and any hint of outside-influenced public campaigning is delegitimizing within Iranian society is a strong argument against US conservatives who denounce President Obama’s perceived failure to support the Green Movement.