Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Iran’

What’s on the Second Term Foreign Policy Agenda?

By Taylor Marvin

Congratulations rural Pakistanis! Not to worry, the drone strike that just killed you was ordered by a Democratic president!

That’s not to say Barack Obama’s reelection isn’t worth celebrating, even from a strict foreign policy perspective. Mitt Romney’s inability to complete routine feel-good foreign tours without pissing off entire host countries and overwhelming unpopularity abroad hinted a Romney administration’s relations with allies would be rocky, and his fundamentally hawkish worldview suggested that he would be more likely to, intentionally or inadvertently, lead the US into a costly war. Barack Obama is also more open to rational defense cuts than Romney, who insisted on growing military spending for no reason beyond ill-defined ideals of “strength” — and Virginia Electoral College votes.

While it is a mistake to insist that there is no difference between an Obama and Romney administrations’ foreign policy, they, of course, share the same broad political philosophy: both favor American intervention into foreign conflicts while shying away from unpopular, electorally-damaging boots-on-the-ground wars; both judge the immediate benefits of counter-terror drone strikes to be worth their long-term perception costs; and both have expressed an inability to concede to the end of American global hegemony, especially in the Western Pacific. Of course, blaming the candidates — or parties — for this shared consensus is putting the cart before the horse; the Democrats and Republicans share the same broad national security platform because it is popular. In the aftermath of Iraq most voters may shy away from blatant neoconservative talk, but as the Obama administration’s war in Libya shows, interventions are palatable to the public, if they come at low enough direct cost. For all the protests of libertarians drone strikes are popular, because Americans fear terrorism and really don’t care about civilian casualties abroad.

So the drone strikes and broad interpretation of the American military’s role in the world are here to stay. This shouldn’t be a shock, and isn’t a reason to support a third party. American third parties on the left are deeply amateurish, and libertarians are worse: Conor Friedersdorf’s protest vote for Gary Johnson on civil liberties only illustrates that he cares more about hundreds of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes than the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths repealing Obamacare and an austerity-driven recession would cause among his own country’s poor. Foreign policy rarely changes in meaningful ways between administrations not because “both parties are the same”, but because their consensus is popular, to the extent that the electorate cares. This isn’t to say bold policymakers can’t dramatically shift US foreign policy, but the path dependency and electoral considerations that guide their actions are very limiting.

But what does this mean for Obama’s second term? The administration will be unlikely to meaningfully deviate from the course set during Obama’s first term: drone strikes will continue, and the administration may pursue a low-cost intervention — think Libya, not Syria — if the opportunity presents itself. But a second term does offer Obama the opportunity to devote more time to foreign policy issues. Second term presidents usually focus on foreign affairs more than during their first term, when their domestic agenda dominates. This will be especially true for Obama. Barring a conservative come to God moment, Republicans in Congress will likely double down on obstructionism, a tactic that conservatives will perceive to be validated by expected low turnout midterm election gains in 2014. Given this obstructionism, the Obama administration is unlikely to successfully pursue any major domestic goals, like a comprehensive climate change package that included a carbon tax.

So where could the Obama administration turn its attention? An Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is a non-starter; the division in the Palestinian government, Israel’s move to the right, and the US’ deteriorating ability to position itself as an ‘honest broker’ make progress unlikely. Obama gives every indication of ignoring Latin America in his second term as much as he did during his first; to be fair, it’s not clear what real good an increased US presence in the region would bring. US-Russian relations are chilly, but unlikely to improve. Worse, Obama is also unlikely to meaningfully alter America’s policy towards China; the administration’s largely meaningless Asia Pivot means that the mixed strategy of both engagement and containment — with all of its problems — will continue. This is a major disappointment, and positive action by Obama towards China would be a pleasant surprise.

One rational goal for Obama’s second term would be pursuing an accord with Iran. Obama is better positioned than any recent president to successfully improve the US-Iranian relationship.  George W. Bush sacrificed the prospect of any worthwhile diplomacy with his pointless “Axis of Evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq, and Clinton’s dual containment policy, while justified by Iran’s support for terrorism, only maintained the status quo. Domestically, Obama’s record of brutal sanctions buys him political cover to offer a real carrot to the Iranian regime, which is a required part of any successful deal. Though I believe that these sanctions are ultimately damaging to the prospect of favorable long-term change within Iranian society, they are also another potential carrot.

The prospect of progress on the Iranian side is less certain. Openness to dialog on the Iranian side is not enough: after all, in the late 1990s Khatami was open to reforming the US-Iranian relationship, but was unable to overcome conservative opposition within the Iranian regime and ended his tenure with little influence. Today it’s unclear if there is anyone within the regime willing to pursue a Grand Bargain, or if they can outmaneuver conservatives. However, the tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, as well as Ahmadinejad’s impending departure, suggest that the situation within the Iranian government is more fluid than any time since the 2009 election. Whether this is a positive sign remains to be seen.

Also important is Obama’s perceived opposition to military strikes. Barack Obama is less likely to initiate strikes than a Romney presidency would have been, and less likely to cooperate with an Israeli attempt to coerce the US by launching a military strike unilaterally, and then calling for US assistance. It is likely that hardliners within the Iranian regime prefer strikes to very damaging sanctions, as military strikes would mobilize Iranian opposition to the US and Israel and strengthen their position within the regime. If strikes are perceived as less likely in an Obama second term, the potential domestic political payoff from refusing a negotiated settlement are lower. Since the Iranians know the US will not attempt to overthrow the regime a war is survivable, and the prospect of strikes less of a stick than US hawks suggest.

While these signs aren’t favorable per se, there’s no reason the Obama administration shouldn’t devote a major part of their foreign policy agenda during their second term towards Iran. Sanctions impose an enormous, ongoing human cost, and should be ended as soon as possible. The nuclear issue is in desperate need of a resolution  and the the US-Iranian conflict is a resource-sink that should be resolved, if possible. Obama’s second term is as good an opportunity as any.

Khrushchev, Iran, and Bad Historical Analogies

By Taylor Marvin

Confrontation at sea. US Navy photo via Wikimedia.

On a recent episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis host Rachel Martin spoke with Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government about the foreign policy lessons of the crisis. Matin raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested the comparison during his recent speech before the UN General Assembly where he argued President Kennedy prevailed by setting a red line that “prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.” Allison agreed with Netanyahu’s analogy, and ended the discussion by noting that the current dispute with Iran leaves no good options on the table:

“So I think we’re now into a season where I would hope that after the election, whomever is elected will become intensely focused and inventive about options that are not very good — I call them ugly options, very ugly options — but that would nonetheless be better than attack or acquiesce.”

Of course Allison is right — there are no good options here, despite neoconservative protestations to the contrary. However, I’m not convinced that the comparison between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current dispute with Iran holds up in any meaningful way to scrutiny.

President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to avert war because each preferred a negotiated compromise to fighting. The Soviets had initially put nuclear weapons in Cuba — contrary to their previous assurances to Kennedy that they would not — out of a desire to remedy their strategic missile imbalance with the US, credibly detere a US invasion of the island on behalf of Castro, and possibly as a future bargaining chip. The Soviets eventually withdrew the missiles from Cuba in exchange for rather meaningless concessions from the US: a tacit pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret pledge by Kennedy to remove obsolete Jupiter IRBMs from Turkey, whose secret nature did not allow the Soviets to present the concession as a victory. Ultimately the Soviets backed down because they knew, unlike the Americans, that there were already armed nuclear missiles in Cuba that would certainly be unilaterally launched by local commanders in the event of a US invasion or airstrikes. While the end of the crisis was a disaster for the Soviets, even the final settlement’s weak US pledge not to invade and the secret removal of the Jupiters was preferable to escalation towards an American invasion, which the Soviets alone knew would certainly lead to nuclear war.

This logic does not extend to the US and Israel’s confrontation with Iran, because it is unclear if Iran holds war with the US or Israel as the worst possible outcome. A nuclear strike or ground invasion by the US against Iran is clearly off the table — at worst, a war between the US and Iran would mean an ongoing air campaign against military targets, naval warfare in the Gulf, and an Iranian terror campaign against American targets abroad and, through its Hezbollah proxy, Israel. Barring an exceedingly unlikely mass uprising by the Iranian populace against the government, this is a survivable outcome for the regime.

Of course, survivable does not necessarily equal preferable. But there are reasons to think the Iranian regime would hold a limited US attack as preferable to publicly walking back from its nuclear program. The nuclear program remains popular within Iran, though support for the program has fallen. If the Iranian regime was popularly perceived to have been forced to abandon nuclear development the program’s popularity would undoubtably rise through a “lost cause” mentality. Backing down in response to foreign pressure would likely be extremely politically risky for policymakers, and would be perceived national embarrassment that would generate push back both from conservative sectors of Iranian society and hardliners within the Iranian government whose opposition to the United States is an integral part of their political DNA. Even if decisionmakers in Iran wanted to abandon the nuclear program, these domestic audience costs within and outside of the regime would make it difficult to do so. Entirely justified US concern over Iran’s history of misleading the international community would make it difficult for IRI leaders to use private negotiations to sidestep these audience costs.

A war would certainly be painful for Iran: the broad US air campaign against Iranian nuclear and air defense targets required to delay the Iranian nuclear program by up to a decade would certainly kill numerous civilians, and would destroy difficult to replace military infrastructure. A wider conflict sparked by Iranian retaliation would be more costly. However, an American strike would not be a disaster for hardliners within the Iranian government. As the Saddam Hussein painfully learned in 1980, the Iranian people are quick to rally against a perceived aggressor — despite American protestations, a strike targeting the nuclear would be viewed as an unprovoked attack on their homeland by the vast majority of the Iranian population. A strike woud solidify the position of hardliners, and give them a political blank check to resume terrorist violence abroad, as well as instantly discredit potential liberal reformers both within the regime and in Iranian civil society.

From the perspective of IRI hardliners an Israeli strike would bring greater political benefits — antisemiticly-charged domestic anger and the marginalization of their political opponents — with significantly less damage to both the nuclear program and military infrastructure than a more capable American strike. A much higher priority drive towards nuclear capability would soon follow, with great popular support.

In the NPR interview Allison remarks that Netanyahu’s reference is basically correct “with respect to red lines and the ways they can constrain the competition, and therefore contribute to preventing war.” The problem is that, depending ideologies of key Iranian decisionmakers, the relevant red line Tehran will respond to may lie beyond limited war. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully because both actors viewed their ultimate settlement preferable to war, and the Soviets accepted a lopsided agreement because they recognized that the cost of war would be higher than the Americans did (as only they knew, with nuclear weapons armed in Cuba, a US invasion would initiate nuclear war). This peaceful outcome would not have been possible if both sides were willing to “escalate through” war before they reached their minimum acceptable outcome. If Iranian policymakers’ domestic audience costs and ideology influence them to hold a limited war preferable to backing down on the nuclear issue, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a bad historical analog. In fact the Iranian conflict’s long duration — “like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion” — substantially raised Tehran’s domestic audience costs by making their commitment to the right to develop domestic nuclear energy more firmly anchored in the minds of Iranians.

In 1962 Khrushchev was able to make disproportionate concessions — withdrawing nuclear weapons from Cuba without being able to publicly reveal the US’ less strategically valuable parallel Jupiter concession — because he enjoyed a position to dictate Soviet policy. It is not clear if Iranian policymakers today have this same flexibility, as hardliners and their conservative constituents still enjoy considerable power in the IRI government; certainly more than their reformist opponents. The importance of hardliner political support means that allowing Iran to be coerced out of the nuclear program would likely be more politically costly for current policymakers than the Cuban Missile Crisis’ lopsided diplomacy was for Khrushchev. However, Iran’s dual government of the elected presidency and parliament and unelected Supreme Leadership offers an interesting “escape valve” to the avoid domestic audience costs associated with acquiescing to foreign pressure. If Khamenei reaches the decision that the nuclear program is not worth the costs — there is evidence that the drive for nuclear capability is not set in stone — he could place responsibility for the nuclear program, and the costs of abandoning it, on the increasingly marginalized President. As Kenneth M. Pollack relates in his excellent if dated history of US-Iranian relations, both Supreme Leaders have frequently used this tactic to walk back from policies they came to regret.

Note: Immediately after wrapping up this post I noticed that Michael Dobbs has a piece on the same topic up at Foreign Policy, though he examines the question from a different angle. Check it out. Daniel Larison also has a post up today about the increased chances of war with Iran under a Romney presidency.


On the subject of the Cuban Missile Crisis, check out The Atlantic’s excellent photo collection commemorating the crisis.

Why Do Americans Underestimate the Iranian Government?

By Taylor Marvin

The New York Times recently published a problematic fluff piece that takes a speculative look at how national borders could change in the future, predicting 11 major border changes in the near future. It hard to know how seriously to take these predictions; while authors Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna argue that “we appear on the brink of [a] nation-state baby boom” they decline to go into the specifics of their forecasts at all. Stephen Saideman runs through the list and casts doubt on nearly all of Jacobs and Khanna’s forecasts.

In their entry on the prospect of a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’, Jacobs and Khanna mention offhand that “Iran has the potential to dominate the region, but it is also at risk of internal implosion.” As Saideman notes, this “risk” isn’t likely at all — Iran has no major successions movements, and is governed by a stable and reasonably domestically popular regime. But this offhand remark is interesting because, beyond being simply ill-informed, it reflects the common belief among foreign policy-minded Americans that the Iranian regime is on the cusp of collapse. While the recent removal of the cultish Iranian opposition militia group MEK from the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations is partially due to MEK’s propensity to pay off the influential, it is difficult to argue that the group would have found such a receptive audience in Washington if policymakers didn’t seem to believe that its delusional quest to overthrow the government of Iran had a chance of succeeding.

On a similar note, policymakers in Washington and the American media continue to misunderstand the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, and continue to believe that it was a violent revolutionary movement that failed to overthrow the government only because the Obama administration was too cowardly to arm it. As Daniel Larison has repeatedly noted, the Movement’s protesters were offended by an unfair election, not the supremacy of the unelected supreme leadership itself, and the Green Movement was never the revolutionary force American neoconservatives fantasized it to be. The regime itself remains broadly popular within Iran, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brand of combatively self-assured populism is generally well received by conservative and rural audiences. Contrary to these beliefs, Iran is not a failed state, its government faces no major internal security threats, and the history of the Green Movement does not suggest that a mass popular uprising is only waiting on American support to sweep away the regime and usher in an America-friendly democracy.

If the perception of a weak regime is incorrect, why is it so prevalent in Washington and the American media? Partially due to neoconservatives’ own biases — they want the same kind of democratic uprising in Iran as they fantasized would erupt in Iraq after an American-led invasion. As any reasonable observer must realize that there’s no way to overthrow the government at an acceptable military cost without the cooperation of the Iranian population, hawkish advocates of regime change need an unstable regime and revolutionary populace to even pretend their schemes are workable. Many American commenters also (reasonably) favor their own democracy, and have trouble recognizing that authoritarian governments can be just as successful at attracting the nationalistic loyalty of their own citizens as democratic ones; this bias is at least partially responsible for the ridiculous idea that Iranian citizens would respond to bombing by helpfully overthrowing their government, not raging against the people killing their neighbors. Another possible bias: while the Iranian diaspora in the US isn’t particularly politically influential, prominent Iranian-Americas tend to come from prosperous families that fled the country immediately after the fall of the Shah’s government and can be expected to be more opposed to the current government than the average Iranian living in Iran, affecting American policymakers’ own assessment of the regime’s stability.

Americans tend to view authoritarian states as either monolithic titans [today: China] or wobbly edifices on the verge of democratic revolution. Of course, the truth tends to fall between these two extremes. But underestimating the governing capacity of the Iranian regime and misunderstanding its internal politics is dangerous because it breeds strategies dependent on these misconceptions’ accuracy. Many Americans likely wouldn’t mind if Iran suffered an “internal implosion” but it isn’t likely to happen, and the widespread belief that it is is a recipe for bad policies.

Even When You’re Hot, You’re Still Othered

By Taylor Marvin

From Buzzfeed:

  • The notion that the nation of Iran is, believe it or not, home to attractive human beings is indeed surprising.
  • “Look how exotic and strange they are!”
  • What’s the implications behind the choice of the possessive “their”? If the author intended to refer to ‘the women of Iran, the country,’ he’d have used the singular “its”. Instead, he chose the plural “their.” Read into this as you will.


By Taylor Marvin

Slate’s photo choice for a story about Iran’s nuclear program is… ironic.

After decades of service the F-14 was retired by the US Navy in 2006, making the aircraft’s only current operator… the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.

Slate isn’t alone: a recent issue of TIME featured this gem:

Not an F-22. From TIME, August 29, 2011, print edition.

Look, I get that not every photo editor can be expected to be familiar with the huge array of American military aircraft, and editorial mix ups happen. But it’s still entertaining.