Muting the Military Option

Reuters, covering Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks about diplomatic efforts with Iran yesterday, concludes that military force still retains a prominent place on the table of options should success prove elusive. “While U.S. officials have long held out that threat,” the news outlet’s reporters write, “Kerry’s comments appeared to indicate the Obama administration would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks fail.” I’m not sure how they gathered that from Kerry saying “I happen to believe as a matter of leadership, and I learnt this pretty hard from Vietnam, before you send young people to war you ought to find out if there is a better alternative.” I doubt Kerry’s intention was to emphasize the possible bombing of Iran as war is the last thing the Obama administration wants. Indeed, if Kerry was driving at that it would fly in the face of a recent statement by White House Spokesman Jay Carney.

Asked at a press briefing last week if the administration still thinks a final deal has a good chance of being reached, in the course of his answer Carney revealingly replied that military strike “can’t be a first option.” Although Carney duly insisted beforehand that “Resolving this issue through the use of military force has to be something that we obviously never take off the table,” the spokesman is engaging in formality because the administration knows very well they can’t bomb away the problem. It seems the administration is beginning to slink away from the military option. I knew this would have to happen and that, as diplomacy rolls on, more and more policymakers will similarly distance themselves from all talk of war. Revving up the bandwagon that a majority of Washington will be hopping on is former General Wesley Clark and Joe Reeder, a former U.S. Army undersecretary.

Clark and Reeder cautiously argue against trumpeting the military option now, writing that the demand for it in the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill is “seriously ill-timed” and that “for the sake of our troops, overt threats before concluding what appears to be earnest, ongoing negotiations is unwise.” So far their approach mirrors Carney’s—have qualms about the military option but don’t call for scrapping it–but they go a step further in their earnestness for diplomacy. They tacitly warn Congress against any thoughts of sabotage when they entreat “each member of the House and Senate to lend strong support for a negotiated solution and to permit the ongoing negotiations to proceed in an environment conducive to success.” Yes, they’re aware Congress has a Constitutional role to play in the negotiations but the legislators need to quit the hawkish mischief and “stand united in support of administration’s efforts” even if that diplomacy means a final deal that isn’t quite to Congress’ liking.

But “so what?” some Iran doves might object. If diplomacy fails, whether Congress mucks things up or not, everyone presently praising the merits of diplomacy will just clamor for war then. Ah, but by that point it will be too late. Once the promoters of diplomacy latch on to Clark and Reeder’s position of delaying talk of the military option they might as well be arguing against ever mentioning it. After diplomacy is finished and Iran proves to the international community the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by answering questions about “possible military dimensions” but leaves the U.S with lingering suspicions, it will be all but impossible to launch strikes. Maintaining a hostile posture towards an Iran that has received a clean bill of health would demonstrate to the world that the U.S. wasn’t interested in nuclear proliferation but in regime change. The tables would then be turned as the world firmly takes Iran’s side and spurns the U.S.

Okay, but what if Iran winds up reneging? Will the world demand military action then? No–the whole point of the final deal is to create a sufficient window of time between a greenlight from Supreme Leader Khameini and the debut of an Iranian nuke so the West will have time either to execute a containment strategy or re-engage in diplomacy to dissuade Iran from going all the way. But Iran would find an advantage here and extract many concessions by occasionally announcing the go-ahead and then stopping once their demands are met. The West will recognize this and won’t want to be boxed in paying ransom. How to escape from this bind? Reach détente with Iran, of course.

So, glancing ahead, the military option definitely will not be as on the table as everyone has previously thought. Who knows, the politicos may even piecemeal concede that it isn’t on the table at all. It’s not like they haven’t figured out years ago that war with Iran is a laughably bad idea and will never happen because shutting down Iran’s nuclear program would require regime change and occupation. In the meantime, however, Clark and Reeder have set the template that Iran doves will use to easily triumph over the Iran hawks who also don’t want an insane war but who do want to score political points against President Obama’s foreign policy during their midterm campaigns.   

Congress Will Come Around on Iran

Ever since the interim nuclear deal with Iran was signed, the consensus on both sides has been that brokering a comprehensive, final deal would be a much tougher row to hoe. Last month, President Obama wrote in a statement“I have no illusions about how hard it will be to achieve this objective.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif opined on Monday that the talks to come would be “difficult” adding that “the “biggest challenge would be the lack of trust.” I have my doubts that diplomacy will be such an uphill struggle, however, and these pronouncements sound to me like stock phrases rolled out to reassure hard-liners that the store isn’t being given away. The Obama administration certainly knows that this spat with Iran cannot be resolved any other way save by statesmanship and Congressmen are giving off faint signals that they too are becoming cognizant of this.

A hundred House Democrats and four House Republicans have signed a letter to Obama supporting the President’s opposition to supplemental sanctions and defending “robust diplomacy” as being the U.S.’s “best possible strategic option.” The letter concludes that “we must not imperil the possibility of a diplomatic success before we have a chance to pursue it.” Although this can be taken as a promising omen for the negotiation’s success, there is still a chance that these legislators aren’t really pro-diplomacy and are waiting for the talks to run their course and then, when Congress is needed to lift the sanctions, springing on Iran all of the impossible demands from the Kirk-Menendez bill. But it is highly unlikely that the deal-derailing parameters of that bill will form the basis of Congressional approval for the final accord because of how uncompromising that will appear to our P5+1 partners and the steps they’ll take in reaction.

If the U.S. is seen as not having negotiated in good faith, the international support for waging economic warfare on Iran–from which these nations have in no sense benefited–would evaporate and the crucial multilateral sanctions would be repealed. They especially will not hesitate to do this after Iran has assured the world that its civilian program is peaceful by fully disclosing the nature of its past activities. The EU, Russia, and China will be the ones to work out a compact and the fact that this momentous diplomatic event happened without the U.S.’s participation would put into sharp relief Washington’s declining global influence. Following this precedent, all nations will begin to go their own way and conduct affairs without the U.S. as superintendent. All the administration has to do is point out that the empire would suffer because of an unreasonable, inflexible approach and even the most raucous hawks will balk and catch their drift. 

That argument is already being made in the House members’ letter when they write “A bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations…must be avoided.” And there are other indications that Congress’ stance will soften by summer. Jim Lobe, going over Senator Menendez’s requirements for a final deal and finding nothing about zero enrichment, writes “Clearly, this suggests that Menendez is prepared to accept a deal that would permit Iran to enrich uranium to low levels.” This shift from the co-author of the new sanctions bill has inspired other Democrats to follow suit. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) admonished his colleagues who are pushing for total dismantlement and zero enrichment, saying “anyone who insists on that provision basically is insisting that there not be a final deal.” So, ultimately, we can expect that Congress won’t be using the Kirk-Menendez bill as a touchstone.

After months of partisan battle, a Congressional majority will come around and give their thumbs-up to a deal along the lines of the one Iran and the EU almost reached in 2005 but the U.S. nixed it. But if anti-Iran hawks improbably win the day in Congress, should failure worry us? I’ve explained before why there’s no reason to freak out and Yousaf Butt agrees that there actually would be no big to-do if diplomacy was botched. Butt observes that should a falling-out occur, it wouldn’t matter since the IAEA inspectors will stay and “Deal or no deal, the IAEA will continue to conduct in Iran one of the most thorough and intrusive inspections it carries out anywhere.” Further, after reading Butt’s summary of the double-standards the West has applied to Iran ,one could make a convincing case that diplomacy isn’t needed at all.

Butt reminds us that in 2008 “all the substantial safeguards issues had been resolved” and so– disregarding the spurious smoking laptop—technically Iran has been in the clear for years and therefore these negotiations are bogus, a cover for bludgeoning Iran and weakening its regional status. As for the past nuclear weapons research that the West wants Iran to fess up to, all of it is perfectly legit under the NPT. Since Iran isn’t guilty of anything, Butt prescribes what ought to be done:

“The UN Security Council should now adopt a new resolution verifying that Iran is now technically in compliance with its safeguards agreement. Such a resolution would annul the previous UN resolutions calling for sanctions, and return Iran’s file to the IAEA. Individual countries that wanted to maintain unilateral sanctions would, of course, still be free to do so.”

Indeed, the nuclear negotiations should be voluntarily terminated because what is there really to discuss? Rather, the U.S. should direct all of its diplomatic energy towards addressing all the other political baggage we have with Iran and arriving at détente—the only fool-proof guarantee that Iran will never decide to build nukes.