- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Some mildly good news: in a partially smart diplomatic move, the Obama administration has reportedly offered to trade the deployment of missile defenses in eastern Europe for active Russian support to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. According to the NY Times story, the deal requires not just Russian support (presumably for more extensive economic sanctions), but rather depends on Iran “halting any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”
This is a clever offer at first glance, because it gives up an expensive program that we don’t need (missile defenses) in an attempt to get something we do want (better relations with Russia, and a deal with Iran on its nuclear program). Missile defense has been a costly chimera for decades, for two main reasons. First, any country sophisticated enough to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile could probably develop low-cost countermeasures that would thwart our defenses. Second, any country that could develop missiles and a bomb small enough to mount on one wouldn’t have much trouble smuggling a few weapons into Europe or the United States. This situation would actually be worse than a missile attack, because we might not even know where the attack had come from and thus would not be able to deter it by threatening retaliation. Spending billions on missile defenses is like locking the front door and leaving the back door wide open, with a sign inviting the burglars to come on in.
But the offer to Moscow has a down-side: it means that the fate of the missile defense program is actually in Iran’s hands, not Moscow’s, and the precise terms of the deal remain unclear. There’s still no evidence that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (though obvious reasons to be suspicious) and little evidence that it will give up control of the full nuclear fuel cycle simply because the United States ramps up the diplomatic pressure or gets Russia and China to agree to stiffer sanctions. It’s even less likely that Iran would give up its ballistic missile program. It might be possible to get a deal that addressed Iran’s regional security concerns (including our various efforts to foment regime change there) in exchange for tighter guarantees against their pursuit of an actual weapons capability, but that requires us to go in without big preconditions and without a lot of harsh rhetoric. Merely tightening the screws on Tehran hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future. And if Russia does agree to help us, Iran still balks, and we go ahead and deploy the missile defenses in Eastern Europe anyway, Moscow is bound to feel betrayed.
Now for the bad news: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently thinks diplomacy with Iran isn’t going to work anyway. Perhaps she just misspoke (itself not a good sign), or perhaps this illustrates a point I’ve mentioned before: effective diplomacy requires lots of coordination, so that an initiative in one area isn’t undermined by something you do or say somewhere else. Or maybe this incident suggests that the whole idea of talking to Iran is simply laying the diplomatic groundwork for a more direct military campaign later on. Thus far, the Obama administration hasn’t strayed very far from the Bush administration’s failed approach, which was in essence to tell Tehran “first, you do what we want, and then we’ll talk to you about the things you care about.” Obama does say we’re willing to talk, but there’s no sign that we are planning to make them a “yes-able” offer and his secretary of state apparently thinks direct diplomacy isn’t going to work.
This behavior is deeply puzzling, because a military strike on Iran is an unattractive option and we ought to be energetically looking for a diplomatic alternative. Beginning that process with a lot of tough talk and saying that we aren’t expecting success doesn’t strike me as a very promising way to start the process. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that this sounds like the strategy new Iran point man Dennis Ross endorsed last summer, and not that different from the approach that the Israeli government is reportedly urging on Secretary Clinton during her visit to Jerusalem. As I’ve said before, if you think the debate on a military strike on Iran ended when Bush left office, think again.
And while we’re on the subject of Iran, here’s a thoughtful column by Roger Cohen, warning against the simplistic stereotyping that has come to dominate most American discourse about the Islamic Republic. Cohen is neither naïve about Iran nor an advocate of appeasing the likes of Ahmadinejad, yet his nuanced discussion immediately drew the usual hail of criticism from neoconservative pundits, with one of them suggesting that he be fired.
I have a different question: why are Cohen’s commentaries confined to the Herald Tribune and the Times blog? Why doesn’t Cohen have a regular column on the Times op-ed page, especially now that William Kristol is gone? Cohen’s views are balanced, he writes well, and he is often willing to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, which is what a good columnist should do. If op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal wants to raise the level of discourse on his page he’d offer the guy a regular spot.
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