Stephen M. Walt

A Tale of Two Op-Eds

Two recent op-eds tell you a lot about the corner the United States is painting itself into on Iran. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, neoconservative Eliot Cohen says we have only two options: an American or Israeli military strike “which would probably cause a substantial war,” or living in a world with Iranian nuclear ...

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WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Professor Eliot Cohen (L) of Johns Hopkins University speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Cohen discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Two recent op-eds tell you a lot about the corner the United States is painting itself into on Iran.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, neoconservative Eliot Cohen says we have only two options: an American or Israeli military strike “which would probably cause a substantial war,” or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, “which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear.”  Echoing the neocons’ earlier campaign for the invasion of Iraq (a decision he enthusiastically endorsed),  Cohen recommends that we “actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.”  He does not call for a U.S. invasion (for which there are no forces available and scant public support), but instead calls for employing “every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard” to bring down the clerical regime.  And he warns darkly that if Obama allows Iran to get a nuclear weapon, he will face a firestorm at home that “will makes the squawks of protest against his health care plans look like the merest showers on a sunny day.”  Hmmm….I wonder what he’s talking about here?

If anyone doubted that the neoconservatives were still pushing for a U.S.-led effort to remake the Middle East-despite the disaster they’ve already created in Iraq-this piece (and a similar oped by Paul Wolfowitz in yesterday’s Financial Times-should correct that assumption.  Of course, Cohen trots out the usual bogeymen about Iran’s “fanatical, ruthless, and unprincipled regime” (an obvious hint that these are irrational criminals who could not be deterred), and flatly declares that no “real negotiation or understanding” is possible with such people.  He says that allowing Iran to have the bomb “may yield the first nuclear attack since 1945,” even though he also believes the mullahs are “willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.”  (Newsflash: if “staying in power” is the Iranian leadership’s  primary goal, starting a nuclear war and thus inviting overwhelming retaliation by the U.S. or Israel isn’t something they’re going to do.)

But what is most revealing about Cohen’s piece-apart from the worst-case alarmism that pervades it-is his own awareness that the forceful line he favors won’t work.

First, he recognizes that air strikes by Israel or the United States can delay but not stop the nuclear program and could easily unleash a wider, highly destructive war.  Second, he understands the economic sanctions haven’t worked in the past and are unlikely to convince Tehran to change course now.  He cannot imagine trying a more accommodating route, so all that is left is “regime change.”  But we’ve tried that too, beginning in the Clinton administration and continuing up to the present day, and Cohen doesn’t argue that this will work either.

Cohen’s proposed approach thus offers us the worst of all possible worlds: we continue to confront Iran with various ineffective threats, thereby ensuring that relations remain bitterly contentious, making ourselves look ineffectual, and giving them more reason to want a deterrent capability.  It is an approach that will only strengthen hardliners and undercut the moderates who still hope for change there, and convince a new generation of Iranians (70 percent of the population is under 30) that America is the “Great Satan” after all. 

Given that Cohen recognizes that his own recommendations won’t work, one can only conclude that his real aim is to make sure that there is no accommodation whatsoever between Washington and Iran.  His warnings about the protests that Obama will face are intended less to solve the actual problem than to persuade the President to stick with the failed policies we have followed for the past two decades.

The alternative to Cohen’s ineffectual pessimism is laid out clearly by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett in today’s New York Times.  They also recognize that military force, covert action and economic sanctions aren’t going to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Given the dearth of attractive alternatives, they recognize that the only way to convince Iran not to weaponize is to engage in a broad and patient effort to transform the whole U.S.-Iranian relationship.  Obama has made rhetorical gestures in that direction, but his administration has also continued covert action programs aimed at Iran, repeatedly threatened tougher sanctions, and never embraced the need for a broader “strategic understanding” with Iran.

The Leveretts remind us that Richard Nixon achieved his opening to China by taking concrete steps to reduce U.S. pressure on Beijing, even at a moment when China was helping North Vietnam kill U.S. soldiers.  (And this was Mao’s China, remember, which U.S. officials had long seen as fanatical, ruthless, irrational, etc.).  Nixon did this because he understood that transforming the entire U.S.-China relationship was more important than worrying about Beijing’s bad behavior; the key was move to a relationship where such bad behavior was no longer in China’s interest.

The strategy they outline might not work with Iran, but it would hardly leave the United States worse off than the strategy Cohen recommends, which by his own admission is likely to fail.   The problem, of course, is that it is the neoconservative forces that Cohen represents are now working overtime to prevent the United States from pursuing the one course of action that might-repeat, might-actually convince Iran it is better off with an enrichment capacity but not an actual bomb.  

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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