- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Early signs suggest the U.N.’s Iran sanctions will ultimately prove so impotent that Ban Ki-Moon is a shoo-in to replace Jimmy Johnson as the next spokesperson for Cialis.
This should come as no surprise, of course, the U.N. being what it is and sanctions being what they are and comparatively weak sanctions with only half-hearted support from key players being what they inevitably are. I mean, we did watch as the Chinese and Russians deftly negotiated the terms so it would have as little effect as possible on their real trade with Iran. And we did watch as the sanctions process dragged on, thus buying the Iranians more and more of the one commodity more precious to their nuclear program than highly enriched uranium: time. But then, a few days back, with the sanctions regime fresh out of the Suzy Homemaker oven that produced the oddly small confection, the Chinese let it be known that sanctions or no they would be working to deepen their trade ties with Iran. Which more than trumps the even more recent announcement that the Brazilians will, reluctantly, go along with the sanctions program.
The Chinese mixed-message should send a strong signal about the future of the fledgling regime to even the most pro-sanctions advocates. In fact, it should send two.
The first is that we should wake up to the fact that this the first major Middle East scenario in which the Chinese are an absolutely central player and that going forward, diplomacy in the region on a wide variety of issues that does not successfully involve Beijing will not have a chance. Those issues include — but are not limited to — Iran, broader WMD proliferation issues, any sanctions policies, the future of Pakistan, and even perhaps key elements of the future of Afghanistan.
And the second is that it is time now to start thinking very seriously about Plan B.
Some of America’s closest diplomatic allies in the region believe that, in the words of one diplomat, "Obama is a very linear thinker. He says ‘first we will try engagement and if that doesn’t work we’ll try sanctions and if that doesn’t work we’ll ramp up the threat of military pressure and if that doesn’t work…" The voice trails off and then a new thought emerges, "…and that’s precisely the way we believe he will handle this."
This suggests that the United States and its allies will actually start turning up the military heat once it is clear the Iranians are able to tolerate whatever pinch they feel from the sanctions and they keep steaming ahead with their bomb-building program. Since no one believes that the United States or our European friends will actually take any meaningful action on this front, that means that the United States will have to start sending signals that we will let the Israelis loose.
Jeff Goldberg at the Atlantic, after some typically industrious reporting and thoughtful analysis, has come to the conclusion that the Israelis are getting ever more ready to go. In fact, he concludes that there is a better than even chance that they will pull the trigger. Whether this is actually true (I think it is) or it is just part of an already-being-implemented plan to turn up the heat through generating stories of that ilk (which is also probably true) hardly matters. The effect at this stage of the game is the same, and it is welcome. Where things get gnarly is when we ask, "What happens if the Iranians are as unresponsive to the saber-rattling as they almost certainly will be to the rattle-trap sanctions?"
Steve Clemons of the Washington Note, who took the intriguing step of responding to Goldberg’s detailed, must-read article before it was even published, focused on what he sees as the miscalculation of Netanyahu and others in the Israeli inner circle. In Clemons’ eyes — and he is an estimable analyst with whom I agree far more often than not — a military strike would be misguided both because of the blowback it would trigger and because the view that the Iranians are irrational is wrong. He sees them as just the kind of calculating, self-interested actor that would respond well to the pressures of deterrence once they had a bomb and thus concludes, without actually saying it, that in the end, we can live with the Iranians having the bomb.
This is a popular view in Washington. Indeed, rhetoric aside, I believe it is the view of the president even if it is definitely not the view of all of his closest advisors. In fact, I think the Israelis are over-estimating the likelihood that in the end Obama will live up to his statements that we will do what it takes to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Having said that…
The "rational actor" view of Iran has a couple of fundamental flaws, quite apart from the legitimate argument about whether or not key members of the Iranian elite (or potential future leaders) are — or will be capable of — acting "irrationally" and using a nuclear weapon even if they faced a significant counter-strike as a likely outcome. (This issue of who might be potential future leaders is often overlooked or downplayed here. And while my sense is that it is quite possible we could end up with much more moderate Iranian leadership, it is also possible that we could get someone who made Ahmadinejad look statesmanlike.)
The first flaw is that the core problem associated with Iran getting the bomb is not Iran. It’s that their getting the bomb moves us toward a world in which irrational, deterrent-immune actors become so much more likely to get it. This could either be due to one or more weapons falling into the hands of extreme elements in the network of extremists supported by Iran or, more likely, due to the triggering of an arms race in the region that will, necessarily, geometrically increase the likelihood that the weapon falls into the hands of a terrorist or non-state actor who literally has nothing to lose in the event of a counter-strike.
The second flaw is that even a "rational" actor in Tehran might well conclude the use of nuclear weapons against Israel, for example, was worth the risks entailed. They might, for example, note that a first-strike with even very few weapons might effectively destroy Israel, whereas any counter-strike in Iran would likely be very targeted and have comparatively limited consequences. There is no "mutual assured destruction" here because it is so unlikely anyone would respond with the intent of destroying Iran. Especially if the first strike took place at a moment in which Israel was engaged in an unpopular action — for example, against Palestinians that other Iranian agents like Hamas or Hezbollah could easily foment. That is because in such circumstances, the world might not widely agree to lean hard into Iran, might fear the consequences on the global economy of an all-out war in the region and almost certainly would bend over backwards to reduce or eliminate civilian casualties. Indeed, the likely response would be a move to depose the current regime in Iran but given the cost and time involved in recent regional wars, you can just imagine how eager the West would be to pull its punches, even post-atrocity. (Doubt it? The Taliban effectively sponsored the preparations for the 9/11 attacks, as, in all likelihood, did elements as
sociated with Pakistan’s intelligence service. And we’re already back in bed with one of these groups and adjusting to the reintroduction into Afghan political life of the other.) In any event, the calculation is not the same trade of oblivion for oblivion that U.S. and Soviet strategists faced.
Goldberg refers to George W. Bush’s dismissal of those advocating a potential strike against Iran with one of his typically clever nicknames, "bomber boys." Clemons likens them to General "Bomb Them Into the Stone Age" Curtis LeMay. And it’s probably a good rule of thumb that if a policy is so wacky that it was both advocated by the likes of John Bolton and mocked by George W. Bush that it is on the wild fringes of lunacy. But in this case, it is not so clear.
I don’t go lightly into the good night of association with guys like Dick Cheney or Bill Kristol, so let me approach this in a way that I am more comfortable with — by denigrating George W. Bush. His cartoonish characterization of the "bomber boys" underestimates the complexities associated with this issue. So too does the reflexive dismissal of Netanyahu by many today in Washington who see him as a reflexive hard-liner. Just because the neocons were grotesquely wrong on Iraq — or that Netanyahu has embraced a foolish strategy with regard to Israeli settlements — doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything. There is plenty of cool rational analysis to suggest that while not striking Iran and letting them get the bomb may avoid one sort of blowback, letting them get it is very likely to involve another sort.
Just because deterrence has worked thus far, or because no nuclear state has used a weapon in anger since the United States did in Japan, does not mean it can’t or won’t happen again. Indeed, all history suggests that sooner or later, it will. After all, every war since the dawn of time was started by two sides who both rationally thought the potential devastation was worth the risk. Always one was wrong. Often, both were. And in this case there are enough demonstrably irrational actors in the vicinity to make the whole calculation that much murkier.