Marc Lynch

Keep the Iran war talk quiet

Keep the Iran war talk quiet

There’s some hope that Iran will return to nuclear talks with the P5+1 in Geneva on Nov. 15, even if they probably will have more questions about the agenda as the deadline approaches before they formally RSVP. Those talks will hopefully become the basis for an ongoing diplomatic process, where a range of issues can be explored, alternative arrangements proposed, and confidence built. But it’s a very bad sign that, according to the New York Times, the lack of progress in talks thus far has "prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have him [President Barack Obama] talk more openly about military options." That fits with Dennis Ross’s remarks to AIPAC a few days ago: "But should Iran continue its defiance, despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times, "we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." Here’s an easy answer: they would be highly counterproductive, and downright dangerous. So let’s move on from that discussion, shall we?

The idea of putting war talk on the table is presumably to increase the pressure on Iran to come to the table and make a deal. It won’t likely accomplish that. Iran will quite reasonably refuse to bargain under the threat of military force, and will view U.S. offers under such conditions as manifestly insincere. It probably will not view the military threat as credible, given the realities of U.S. challenges and limitations. The war talk would swamp all other issues, make confidence building virtually impossible, and even further harden the divisions. What’s more, war talk might very well undermine the international consensus on sanctions, the one accomplishment of which the administration boasts, since few of the countries which came on board for sanctions in defense of nonproliferation would have any stomach for another U.S. preventive war in the Middle East.

That’s not the worst of it, though. The greatest danger of introducing open war talk by the administration is that it would represent the next step in the "ratcheting" — which I’ve been warning of for months — and pave the way either to a 1990’s Iraq scenario or to an actual war. Once the military option is on the table, it never goes away. The only way to signal "toughness" in future encounters will be to somehow escalate beyond military threats — i.e. to commit action, such as airstrikes or cruise missiles. And those would, by the consensus of virtually every serious analyst, be a catastrophe. If the United States isn’t prepared to follow through on the threat — and it really, really shouldn’t be — then it shouldn’t make the threat. That would just either undermine credibility, or else give a hook for hawks to demand that actions live up to rhetoric. Dangerous either way.

If the administration is really having an internal debate about whether to put the military option openly on the table, I hope that they quickly and firmly resolve it in the negative. It would not increase U.S. bargaining leverage over Iran. It would undermine the international consensus on sanctions for which they have worked so hard. It would almost certainly kill any prospect for the meaningful diplomatic process which is so badly needed. And it would represent the next step in the seemingly inexorable ratcheting process towards an unnecessary and counterproductive war. This would be yet another of those painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy. It may offer momentary satisfaction to U.S. domestic hawks and earn a few fleeting moments of praise, but at the expense of real U.S. strategic interests. Let’s not go there.