Shadow Government

Iran has no easy solution

It is almost banal to observe that the Iranian nuclear challenge is a hard policy problem. Back in the day, even during some dark periods on Iraq, Bush insiders tended to view the Iranian nuclear file as the more vexing problem. I remember vividly President Bush authorizing a fresh zero-based look at our Iranian policy ...

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It is almost banal to observe that the Iranian nuclear challenge is a hard policy problem. Back in the day, even during some dark periods on Iraq, Bush insiders tended to view the Iranian nuclear file as the more vexing problem. I remember vividly President Bush authorizing a fresh zero-based look at our Iranian policy in late 2005 even while the White House’s public posture was focused on the Iraq problem. Bush’s term ended with a sense of greater progress on Iraq than on Iran. And, measured differently, I suspect Obama’s national security team would likewise believe they have accomplished a greater proportion of their objectives regarding Iraq than Iran. It is just that thorny a problem.

Which is why I do not fully understand the arguments of the vocal and energetic anti-war faction. Perhaps I am reading the critics the wrong way, but it seems like they make the Iranian challenge an easier policy problem than it really is by arguing that all of the relevant considerations point in the the same direction. Thus, the use of force is a bad option, they say, because the costs of attacking Iran are high:

  • An airstrike would not destroy the targets.
  • Even if we could destroy the targets, we don’t know where they all are.
  • Even if we did destroy all the targets, the Iranians would rapidly rebuild.
  • Attacking Iran would convince Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
  • After we attacked Iran, they would retaliate with unacceptable damage to our interests
  • Iran is never going to abandon the quest for nuclear capability anyway.
  • An airstrike would be pointless because Iran hasn’t decided to weaponize and only has an enrichment program at the present time.

So far, these are all logically plausible, reinforcing, and perhaps even co-related, points. Experts can debate them, but where I have a problem is the next phase of the argument, where they argue that the costs of not attacking Iran are low:

  • We needn’t worry about Iranian nuclear weapons because it will be easy to contain Iran.
  • We won’t need to sacrifice our interests to manage relations with a nuclear Iran.
  • We will be better off sacrificing our previously stated interests to manage relations with a nuclear Iran.
  • A nuclear Iran will not meaningfully alter proliferation incentives in the region.
  • Even if a few (several) states develop nuclear weapons in response to the Iranian nuclear arsenal it will not substantially complicate crisis dynamics in the region.

Again, it is logically possible for (almost) all of these to also be true at the same time. But it is not as plausible, which may be why it is rarely people with actual responsibility for policy making arguments like this. In the real world familiar to policymakers, the choices often involve unpalatable lose-lose options, especially on issues like the Iran nuclear case that have commanded decades of attention. The further one moves away from actual responsibility for the consequences of decisions, I suppose the easier it is to make the call. (For a persuasive take on a related policymaking conundrum — the interconnectedness of policy choices — see Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg’s simultaneous defense of "muddling through" and appeal for more analytical rigor here.)

Put another way, why do people who say military action to destroy the Iranian nuclear program is too hard also insist that it will be easy to contain Iran? Why can’t they acknowledge that it would be quite a daunting challenge to contain Iran? This would not preclude them from making the tough call in favor of containment over preventive strikes, though it might undermine the dogmatism of the argument.

Political psychologists would point to that as the reason: The tendency in hard choices for individuals to bolster, seeking and seeing ever more reinforcing arguments for the choice they have adopted. It is something like a confirmation bias and it is very hard to resist. And I do not think it is a problem only affecting one side in the debate. It is not too hard to find examples of advocates of a military option doing much the same thing (air strikes will be easy; Iranian retaliation will be manageable; containing Iran will be impossible; etc.).

The analysts I find most compelling, especially when dealing with hard problems that have bedeviled the policy community for a long time, are those who concede that not all of the logic and evidence stacks up on their side of the argument. The Iran debate needs more analysts like that.

In some cases, the same critics who pride themselves in their capacity to spot such cognitive pathologies when policymakers commit them seem to be the ones the most afflicted now. Perhaps this a function of the Iraq experience. Perhaps this what the Iraq syndrome looks like.

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