Daniel W. Drezner

Roger Cohen’s unrealistic pragmatism

Bloggers at Foreign Policy and elsewhere have discovered Strange New Respect for IHT/NYT columnist Roger Cohen.  Cohen has been writing a fair amount about the Middle East as of late.  I’ve been, well, less enamored of Cohen’s writing, though in fairness to him I’m tough on all foreign affairs columnists.  This brings us to today’s ...

Bloggers at Foreign Policy and elsewhere have discovered Strange New Respect for IHT/NYT columnist Roger Cohen.  Cohen has been writing a fair amount about the Middle East as of late.  I’ve been, well, less enamored of Cohen’s writing, though in fairness to him I’m tough on all foreign affairs columnists. 

This brings us to today’s Cohen column, and the paradox contained in his last few paragraphs.  Cohen’s recent columns have been all about his trip to Iran, in which he accurately described a country that was not spending every waking moment plotting to destroy the United States.

Today’s column points to the pragmatism of Iran’s leadership and urges the United States to be equally pragmatic:

Pragmatism is also one way of looking at Iran’s nuclear program. A state facing a nuclear-armed Israel and Pakistan, American invasions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and noting North Korea’s immunity from assault, might reasonably conclude that preserving the revolution requires nuclear resolve.

What’s required is American pragmatism in return, one that convinces the mullahs that their survival is served by stopping short of a bomb.

I completely agree with the first excerpted paragraph of Cohen’s column — which is why I don’t buy the second paragraph. 

As Cohen ably demonstrates, Iran’s leadership sees a lot of threats in its near abroad and recognizes the utility of a nuclear deterrent.  What can the United States possibly offer that would convince Iran’s mullahs to give that up? 

Security guarantees?  Accepting those is not terribly pragmatic from Iran’s perspective.  Why should Iran trust the United States’ word on this?  From Tehran’s perspective, would you trust the ability of the Obama administraion to rein in Israel? 

The lifting of financial sanctions?  As Iran’s mullahs might put this, whoop-dee-frickin-doo.  Rachel Loeffler argues that these sanctions carry some bite, but the nuclear program is a domestic crowd-pleaser and offers the hope of policy autonomy that a lifting of sanctions does not provide.  The only sanction that would really hurt Tehran enough to buckle is a gasoline embargo, and the Russians and Chinese will never sign on to one of those. 

Pragmatically, I seriously doubt that the United States can offer anything to get Tehran to halt its nuclear program.  This leads to one of two possible decisions:  pre-emptive action to delay the program, or accepting the inevitable. 

Contra Cohen, the most pragmatic thing for the United States to do is to expect nothing fruitful to come from negotiations with Iran — and to (nonviolently) prepare for the contingency of a nuclear Iran.  

A question to my realist colleagues here at FP — why on God’s green earth would Iran ever accede to an agreement whereby it gives up any autonomy in its nuclear program? 

 

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