David Rothkopf

Détente without deterrence? You call that “realism”?

The New York Times’s Roger Cohen and his soul mate Steve Walt have both written recently about U.S. policy toward Iran, embracing a new direction that Walt characterizes as realism. Hailing President Obama’s recent speech to the Iranian people as framing this approach, Cohen described what Obama did: He abandoned regime change as an American ...

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The New York Times's Roger Cohen and his soul mate Steve Walt have both written recently about U.S. policy toward Iran, embracing a new direction that Walt characterizes as realism. Hailing President Obama's recent speech to the Iranian people as framing this approach, Cohen described what Obama did:

He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran's nuclear program within "the full range of issues before us."

The New York Times’s Roger Cohen and his soul mate Steve Walt have both written recently about U.S. policy toward Iran, embracing a new direction that Walt characterizes as realism. Hailing President Obama’s recent speech to the Iranian people as framing this approach, Cohen described what Obama did:

He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran’s nuclear program within “the full range of issues before us.”

Walt has a post up called “a realistic approach to Iran’s nuclear program.” In it he makes his case that we should focus on getting Iran to stop short of developing nuclear weapons, offering the example of Japan which is nuclear weapons capable as being one that should be good for the Iranians and good for us. Via this approach we would allow Iran to build a nuclear infrastructure but leave it poised just perhaps months way from enriching uranium and making weapons. This approach makes perfect sense unless: a.) We think Iran might at some point want to take it further, b.) We think Iran might prepare to do so quickly and secretly, c.) We had a really bad track record of identifying such shifts in capability as they happened, d.) Iran was the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and thus posed a unique risk regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies or related materials should they get them, and e.) Iran had expressed the desire to eliminate an enemy state in its neighborhood.

The problem of course, is that all these things are true.

Further, Cohen and Walt’s initial “realist” position is that we can best achieve our goals by taking “the threat of military force and regime change off the table.” Since when is it realistic by beginning a negotiation with a potentially dangerous adversary by us unilaterally giving up one of the options we may later need? The fundamentally unrealistic nature of this position is revealed later when Walt…after making an argument that our approach should essentially be all carrots and no sticks…observes that we need to let Iran know that if they did have nuclear weapons and a terrorist group used such a weapon we might suspect they were of Iranian origin and retaliate. Seems to me that’s the stick he and Cohen both think should not be discussed. As to C & W’s apparently preferred notion of going into a negotiation with all carrots and no sticks that’s not realism, that is dewy-eyed romanticism that relies on the fundamental goodness of our negotiating partner. Which happens to be the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror, run by extremists whose world view includes elimination of the region’s only democracy, enmity with the United States, and throwing Holocaust-denial parties.

One important measure of the quality of any policy is what happens if it goes wrong? What happens when, as is often the case, that which we can’t control goes in a way we don’t want or expect it to? In this case of course, the primary casualty of such an error in judgment is likely to be Israel. It is one of the countries with the most to lose from a nuclear Iran and one can’t help but think that Walt and Cohen are being a little cavalier about its future. Or is it that they actually so seek the weakening of U.S. support for Israel (Cohen salutes it as an inevitable and positive consequence of this policy) that they’ll take short term gains on that front even if the long-term risks to U.S. interests and the region as a whole are much greater. Because, of course, Israel is not the only one threatened by a nuclear Iran, the Saudis and others would be too which is why many regional experts, including Amir Taheri writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, fear that the most worrisome negative consequence of even a nuclear capable Iran would be a rush among other powers in the region to achieve the same or greater capacity thus taking the most dangerous region in the world and making it dramatically more dangerous.

I personally think Obama’s overture was a good one and that we need to open up a dialogue with Iran. I think negotiation is possible and that there is a sufficient moderate population in Iran that will such initiatives offer some promise. I also, for the record, do not advocate blind support for Israel and think they too would benefit from an easing of tensions between the United States and Iran. I just think that we are more likely to have a constructive argument if all sides know what is unacceptable — which includes an Iran with real or virtual nuclear capability and a nuclear arms race in the region — and that we would use all available means to prevent either. Imagine if Kissinger had tried détente while also calling off deterrence with the Soviets. Would be he be the hero of realists he is today? And while we’re at it, let’s ask which of the two policies was more important ultimately to ending the Soviet threat? (You can say both were important…but the sine qua non of our Cold War success was deterrence.) Dennis Ross is right. More carrots, by all means, but don’t prematurely (and naively) set aside the sticks.

VAHIDREZA ALAI/AFP/Getty Images

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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