Stephen M. Walt

“They’re baaaaack….”

When I started blogging back in January, one of my early posts questioned the belief that Obama’s election had ended talk of military action against Iran. I though this view was “almost certainly premature,” because I didn’t think a rapid diplomatic breakthrough was likely and I knew that advocates of a more forceful approach would ...


When I started blogging back in January, one of my early posts questioned the belief that Obama’s election had ended talk of military action against Iran. I though this view was “almost certainly premature,” because I didn’t think a rapid diplomatic breakthrough was likely and I knew that advocates of a more forceful approach would soon come out of the woodwork and start pushing the new administration to get tough with Tehran. 

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but … Right on cue, Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal had an op-ed from former Senators Dan Coats and Chuck Robb and retired Air Force general Chuck Wald, recommending that Obama “begin preparations for the use of military options” against Iran’s nuclear facilities. They argue that keeping the threat of force “on the table” is the only way to achieve a diplomatic solution, but they also make it clear that they favor bombing Iran if diplomacy fails. In their words, “making preparations now will enable the president, should all other measures fail to bring Tehran to the negotiating table, to use military force to retard Iran’s nuclear program.”

Will we ever learn? As other commentators have noted, many of the most vocal advocates of military action against Iran tend to be the same groups and individuals who saw 9/11 as a good excuse to invade Iraq and start trying to “transform” the Middle East. Plenty of people agree that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a problem, but the loudest voices calling for the threat or use of force tend to be either Israeli hardliners or American neocons. Gee, who woulda thought! It’s equally unsurprising that the United Jewish Communities sponsored an “Iran Advocacy Day” in Washington yesterday, featuring appearances by key administration officials and prominent legislators. Its purpose, of course, was to highlight the danger of a nuclear Iran, put pressure on Obama to take a tough line, and to rally support for stiffer sanctions (at a minimum). M.J. Rosenberg called it just right: “it marks the start of the fall push on Iran.”

The Coats, Robb and Wald op-ed is based on a new report from the “Bipartisan Policy Center” (a relatively new inside-the-Beltway think tank) which is an updated version of a lengthy report released last summer. The earlier study presented an alarmist view of Iran’s capabilities and intentions and advocated a hard-line approach, including the use of “kinetic action” (i.e., military force) as a last resort. The director of the earlier study and its primary author were Michael Makovsky and Michael Rubin, two prominent neo-conservatives who previously worked on Iraq in the Bush Defense Department. Both are also hawkish defenders of Israel (among other things, Makovsky reportedly emigrated to Israel and served in the IDF before returning to the United States, and his brother David works for WINEP, the right-of-center pro-Israel think-tank that AIPAC created back in the early 1990s.)

Second, even though their earlier advocacy of the Iraq war proved disastrous, those who are now contemplating the use of force against Iran are hardly marginalized or discredited outsiders. The earlier BPC study was endorsed by a task force of mainstream figures that included my Kennedy School colleague Ash Carter (now in charge of acquisitions in the Pentagon) and Iraq hawk (and former WINEP official) Dennis Ross. Ross started out as Obama’s special envoy on Iran and then moved over to a senior Middle East position at the NSC. Ross has also expressed skepticism about the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough in the past, but believed that trying diplomacy first would make it easier to sell a more forceful approach later.

The drumbeats for war may still be faint but they are getting louder, even though trying to disarm Iran by bombing its nuclear facilities is still a very bad idea. If you want to reunite Iran’s disaffected population behind the current dictatorship and give Ahmadinejad a real jolt of legitimacy, dropping bombs on their country is a good way to start. The Iranian people strongly support the nuclear research program, as does Mir Hussein Mousavi, the opposition candidate who was allegedly “defeated” in the recent election. Equally important, bombing Iran’s existing facilities will only delay the program for a few years, because Iran could reconstitute it in more dispersed, hidden, and protected sites. And bombing them now is hardly going to lessen their desire for a deterrent of their own. Wouldn’t any country that had been attacked in this fashion try to obtain the means to prevent a repeat in the future? Wouldn’t we? Iran’s government and population are also going to be hopping mad at us if we do this (or if we give Israel the green light to attack on its own), and they are bound to do whatever they can to pay us back. Again, wouldn’t we do the same thing if anyone attacked us?

And please remember: Iran does not have a single nuclear weapon today, and there is still no sign that it has an active weapons program or is enriching uranium to sufficient purity to permit them to build a bomb. (For a rebuttal of Coats et al’s claims on this point, see Daniel Luban here.) As of right now, they appear to looking for a “break out” capability that would enable them to get one rapidly if they decided it was necessary. If so, then it may — repeat, may — still be possible to persuade them not to weaponize. But the only course of action that stands a chance of doing that is the exact opposite of the one that the hawks are proposing.  Instead of rattling sabers, setting deadlines, and mobilizing for war, as Coats et al suggest, we need to take the threat of force off the table entirely. Pointing a gun at their heads merely reinforces their desire for a reliable deterrent, and probably strengthens the hand of any Iranian officials who think they ought to get a bomb as soon as possible. It may still come to that — which would force us to fall back on deterrence and containment — but following the hawks’ prescription makes that outcome more likely.

Lastly, what about tougher sanctions? That will probably end up being the default option — because it lets the United States and its allies appear to be doing something — but it’s not going to work either. Russia doesn’t appear to be willing to go along, sanctions are rarely an effective means of coercion, and Iran has been facing them for years now without budging. If he’s not careful, Obama’s initial efforts to put relations with Iran on a new trajectory will morph back into the same strategy that the Bush administration followed, and will achieve the same results.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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