The Lobby versus Iran (revised edition)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions — though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too — and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).

But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.

But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions — though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too — and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren’t going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).

But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.

But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):

The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program.  Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat.  … There is also some possibility … that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate.  If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”

Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we’ve made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn’t inevitable. But if it does happen, you’ll know who played a key role in bringing it about. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.