Stephen M. Walt

Sleepwalking with Iran

I can’t figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what’s striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be. Ever since last year’s presidential election, the United States has been stuck with a policy that might be termed "Bush-lite." We continue to ramp up sanctions that most ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

I can’t figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what’s striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be. Ever since last year’s presidential election, the United States has been stuck with a policy that might be termed "Bush-lite." We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won’t work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime’s hold on power. 

To succeed, a foreign-policy initiative needs to have a clear and achievable objective. The strategy also needs to be internally consistent, so that certain policy steps don’t undermine others. The latter requirement is especially important when you are trying to unwind a "spiral" of exaggerated hostility, which is the problem we face with Iran. Given the deep-seated animosity on both sides, any sign of inconsistency on our part will be viewed in the worst possible light by Iran. Indeed, a combination of friendly and threatening gestures may be worse than the latter alone because tentative acts of accommodation will be seen as a trick and will reinforce the idea that the other side is irredeemably deceitful and can never be trusted.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is neither feasible nor consistent. To begin with, our objective — to persuade Iran to end all nuclear enrichment — simply isn’t achievable. Both the current government and the leaders of the opposition Green Movement are strongly committed to controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and the United States will never get the other major powers to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" it has been seeking for years now. It’s not gonna happen folks, or at least not anytime soon.

We might be able to convince Iran not to develop actual nuclear weapons — which its leaders claim they don’t want to do and have said would be contrary to Islam. I don’t know if they really believe this or if an agreement along these lines is possible. I do know that we haven’t explored that possibility in any serious way. Instead, the Obama administration has been chasing an impossible dream.

Furthermore, the U.S. approach to Tehran is deeply inconsistent. Obama has made a big play of extending an "open hand" to Tehran, and he reacted in a fairly measured way to the crackdown on the Greens last summer. But at the same time, the administration has been ratcheting up sanctions and engaging in very public attempt to strengthen security ties in the Gulf region. And earlier this week, we learned that Centcom commander General David Petraeus has authorized more extensive special operations in a number of countries in the region, almost certainly including covert activities in Iran.  

Just imagine how this looks to the Iranian government. They may be paranoid, but sometimes paranoids have real (and powerful) enemies, and we are doing our best to look like one. How would we feel if some other country announced that it was infiltrating special operations forces into the United States, in order to gather intelligence, collect targeting information, or maybe even build networks of disgruntled Americans who wanted to overthrow our government or maybe just sabotage a few government installations? We’d definitely view it as a threat or even an act of war, and we’d certainly react harshly against whomever we thought was responsible. So when you wonder why oil- and gas-rich Iran might be interested in some sort of nuclear deterrent (even if only a latent capability), think about what you’d do if you were in their shoes.

Third, when Turkey and Brazil launched an independent effort to resurrect the earlier deal for a swap for some of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushed to condemn it and hastily announced a watered-down set of new sanctions. As I said last week, the Turkey-Brazil deal had real limitations and was at best a small first step toward restarting more serious talks. But trashing it as we did merely conveys that we aren’t interested in genuine negotiations, and probably ticked off Turkey and Brazil to no good purpose. The smarter play would have been to welcome the deal cautiously but highlight its limitations, and let the onus for any subsequent failure fall on Iran instead of us.

Why is U.S. policy stuck in this particular rut? In part because this is a hard problem; one doesn’t unwind three decades of mutual suspicion by making a speech or two or sending a friendly holiday greeting, and sometimes success requires a lot of perseverance. But I think there are two other problems at work.

The first is the mindset that seems to have taken hold in the Obama administration. As near as I can tell, they believe Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will lie and cheat and prevaricate long enough to get across the nuclear threshold. Given that assumption, there isn’t much point in trying to negotiate any sort of "grand bargain" between Iran and the West, and especially not one that left them with an enrichment capability (even one under strict IAEA safeguards). This view may be correct, but if it is, then our effort to ratchet up sanctions is futile and just makes it more likely that other Iranians will blame us for their sufferings. Here I am in rare (if only partial) agreement with Tom Friedman: Maybe our focus ought to shift from our current obsession with Iran’s nuclear program and focus on human rights issues instead (though it is harder for Washington to do that without looking pretty darn hypocritical).

A second explanation is some combination of inside-the-Beltway groupthink and ordinary bureaucratic conservatism. For anyone currently working in Washington, a hard line on Iran and defending our longstanding policy of confrontation is a very safe position to support. No one will accuse you of being a naive appeaser; you’ll have plenty of bureaucratic allies, and you’ll retain your reputation as a tough and reliable defender of U.S. interests. 

By contrast, any government official who proposed taking the threat of force off the table, who publicly admitted that sanctions wouldn’t work, who acknowledged that we probably can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb if it really wants to, or who recommended a much more far-reaching effort at finding common ground would be taking a significant career risk. And you’d be virtually certain to get smeared by unrepentent neocons and other hawks who favor the use of military force. So there’s little incentive for insiders to contemplate — let alone propose — a different approach to this issue, even though our current policy is looking more and more like the failed policies of the previous administration.  

Although I obviously can’t be certain, I don’t think there will be an open war with Iran. I think that enough influential people realize just how much trouble this would cause us and that they will continue to resist calls for "kinetic action." (Of course, I also thought that about Iraq back in 2001, and look what happened there.) But U.S.-Iranian relations aren’t going to improve much either, and we’ll end up devoting more time and effort to this problem than it deserves. But who cares? It’s not as if the United States has any other problems on its foreign-policy agenda, right?

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

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