Stephen M. Walt

Slippery when read

Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While rejecting preventive war — at least for the moment — they call for a variety of new pressures, including the use ...

Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images

Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While rejecting preventive war — at least for the moment — they call for a variety of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.

Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.

For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration’s "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.

Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we’ve supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program … should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn’t produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).

In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington’s demands. You surrender, and then we’ll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn’t Iran’s willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran’s reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.

The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn’t as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.

Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.

It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran’s deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran’s belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.

Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don’t always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don’t always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh’s own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.

Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran’s current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.

Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony — or it is hypocrisy? — in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran’s sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran’s leaders don’t see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.

Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran’s motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran’s leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran’s politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react.  And once again, the fact that it hasn’t conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.

In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran’s interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity.  It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach — which has never been tried — is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.

But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack’s The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack’s depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran’s security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn’t worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn’t work, and then tell us — with great reluctance, of course — that we have no choice but to go to war again.

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

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