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Looking to history won’t help the Iranian situation today

Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran’s growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran's growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of Iran's openness to inspections and negotiations. Pessimists can point to Tehran's blustering defiance, continued enrichment activities, dispersal and hardening of nuclear sites, endurance of tremendous economic hardship (and even willingness to self-inflict further hardship by cutting off petroleum exports to fragile European economies), activation of its global terror networks, continued ambivalence from Russia and China, and Israel's heightened anxieties.

Both camps also invoke history to support their judgments. Yet just how history can actually guide U.S. policy towards Iran is less clear. Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg have a very insightful article addressing this question, and their answer is as true as it is unsettling: history can't help as much as we might hope, at least in the sense of offering prescriptive "lessons." Describing the tendency of policy-makers to cherry-pick historical analogies in support of pre-existing positions, Gavin and Steinberg show how the misuse of history can distort more than enlighten. Yet they also explain that the fact that the "lessons" of history do not produce a clear answer on the "to bomb or not to bomb" question does not mean that history has no insight to offer. Rather, history reminds us that plans and predictions are frequently confounded, that actions taken -- or not taken -- almost always have second, third, and fourth order effects, and that the consequences of such choices are often not known until decades after. Just as history's guidance may be uncertain, history's verdicts can be unforgiving.

Along with the Gavin and Steinberg article, Peter Feaver's post below discusses another frustrating facet of the prevailing Iran debate: the tendency of advocates on all sides to maximize their optimistic assumptions while minimizing the risks and uncertainties of their preferred position. As intellectual critiques, the points made by Gavin, Steinberg, and Feaver are serious and well-taken. Moreover, neither article represents a case of armchair quarterbacking. Each author knows that policy choices will need to be made amidst these uncertainties, with the attendant trade-offs and risks and potentially grave consequences.

Optimists and pessimists on the Iranian nuclear issue can both find support for their dispositions from recent developments. Optimists can point to Tehran’s growing international isolation, reduction in petroleum export markets, ineffective Hezbollah attacks borne of desperation, the genuine bite of economic sanctions, fragility in its main ally in Syria, and some new indications of Iran’s openness to inspections and negotiations. Pessimists can point to Tehran’s blustering defiance, continued enrichment activities, dispersal and hardening of nuclear sites, endurance of tremendous economic hardship (and even willingness to self-inflict further hardship by cutting off petroleum exports to fragile European economies), activation of its global terror networks, continued ambivalence from Russia and China, and Israel’s heightened anxieties.

Both camps also invoke history to support their judgments. Yet just how history can actually guide U.S. policy towards Iran is less clear. Frank Gavin and Jim Steinberg have a very insightful article addressing this question, and their answer is as true as it is unsettling: history can’t help as much as we might hope, at least in the sense of offering prescriptive "lessons." Describing the tendency of policy-makers to cherry-pick historical analogies in support of pre-existing positions, Gavin and Steinberg show how the misuse of history can distort more than enlighten. Yet they also explain that the fact that the "lessons" of history do not produce a clear answer on the "to bomb or not to bomb" question does not mean that history has no insight to offer. Rather, history reminds us that plans and predictions are frequently confounded, that actions taken — or not taken — almost always have second, third, and fourth order effects, and that the consequences of such choices are often not known until decades after. Just as history’s guidance may be uncertain, history’s verdicts can be unforgiving.

Along with the Gavin and Steinberg article, Peter Feaver’s post below discusses another frustrating facet of the prevailing Iran debate: the tendency of advocates on all sides to maximize their optimistic assumptions while minimizing the risks and uncertainties of their preferred position. As intellectual critiques, the points made by Gavin, Steinberg, and Feaver are serious and well-taken. Moreover, neither article represents a case of armchair quarterbacking. Each author knows that policy choices will need to be made amidst these uncertainties, with the attendant trade-offs and risks and potentially grave consequences.

To indulge in some unseemly disciplinary chauvinism, one thing that history can tell us is how relatively unique the Iran situation is, with no clear historical precedent or analogy. This contrasts with the limited predictive value of political science modeling that substitutes parsimony for complexity. For example, this article runs a quantitative analysis of the previous behavior of states that acquire nuclear weapons, and essentially concludes that nuclear states don’t show a greater propensity for international mischief and disputes. Unfortunately the model treats all nuclear states as the same monolithic actors, and ignores other complicating factors such as changes in the international system, nuclear safeguards, ties to non-state actors such as terrorist groups, and especially regime type.

In contrast, history can tell us just how unprecedented the current Iran situation is: a potentially nuclear-armed state that combines support for terrorism, existential threats to neighboring states, an apocalyptic religious ideology, substantial energy reserves, and ambitions for regional hegemony. Yet history also reveals that the current international campaign to pressure Iran may also be unprecedented: extremely tight economic sanctions imposed by the world’s two largest economies (the US and EU), escalating defense counter-measures by most regional powers, a vigorous sabotage and covert action campaign, and a brittle regime desperately afraid of further mass protests by its own citizens. Finally, history shows that our plans, assumptions, and actions rarely turn out as we hope, and so whatever course of action the Obama Administration takes — whether attack or not — robust contingency plans will need to be in place to deal with the unexpected.

Finally, as Gavin and Steinberg describe, there remains a pressing need and opportunity for more rigorous training across disciplines on how historical consciousness can be brought to bear on strategy and statecraft. To that end (shameless plug alert!), here at the University of Texas-Austin we’re putting together a program to do just that. Aspiring grad students take note: If great college football, delicious BBQ, and studying history and security policy appeal to you, then keep us in mind.

Meanwhile, as history continues to unfold, its wisdom remains available to policy-makers — if they listen and ask of it the right questions.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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