Stephen M. Walt

The arrogance of power

Will the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 manage to turn a potential diplomatic breakthrough with Iran into another counterproductive failure? It’s too soon to tell, but betting on failure has been the smart wager in the past. The Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 apparently got a lot of serious issues on ...


Will the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 manage to turn a potential diplomatic breakthrough with Iran into another counterproductive failure? It’s too soon to tell, but betting on failure has been the smart wager in the past.

The Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 apparently got a lot of serious issues on the table, but didn’t achieve a breakthrough, let alone an agreement. The main reason is the hardline position adopted by the United States and its partners, and especially our refusal to grant any sort of sanctions relief. The parties will resume discussions in Moscow in June.

From a purely strategic point of view, this situation is pretty simple. Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium. Period. If the West insists on a full suspension, there won’t be a deal. It’s that simple. At the same time, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 would like to maximize the amount of time it would take Iran to "break out" and assemble a weapon. The best way to do that is to limit Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to concentrations of less than 5 percent. If Iran insists on keeping a large supply of 20 percent enriched uranium on hand, we’ll walk too.

So there you have the outline of the deal–we accept low-level enrichment and lift sanctions, and Iran gives up the 20% stuff–although there are other details what will have to be worked out too. Frankly, given where we are today, it’s surprising the U.S. isn’t grabbing that deal with both hands.  Why? Because unless the U.S. is willing to invade and occupy Iran (and we aren’t) or unless we are willing to bomb its facilities over and over (i.e., every time Iran rebuilds them), there is no way to prevent Iran from having the potential to obtain nuclear weapons if it decides it wants to. They know how to build centrifuges, folks, and the rest of the technology isn’t that hard to master. So the potential is there, and there’s no realistic way to eliminate it.

The smart strategy, therefore, is to keep them as far away from the bomb as possible, and to reduce Iran’s incentive to go all the way to an actual weapon. And the best way to do that — duh!  —  is to take the threat of military force off the table and to stop babbling about the need for regime change. Also bear in mind that Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said they don’t want to build a bomb, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has repeatedly declared nuclear weapons to be "haram" — forbidden by Islam. Maybe that’s just empty or deceitful talk, but violating a statement like that is a tricky move for a theocratic regime. And maybe he’s saying exactly what he really thinks.

While we’re being realistic, let’s keep a few other bedrock realities in mind.

Right now, the United States has thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Israel has a couple of hundred. Four other members of the P5+1 have nuclear weapons as well, and the fifth member — Germany — has had access to nuclear weapons through "dual key" arrangements with the United States.

Right now, the United States is far and away the world’s greatest military power, with no enemies nearby. Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. We spend close to a trillion dollars on various national security programs each year; Iran spends maybe $15 billion, tops. Iran is a minor military threat at best.

Right now, the United States and Israel are actively engaged in a variety of covert actions directed against Iran, and the United States still have military forces and bases all around that country. Top U.S. officials, Senators and Congressmen have openly called for "regime change" in Iran. And then we wonder why, oh why, Iran might be wary of us, and why some Iranians might think that having an effective deterrent to counter our vast military superiority might be a good idea.

Right now, the United States and its allies have imposed increasingly punishing economic sanctions against Iran. Iran has no way to retaliate in kind, no matter how its leaders may bluster about oil and gas embargoes.

Since World War II, the United States has fought at least eight wars (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gulf War II), and we’ve intervened in other countries countless times. Israel has fought at least six wars since independence (the 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six Day War, 1969-70 War of Attrition, 1973 October War, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and 2006 war in Lebanon), and it started the wars in 1956, 1967, 1982, and 2006. It has also conducted innumerable cross-border raids and covert actions. Iran has fought one war during that same period — against Iraq — and only because Saddam Hussein attacked. It has also provided material support to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but its overseas activities are paltry compared with ours.

Yet it is these two comparatively powerful and nuclear-armed nations are insisting that Iran cannot under any circumstances have its own nuclear weapons — which Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek — and Israel’s leaders are declaring that Iran must give up even the potential to acquire them. I have no trouble understanding why the P5+1 and Israel might prefer such a world, but what I don’t understand is why they think Iran will ever agree to it. I mean, I’d like to live in a world where anyone making more than a $1 million per year had to send me ten percent of their income, but it would be foolish for me to plan my life on that basis.

For the past decade, the US and its allies have been insisting that Iran suspend enrichment. Back when we started making that demand (in 2001 or so), Iran had no centrifuges in operation. We’ve continued to issue these ultimatums for more than a decade, and Iran now has thousands of centrifuges in operation and a stockpile of enriched uranium that we’re now trying to get them to give up. In short, our take-it-or-leave-it approach to this problem has been a complete failure, and you’d think those in charge of U.S. policy would have recognized this by now.

As I noted awhile back, the current impasse reflects a significant shift in our approach to arms control. In the past, we understood that arms control was a diplomatic process of mutual compromise, designed to produce a situation that was ultimately better for both sides. Arms control agreements didn’t get the participants everything they might want, but they worked if each side understood that they’d be better off striking a reasonable deal. Today, "arms control" consists of our making unilateral demands, and insisting that other side give us what we want before we’ll seriously consider what they want. It reflects what late Senator J. William Fulbright called the "arrogance of power," the tendency for powerful states to think they can dictate to others with near-impunity. This approach hasn’t worked yet with Iran, and it’s not likely to work in the future.

So why do we persist in such a dubious course of action? Gareth Porter has a pretty good idea.

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

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