Daniel Larison

Iran Hawks and the Iraq War

Peter Beinart observes that Iraq rarely features in the debate over the nuclear deal:

I’m not saying that everyone who supported the Iraq War must feel as I do. I’m simply saying this: In most televised discussions of Iran, the word “Iraq” never comes up, and that’s insane.

Beinart is right that Iraq war supporters tend to get away with opposing the nuclear deal without having to answer for their past misjudgment on the most important foreign policy issue in the region in a generation. That’s an unfortunate side effect of the complete lack of accountability in our foreign policy debates, and the same might be said of Iraq war supporters’ participation in debates on intervention in Libya and Syria. The public should be reminded that the loudest detractors of the Vienna agreement were also among the most vehement supporters for a war waged ostensibly for the sake of counter-proliferation against a regime whose nuclear program had long since been dismantled. They refused to accept that Iraq had no nuclear program (and top Bush administration officials falsely claimed that it had been “reconstituted”), they rejected containment, and insisted on invasion and regime change. In that case, hawks refused to recognize success for what it was and demanded a more hard-line policy that gained the U.S. nothing and cost it a great deal, which is what many of them would have the U.S. do again today.

One of the things that has struck me most about the Iran debate over the last two years is that the hawks are now certain that Iranian influence has been on the rise and will continue to increase, but they were oblivious to the dangers that Hussein’s overthrow would benefit Iran and jihadist groups. They are most confident about Iran’s “march of conquest” when it isn’t happening, and they were heedless of Iranian gains when they were most likely to occur. That makes them uniquely ill-qualified to sound the alarm about how Iran will benefit from the deal.

Every prediction Iraq war supporters made about what would happen in the region proved false. Contrary to their expectations, there was no wave of political reform inspired by regime change, Iranian influence expanded greatly, jihadist groups flourished and continue to flourish today, and Iraq suffered from the evils of sectarian civil war. Opponents of the invasion anticipated and warned about most, if not all, of these possible dangers. Over a decade later, Iran hawks are now claiming that the deal will greatly empower Iran and its proxies and thus contribute to greater regional instability, but in order to support this argument they are compelled to misrepresent Iran’s setbacks as proof of its growing power. J. Dana Shuter and John Bradshaw refuted the argument that Iran is “on the march” last week:

In retrospect, that moment [in 2010] may represent the zenith of Iran’s power in the Middle East. Since then, Iran has been fighting a rearguard action at great political, financial and military cost to preserve the influence it took for granted just five years ago.

More to the point, because of Iran’s backing for the Syrian government it has made itself a particularly hated regime throughout most of the rest of the region, so there is little chance that Iran will be able to regain the influence it has lost over the last several years. Iranian influence did expand considerably in the previous decade with the help of the invasion of Iraq, but it has now been waning significantly. At present, Iran is stuck shoring up two faltering governments in Syria and Iraq and frittering away resources in conflicts it can’t afford. Iran isn’t “on the march,” and anyone who claims otherwise is indulging in simple alarmism.

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The Nuclear Deal and Iranian Dissidents

Victor Davis Hanson predicts all sorts of terrible consequences that will follow from the nuclear deal:

After the Iranian agreement, expect a world of nervous and angry allies, the end of dissent inside Iran [bold mine-DL], the spread of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, more nuclear states, a growing contempt for alliances with the West, and a new Middle East that may have to adopt appeasement to deal with a haughty Iran, flush with new cash and arms.

These predictions are ridiculous, but the one that seemed especially odd to me was the claim about “the end of dissent inside Iran.” Why would reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue with Iran’s government lead to the “end of dissent” in that country? Why would anyone reasonably expect that to be one of the effects of the deal? I ask that because the best evidence that we have suggests that most Iranian dissidents welcome the deal and the sanctions relief that comes with it, and they think that it could lead to an improvement in social and political conditions. They don’t assume that this must happen in the wake of a deal, but they seem convinced that it is possible and believe that it would not have been if there had been no agreement. A report from the International Committee on Human Rights in Iran found that a majority of the respondents in their survey expected improved political conditions:

61 percent of the respondents believe that reaching a deal on the nuclear issue “should facilitate progress toward greater rights and liberties” and that “the nation’s attention, previously monopolized by the negotiations, could now turn to critical domestic issues, among them, the state of basic freedoms in Iran,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

As the report’s authors went on to say, resolving the nuclear issue is “a necessary even if not sufficient requirement for any progress toward greater rights and liberties.” There is no guarantee that this progress will occur, but it is extremely unlikely that it could take place as long as the nuclear issue remained a point of contention between Iran and the major powers. One practical way that a deal is more likely to help Iran’s dissidents than it is to hurt them is through the sanctions relief that the deal secures. Sanctions relief should help Iran’s middle class to start to recover economically, and that in turn should aid Iran’s opposition over time. If sanctions had remained in place in the absence of a deal, that would have continued to weaken and undermine Iran’s opposition and to help the regime tighten its control. To believe Hanson’s prediction on this point, one has to assume that Iranian dissidents have a worse understanding of their own needs and of the internal political scene in Iran than he does, and that’s absurd.

I’ve mentioned before that Iran hawks aren’t really interested in what happens to the Iranian opposition, which is why they consistently back policies that harm them. Nonetheless, the same hawks are always eager to use Iran’s opposition as props in their arguments for more aggressive policies against Iran. Hanson’s column is a perfect example of that.

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Yemen Is Dying of Thirst

The Washington Post reports on the extreme water shortages now affecting Yemen after almost four months of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed intervention:

This poor Arabian Peninsula country has faced a severe scarcity of water for decades. But four months of fighting have dramatically worsened the situation, with attacks destroying water pipes, storage tanks and pumping facilities in a number of cities.

The number of Yemenis who lack access to drinking water has almost doubled since the war began, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. Now, they say, more than 20 million people — about 80 percent of Yemen’s population — struggle to find enough water to quench their thirst and bathe.

Yemen has been running short on basic necessities for months, but conditions are growing even more severe the longer that the war continues. As the report notes, the shortage has also been helping diseases to spread by forcing many Yemenis to use whatever water sources they can find:

Many people have no choice but to use unsanitary water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Wildcat drillers are boring wells and extracting untreated groundwater that they sell to consumers, health experts say. Residents are storing water for drinking and cooking in uncovered containers that become breeding grounds for mosquitoes that transmit malaria and dengue fever, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. In recent weeks, those organizations have identified at least 8,000 suspected cases of those diseases, far higher than the usual number.

So in addition to the looming danger of famine on account of the lack of basic food supplies for the civilian population, Yemen is at risk of suffering from major epidemics. The water shortage has been made much worse by the lack of fuel needed to run generators and pumps to gain access to water. All of these shortages have been created in large part by the Saudi-led intervention and their blockade, and they have been made worse at the local level by the fighting on the ground between the Houthis and their enemies. The U.S. continues to support the Saudis’ indefensible campaign, and that campaign continues to fail to achieve very much except to inflict extraordinary suffering on the civilian population of Yemen.

The report goes on:

The United Nations says that 120,000 children could die if the lack of access to clean water, sufficient food and adequate health care persists.

These are the horrific consequences of ill-conceived and reckless military intervention. It is long past time for the U.S. to end its participation in this appalling war and to start calling for the end of the blockade.

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Romney’s Nonsense on Iran

Dave Lawrence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mitt Romney makes a lot of unsupported assertions in his op-ed on the nuclear deal, but this is probably the most ridiculous:

If these ayatollahs have nuclear weapons, they will use them, someday, somewhere.

Romney’s op-ed is a useful reminder that the alternative in 2012 was to elect a candidate who was remarkably ill-informed and whose foreign policy judgment was exceptionally poor. The op-ed is also a reminder of the shoddy, half-baked foreign policy arguments that Romney made as a candidate, which reflected the generally bad advice he was getting at the time. Just take this one claim by itself. Romney is sure that Iran’s government would use nuclear weapons sooner or later, but he offers no reason why anyone should hold this belief. He presumably subscribes to the unfounded, discredited idea that Iran is a “martyr-state” that is willing to destroy itself to usher in the end times. This is a falsehood that Iran hawks have promoted for the last decade. It is simply made up. Whether he genuinely believes this or not, Romney argues like an ideologue. He asserts many things that he ought to be trying to prove as though they were incontrovertible. He is certain that Iran’s government is “suicidal” and “apocalypse-seeking” when their behavior over the last thirty-six years suggests that they are anything but this.

A “suicidal” government would not have made peace with Iraq in the ’80s, nor would it have entered into negotiations in which it agreed to scale back its nuclear program as it has done. An “apocalypse-seeking” government wouldn’t cooperate with its major ideological foe against other enemies as Iran has done, and it wouldn’t accept a compromise on the nuclear issue in which it makes most of the concessions. This is what a government interested in its own self-preservation does. Romney has nothing to say about this sort of Iranian government because it does fit his nonsensical ideological framing of the issue. If he doesn’t understand some of the most basic things about the government with which the U.S. is dealing, why should anyone think that he has a clue about the rest of the relevant issues?

Romney’s complaints about the nuclear deal are reminiscent of his railing against New START five years ago. Just as he is sure that this deal represents “caving” to Iran, he was certain that the arms reduction treaty was a big giveaway to Russia. He was laughably wrong then, and he is wrong now. Romney always attacks these agreements in these terms, and his technical arguments are always garbage. As ever, no one should trust anything he says. We should remember instead that a Romney administration would have committed the U.S. to a belligerent and confrontational policy with Iran that would have made any diplomatic agreement impossible. Romney has every incentive to cast doubt on the success of diplomatic engagement that he would have refused to attempt if he had been elected.

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Paul Endorses Military Action Against Iran

Rand Paul’s position on Iran keeps getting worse:

Republican presidential candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says he supports military action against Iran to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, even though he says it would only delay Iran getting a bomb.

This is in some respects the worst position Paul could take. He acknowledges that attacking Iran won’t actually prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if that is what their government is intent on doing, but he still backs military action for the sake of “prevention.” More to the point, Paul is endorsing preventive–and therefore unnecessary–war as an acceptable and appropriate policy. If there are still any Paul supporters that have been trying to find a silver lining in the senator’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy positions, this should be enough to persuade them to stop trying. Attacking Iran would be grossly illegal and unnecessary, and any politician that would support such an attack shouldn’t be trusted with the presidency. That applies to Walker, and it also applies to Paul.

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Friedman’s Terrible Iran Idea

Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Unsurprisingly, Thomas Friedman proposes a terrible idea to follow up the nuclear deal:

Congress should pass a resolution authorizing this and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran must know now that the U.S. president is authorized to destroy — without warning or negotiation — any attempt by Tehran to build a bomb.

This is nonsense, but it is extremely dangerous nonsense. First, Friedman assumes that the U.S. has a right to attack Iran for this reason, but as I said earlier this week such an attack on Iran would be unjustifiable and illegal. Even if Iran were doing this (and it is now even less likely to do it than it was a few years ago), the U.S. would be committing blatant aggression by attacking them. To threaten Iran with the possibility of a future attack at this point is extraordinarily foolish. It would feed into the worst fears of Iran’s hard-liners that the negotiations were just a prelude to a later attack, and it would give some future president political cover to start an illegal war.

Threatening to attack Iran in the future would obviously undo whatever progress has been made in establishing better relations between our governments. It would risk throwing away one of the chief benefits of the deal for the U.S., which is the avoidance of another unnecessary war in the region. In the worst case, such a resolution would pave the way for that war. Since an aerial attack would at most set back and not destroy Iran’s nuclear program, it would also not succeed in preventing anything but would instead make the undesired outcome more likely to happen. The deal with Iran has shown that the least costly and most successful option for advancing the cause of nonproliferation can work, but even now Friedman is still intent on making preventive war an acceptable policy option for the U.S.

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Facebook Q&A This Afternoon

Today starting at 2:00 Eastern I’ll be taking questions on TAC‘s Facebook page on the Iran deal, the 2016 election, and other foreign policy topics for an hour. Please comment with your questions, and I’ll do my best to answer as many as I can.

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Normalization with Cuba and Public Opinion

A large majority of Americans supported normalization of relations with Cuba at the start of the year, and now that normalization is proceeding support has increased:

Increasing Support for Renewed U.S. Ties With Cuba

Some of the most notable increases in support for normalization and for ending the embargo have come from conservatives and Republicans. While just 33% of conservative Republicans and 40% of all Republicans favored restoring diplomatic ties in January, those figures have shot up to 52% and 56% respectively. On the embargo, only 40% of conservative Republicans supported ending it as of January, and now 55% favor doing this. There is majority support for ending the embargo from Americans of all political stripes. The pro-embargo dead-ender position championed by Rubio, Bush, et al. is not only unpopular in the country as a whole, but it is now clearly the minority view within their own party and even among those that identify as conservatives. Almost all Republican presidential candidates have tied themselves to defending a policy that even most of their core constituents no longer favor. Far from there being any “backlash” to the policy of normalization, Americans of all backgrounds are even more in favor of restored ties than they were just a few months ago.

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The GOP 2016 Field: And Then There Were Sixteen

matthew393 / cc

Dan McCarthy writes in The New York Times this morning about the disappointing uniformity of the 2016 Republican presidential race:

There’s nothing wrong with the number of candidates seeking the Republican nomination. The field will narrow once the debates begin, and until then the more opportunity the party has to debate its direction, the better. But that’s where the contenders so far disappoint. From Jeb Bush and Scott Walker at the head of the pack to Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee in the middle to Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham at the back, their similarities are more striking than their differences. All want to be the generic conservative candidate.

As Dan notes later on, this is especially true on foreign policy. The quarreling between Walker and Bush over the last few days over the intensity and speed with which they will scrap the nuclear deal is instructive. It confirms that there is no substantive debate between the leading Republican candidates on one of the major foreign policy issues of the day. There is at most some quibbling over the timing and tactics needed to undo the agreement, and most of this is just posturing to create the impression of meaningful differences between candidates where none exists. There is no division among the many candidates on this deal, which is all the more discouraging when 40% of Republicans support the agreement. The nuclear deal offers a fine opportunity to revisit and challenge the party’s tired assumptions about the efficacy of sanctions and “preventive” war, among other things, but none of the sixteen candidates is willing to seize it. The odd thing is that in such a large field the candidates should have more incentives to distinguish themselves from the pack and to break with party orthodoxy more often, but the opposite has been happening.

As John Kasich makes his formal announcement this morning, there is the prospect of some real disagreement on a few domestic policy issues, but it is questionable whether his arguments will receive much of a wider hearing. His anemic levels of support so far are likely to leave him out of the early main debates. This is the main downside of the overabundance of candidates in this cycle: the candidates that might add something new or modestly different to the main debates are unlikely to participate in them. Meanwhile, the main debates will be full of candidates that are just echoing a very conventional party line. The GOP would likely have a more constructive debate over where the party should go if it had half as many candidates with at least twice as much diversity in policy views as the current field offers. As it is, we will be stuck with more than a dozen versions of the same uninspired talking points on almost everything, and the only noticeable differences on display will be ones of affect and style. That will make for dull viewing, but more important it will mean that the GOP will remain wedded to the same failed policies that the electorate keeps rejecting.

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Public Opinion and the Deal with Iran

The new Post/ABC News poll finds that there is majority support (56%) for the Iran deal, which includes support from a large bloc of Republican voters:

But Republicans at-large are a key reason for the deal’s continued popularity. The Post-ABC poll found more than 4 in 10 Republicans support the agreement (41 percent), while 54 percent are opposed. Even among conservative Republicans, one-third support a deal with Iran trading economic sanctions for a strict inspection regime.

Roughly two-fifths of Republicans across the country back the agreement, and they are almost completely unrepresented in Congress and in the 2016 presidential field. The striking thing is that there is such a high level of Republican support despite the absence of support for the deal from almost all pundits, politicians, and policy professionals on the right. If these Republicans are taking cues from their party leaders on this issue, they seem to be deciding to support whatever those leaders oppose. The third of conservative Republicans in favor of the deal might have offered one or more of the 2016 candidates a significant source of support in the primaries, but they have all lined up in opposition anyway.

A Cato/YouGov survey found a similar level of support at 58% for the deal. The breakdown of support by partisan affiliation was very similar:

Opposition to the deal is greatest among older voters, and there is majority support from all other age cohorts:

The Cato/YouGov survey also found that most Americans want Congress to let the deal proceed:

Americans also prefer Congress to allow such a deal to go forward (53%) rather than block the agreement (46%).

Both surveys find that the public is somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of the deal. This is consistent with previous surveys on this and other agreements. The public is generally in favor of pursuing negotiated agreements on disputed issues, and they are usually broadly supportive of the agreements produced by diplomacy, but they also typically doubt that the other regime will live up to its end of the bargain. The analysis of the Post poll finds that even among those that are “not so confident” there is strong support for the deal:

The key group are the one-fifth of the public who is “not so confident” a deal will work (22 percent). This group supports a deal by a more than 3 to 1 margin (69 to 21 percent), similar to their margin of support for the framework in March.

It is significant that this group isn’t sure that the deal will succeed, but nonetheless supports it by such a wide margin. That suggests that support for the deal is likely to hold and perhaps increase as it becomes clear that the deal is limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program as intended.

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