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What Should Iran Policy Be?

There is a mostly excellent National Journal panel on Iran policy (via Scoblete). Prof. Michael Brenner, Prof. Paul Pillar and Steven Metz make what I find to be the most compelling arguments, and naturally I agree with their rejection of aggressive war against Iran, but I was also briefly intrigued by Robert Baer’s call for doing nothing.

It is intriguing because he takes for granted the collapse of the Iranian government, and argues strenuously against any direct overt or covert action that might strengthen the hand of the IRGC. Baer is saying that the U.S. should get out of the Iranian regime’s self-destruction, and he says this at a time when the collapse of the regime seems more remote than it has in months. Actually, Baer is not really calling for complete inaction, but wants a combination of current sanctions and indirect pressure brought on Iran by somehow persuading Russia and China to stop helping the current leadership:

Keep the sanctions, talk the Russians and Chinese out of helping Ahmadinejad, even if it means conceding disputes in places like Georgia and Taiwan. At the end of the day, the regime in Tehran, properly ignored, will fall under its own weight.

On the face of it, this sounds very much like the hoped-for quid pro quo that the administration seemed to think it would get if it gave up on the missile defense plan in central Europe. The standard administration justification for the decision was that it would make Russia more amenable to pressuring Iran on its nuclear program. As I said repeatedly last year, that was never going to happen. Even though I always said the decision on missile defense was the correct one, and I was surprised when Obama made it, I kept insisting that there should be no illusions that it would yield any real results on Russian cooperation. Here Baer is proposing what could be even larger concessions, but it is important to understand that Russian and Chinese cooperation of this kind is unlikely to be forthcoming. As a matter of domestic politics, the administration was able to scrap the missile defense plan without too much backlash, but if it were perceived as ceding ground over Georgia and/or Taiwan there would be much more resistance within both parties and a barrage of negative press coverage.

If the GOP was so obsessed with such a trivial program as the missile defense system in central Europe, just imagine how energized hawks in both parties would become if Georgian and Taiwanese interests were sacrificed as part of an attempted bargain to undermine Ahmadinejad. As we have already seen some version of them before, you can see the headlines already: “Obama sells out allies for nothing.” What I did find intriguing about Baer’s idea was that he seemed to be stating that our disputes with Russia and China over Georgia and Taiwan were relatively unimportant enough to U.S. interests that Washington could give ground on these disputes and it wouldn’t be any great loss. Especially as it concerns Georgia, I agree that there are no real U.S. interests at stake, but I am not the one who needs to be persuaded on this point. I have no idea what Baer means by “conceding disputes,” but I guarantee that anything significant enough to interest the Russians and Chinese would be politically radioactive in both parties.

Even if the concessions were significant, Moscow and Beijing would have little reason to withdraw aid and support from Iran’s regime. From the Russian and Chinese perspectives, U.S. involvements in Georgia and Taiwan are provocations and examples of ongoing interference in their affairs. If Washington made concessions tomorrow, Moscow and Beijing would regard this simply as a return to the way things should be and a recognition of prior Russian and Chinese claims.

I said the panel was mostly excellent, which brings me to the contribution that was jarringly bad. This came from the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the other contributors, they made arguments for their proposals. Carafano spends the first half of his entry lamenting Neda. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is not a policy argument. It is an attempt to exploit a woman’s tragic death to gin up sympathy for a series of bad policy options whose merits and consequences Carafano never bothers to outline. Carafano’s entry amounts to a fair amount of weepy sentimentality combined with unfounded assertions (“this is a government that cannot stand”) and topped off with counterproductive recommendations. Carafano’s proposal for what Washington should do comes at the end:

Obama can help speed the process. First, the United States needs to adopt tough unilateral sanctions that hit the regime in the gut. Second, Obama needs to spare no effort to shame Iran for its horrific human rights record. Third, put the “third site”—the deployment of missile defense to Poland and the Czech Republic–back on the table. Take out every avenue Tehran has to threaten the West.

This seems like a parody of a lot of movement conservative foreign policy commentary, but this is actually what passes for such commentary at one of the flagship think tanks of the conservative movement these days. It has much of what is wrong with movement conservative thinking on these issues. If there is an authoritarian government engaging in repression of its people, slap sanctions on it and engage in a lot of useless moral preening. And missile defense! Pay no attention to the small problem that the longest-range Iranian missile can barely reach Romania–there simply must be a missile defense installation in central Europe!

At first there would seem to be no logical connection between Carafano’s manipulative sentimentality and his boilerplate recommendations, but something I read near the end of Christina Larson’s article on Tibet made me think otherwise. She wrote, “In general, sentiment veils critical thinking.” Larson’s piece is worth reading for no other reason than to be reminded of this lesson. Carafano’s enthusiasm for the Green movement and his sympathy for the regime’s victims seem to be so great that they prevent him from seeing how useless and counterproductive his recommendations are.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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