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Bill Keller: Time For An Overture To Iran

In yesterday’s New York Times:

What statesmen do when faced with bad options [preemptive war or accepting a nuclear Iran] is create new ones. The third choice in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use (as it is entitled to do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), that applies rigorous safeguards (because Iran cheats), that gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations.

That, of course, won’t happen before November. Any U.S. concession now would be decried by Republicans as an abandonment of Israel and a reward to a government that recently beat a democracy movement bloody. We can only hope that after the election we get some braver, more creative diplomacy, either from a liberated Obama or (hope springs eternal) a President Romney who has a Nixon-to-China moment.

Because a frank look at the alternatives of (a) pre-emptive war and (b) a nuclear Iran should be enough to focus all of our intelligence and energy on (c) none of the above.

Is there really an option (c)? I don’t know – and neither does Keller. It’s entirely possible that the rational Iran hawks (not the folks who think Iran is a suicidal country – there’s no arguing with them) are right – that Iran is determined to pursue a nuclear weapon for its own purposes, and will not be either deterred or bought off. But this is still the right framing of the question. Which is better – war or accepting a nuclear Iran? If the answer is, “war,” then there is reason to err on the side of aggressive approaches even within the context of diplomacy, because if they fail then you always have war as an unfortunate but necessary fallback. If the answer is “accepting a nuclear Iran” then the calculus changes.

Many of the arguments about the dangers of Iranian nuclear proliferation are highly questionable. There’s no reason to think that the Iranian bomb would lead to hegemony over the Gulf states. On the contrary: however angry they might be that America failed to prevent such a catastrophe, they would have all the more reason to seek shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. There’s also no reason for Iran to believe that nuclear terrorism wouldn’t be traced back to them, and lead to the physical annihilation of their country. For that reason, it’s difficult to believe that the Iranians would give such a potent weapon to proxies like Hezbollah.

The primary utility of nuclear weapons in general, and for Iran in particular, is as a deterrent against a massive conventional assault. That’s what America’s tactical nuclear weapons were for during the Cold War – because we could obliterate Soviet armor as it crossed German territory, tactical nukes made up for our conventional inferiority. That’s what the Pakistani bomb is primarily good for now – deterring an Indian invasion (something they have some historic experience with) because there is the risk Pakistan would use nukes on its own territory to obliterate the invading army.

The Pakistani bomb has not prevented the United States from conducting attacks on its territory, because it is not useful as a general deterrent against other nuclear powers. And a massive nuclear arsenal did not prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union – you can’t nuke protestors. So, similarly, an Iranian bomb would not prevent the United States from confronting it forcefully, if such were necessary, and would not ensure the survival of the regime if it comprehensively lost legitimacy internally. It likely would deter a full-scale American invasion, since an invasion would pose the risk of nuclear weapons being used defensively against American armies and naval assets. It would also likely deter Israel from threatening first-use of nuclear weapons strategically (i.e., against enemy cities), in response to a massive conventional assault on their country (a threat that was considered during the darkest hours of the 1973 war), for fear that this might be met with a strategic response. Those are not meaningless considerations, but they are a far cry from assuming that the Iranian bomb means Iranian hegemony in the Gulf or the end to Israeli security.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to blithely dismiss concerns about proliferation in general, some of which have particular salience in the Iranian case. The risk of accidental war between Iran and Israel is not something to laugh off (and nobody should feel sanguine about the South Asian case just because it hasn’t blown up yet). Neither is the risk that Saudi Arabia might go nuclear in response to an Iranian bomb. Pakistani assistance to North Korea in its own nuclear program should make it clear that, with every addition to the nuclear club (particularly poor, weak and unstable additions) the risk of additional nuclear proliferation increases. And if we already worry about how well Pakistan and Russia maintain control of their arsenals (and we do), we shouldn’t feel comfortable about adding more potentially unstable nations to the nuclear club.

Preventing Iranian proliferation should therefore remain a high priority on the foreign policy list. The question then is how this goal can best be achieved – without war.

Right now, the America-led policy of the West is to strangle the Iranian regime economically and diplomatically, hoping that, eventually, the pain gets great enough that the regime cries uncle and accepts all Western conditions. Precisely because this would be an unequivocal and unarguable defeat for the regime, it is difficult to see the regime succumbing without risking a crisis of legitimacy internally. Regimes don’t risk such crises lightly, though sometimes they have no choice. In the meantime, the hope is that sabotage, sanctions and assassinations can impede the practical progress of the nuclear program sufficiently that the regime makes minimal or no progress towards whatever goals it has on the nuclear front.

The alternative would be to actively seek an opening with the Iranian regime – to make it clear that the goal is not Iranian capitulation, but normalization, and that negotiations will be about the precise conditions necessary to achieve that normalization. It’s sometimes asserted that the Obama Administration tried such an opening early in its tenure, but I don’t believe that’s the quite the case.

Is such an opening possible? I don’t know. I’m baseline skeptical, myself, precisely because the regime depends for its legitimacy on an anti-Western orientation. Normalization might present a similar risk of an internal crisis as capitulation would. Rationally, the Iranian regime’s goal should be to loosen sanctions without ever achieving a breakthrough in negotiations that could achieve normalization. Anyone familiar with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be familiar with that dynamic.

But that doesn’t mean that the United States would be ill-served by assuming the opposite, by asserting, loudly and often, that its goal is full normalization, and that the only substantial obstacles are an adequate verification regime to prevent Iran from building a bomb and an end to material support for listed terrorist organizations. Or with pursuing, in private diplomacy, a formula that could actually satisfy both sides, in case it turns out Iran has more interest in a real deal – provided it has real benefits for them – than is often assumed.

The main point, though, is that our political discussion has been bounded by the casual assumption that normalization is not only unlikely but isn’t even a foreign policy goal of the United States, and that therefore the only question is whether war is or is not necessary “yet.” Any breaking of that frame for discussion is productive. We shouldn’t assume that we know how a less-constrained debate would conclude; right now, it’s good enough just to have such a debate.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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