The U.S. national security think-tank, RAND, just published an eye-opening report on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program and how the U.S. should approach the issue. In a number of ways, it ratifies the Obama administration approach including supporting sanctions against Iran (with a significant caveat, read below). But in a number of other ways it is significantly more dovish than current administration policy and certainly rebuts the approach of the Barak-Netanyahu war party in the Israeli government.
The analysts who prepared the report argue that Iran’s neighbors do not fear overt Iranian aggression, so much as Iran’s attempt to export Shiism to its neighbors (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc.). If Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran, it will drive those neighboring states into Iran’s arms, causing a rising tide of Iranian influence in the region. This is the precisely opposite of what we wish to happen:
Containing this sort of influence would…become more difficult in the aftermath of an unprovoked American or Israeli military attack. Reaction among neighboring populations would be almost uniformly hostile. The sympathy…aroused for Iran would make containment of Iranian influence much more difficult for Israel, for the United States, and for the Arab regimes currently allied with Washington. This would be particularly true in newly democratizing societies, such as Egypt, where public opinion has become less fettered and more influential. International sanctions would erode, and Iran would likely redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
At no point in the RAND report does it advocate a military attack on Iran. In fact, contrary to current administration policy, the think tank document says threats of war are counter-productive:
Threats of military action, and even more…[an] actual…[war], would have only the opposite effect: reducing Iran’s isolation, increasing its influence, promoting domestic solidarity, and reinforcing the case for building and deploying nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
The only approach these analysts support is a negotiated resolution of the issues. In fact, in several instances it suggests that the U.S. should prepare for an Iran that may get nuclear weapons. It also suggests that we should prepare Israel for such an eventuality:
…The United States should…strengthen…Israeli [military] capabilities in preparation for a future in which Iran may have managed to acquire nuclear weapons.
And this is the money quote:
…We…recommend that the United States pursue a set of graduated diplomatic objectives, seeking first to halt the Iranian nuclear program short of weaponization while retaining the leverage to secure Iran’s eventual compliance with all its NPT obligations. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons for some combination of security, influence, and prestige; thus, persuading Iran that violating the NPT will only confirm its pariah status is the best way to dissuade it from crossing that threshold. No effort at persuasion can begin, though, until the United States acknowledges that the Iranian nuclear program might not be reversed and thus commences preparations to deal with the consequences.
Note that they say our goal shouldn’t be halting Iran’s nuclear program, because that’s almost impossible short of putting boots on the ground and occupying Iran. Instead, we must prepare for the distinct possibility that Iran could, and might have nuclear weapons capability. Not necessarily a nuclear bomb, but the technical capacity of putting one together if it needed it urgently, which is the policy Japan has adopted.
Another wise statement the report makes is that the only hope for regime change in Iran is through the people of Iran. This passage is a veritable breath of fresh air amidst the miasma of stupid statements emanating from U.S. and Israeli officials:
…The intense U.S. focus on the nuclear program may have also convinced many Iranians that the United States is concerned solely with its security interests in the Middle East, rather than with the plight of ordinary Iranians.
The United States should pay close attention not only to Iran’s nuclear program but also to such issues as human rights abuses, signaling to the Iranian people that the United States cares about Iran as a nation, not merely as a problem to be solved.
My sense is that if Obama could rule as he wished this is the sort of approach he would take. But he allows himself to be so hemmed in by politically expedience that he’s driven into the latter approach. The prospect of seeing Iran as a nation, understanding its history and interests, and seeking compromise is anathema in Washington and Tel Aviv in this day and age. Pragmatism is out of vogue. Extremism and simplistic responses are in. Rather than resisting, Obama temporizes with the worst of the ideologues, thereby losing the high ground and the ability to act decisively in furtherance of his political agenda.
The RAND analysts warn that the goal of getting Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment program is unlikely to succeed since it enjoys the whole-hearted support of the vast majority of Iranians. This should be a warning to Pres. Obama that putting all his eggs in the basket of stopping Iranian enrichment, as we appear to be doing going into the next round of nuclear negotiations in Baghdad starting next week, could lead to failed expectations.
The RAND report urges that the U.S. re-examine its policy toward the Arab Spring as it’s played out in various countries of the region; that we embrace these democratic openings wholeheartedly (instead of half-heartedly as we have till now), and use this policy shift to inform our own campaign for democracy within Iran:
Explicit U.S. efforts to bring about regime change, whether overt or covert, will probably have the reverse effect, helping to perpetuate the regime and strengthen its current leaders. For the immediate future, the best thing the United States can do to promote reform in Iran is to support the growth of democracy in those other Middle Eastern countries where the United States has greater access and influence. Adopting a regionwide and, indeed, globally consistent approach to democratization is important to establishing the credibility of U.S. support for reform in Iran.
One could sense during the Tahrir protests that led to the toppling of Mubarak, that Obama was toying with precisely this sort of sweeping embrace of Arab revolution and democracy. But as usual, the president didn’t have the courage of his convictions and gave his standard one-step-forward, three-quarters-of-a-step-back approach. We have taken a largely hands-off approach to Arab democratic revolutions and have even supported the bad guys in Bahrain and Yemen, precisely the opposite of the approach called for here by RAND.
The think tank analysts even tempered their support for a mainstay of U.S. policy: sanctions. They argue that sanctions are but a tool in the arsenal and not necessarily the most effective one. Therefore, they should be used carefully and even abandoned when judged not effective:
The best way to employ soft power [to influence Iran] is simply to remove the barriers to exposure. For example, the United States should…help expose the Iranian people to the outside world by encouraging travel and study abroad programs.
Sanctions erect barriers to such exposure — an unavoidable trade-off that needs to be carefully weighed each time new sanctions are levied or old ones renewed. Even as the United States seeks to isolate and penalize the Iranian government, it should seek to expand the exposure of the Iranian people to the United States, the West, and the newly dynamic Middle East.
The report warns strongly against an Israeli attack on Iran:
…Their [Netanyahu and Barak’s] position [favoring an attack] rests on a faulty assumption that a future, post-attack Middle East would indeed be free of a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, a post-attack Middle East may result in the worst of both worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran more determined than ever to challenge the Jewish state, and with far fewer regional and international impediments to doing so.
RAND essentially agrees with the Israeli hawks, conceding that a nuclearized Iran is dangerous. But it ultimately concludes that an Iran attacked by Israel is even more dangerous:
…While a nuclear-armed Iran that has not been attacked is dangerous, one that has been attacked may be much more likely to brandish its capabilities, to make sure that it is not attacked again.
It must be said that despite the fact that it avoids the “C world” like the plague, RAND is arguing for containment as a credible, pragmatic approach to Iran. Obama has made clear that he hates the term even though the policy, largely devised by George Kennan, worked rather well against the Soviet Union. But despite the niceties of his speeches, Obama will end up pursuing precisely such a program. And it likely will work unless we or Israel do something dumb to screw it up, which is a distinct possibility given the history of relations among these three countries.
I absolutely reject this recommendation which shows those who wrote this report don’t understand the dynamic of the Israeli political system:
Avoid putting public pressure on Israel. U.S. public pressure on Israel will likely backfire given Israel’s sense of isolation, turning Israeli popular opinion, which is divided on the question of a military strike option, against the United States and allowing for more defiant positions among Israeli leaders.
In fact, Israeli opinion largely agrees with the U.S. position and disagrees with the current political leadership. Shutting up only gives the hawks a free pass. Quiet diplomacy doesn’t work with Israel. Only tough jawboning works. The reason why Obama avoids such public pressure on Israel is because of his fear of the pro-Israel lobby in U.S. election politics, which is entirely different from what the RAND analysts are discussing. When you give up the opportunity to speak assertively to Israel’s leaders you give up the opportunity to influence Israeli behavior in significant ways.
One aspect of the report that mystified me was its tempering on the question of the Green movement. It claims that because the Greens are essentially Islamists who seek a reformed clerical regime, they are less than perfect interlocutors:
The Green Movement today is divided and leaderless, and it faces an even more fundamental weakness: It seeks to preserve the very same Islamic Republic that oppresses it…
Rather, RAND seems to support a secular democratic regime, which is a plan I haven’t heard any serious observer of Iran advance. The chances of Iran turning to secular democracy are nil, just as the chances of Israel turning to a secular democracy are nil.