Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers, Marc Lynch

Editor's Preface: The cat's out of the bag. Now Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has acknowledged that conventional bombs cannot knock out Iran's new nuclear enrichment facility near Qom, clearly implying that only a nuclear attack might work. So in addition to all the compelling reasons we already had why an Israeli preventive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a terrible idea (see “Why Israel Can't Bomb Iranian Nuke Sites - New Study Bursts Myth of Israeli Military Option” and Why senior Israeli intel & military officers think an Israeli strike on Iran is a bad idea - Anthony Cordesman, Wall Street Journal), now comes the coup de grace: an effective conventional strike against Iran would not significantly erode its nuclear enrichment capabilities, given how dispersed these are among known and still unknown sites, and how well-protected they are (the new Qom site is buried deep inside a mountain.) There can no longer be any doubt: those Republicans, American Jewish neocons and Israeli hawks who attack Obama's approach and advocate instead a preventive Israeli strike are advocating a nuclear war against Iran. Dubbing them "mad bombers" couldn't be more apt.

Help us help President Obama fight back and get the truth out to the American Jewish community and the wider American public.
Marc Lynch:

Today's New York Times runs what I believe is its first op-ed explicitly advocating a military campaign against Iran. Such agitation for war isn't new -- John Bolton and friends have been obsessively demanding such an attack for a long time, adapting the argument for war as the only solution to whatever the current situation may be. It's one thing when the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News or other conservative outlets advocate such a war. You expect that, and discount accordingly; an op-ed in Fred Hiatt's Washington Post demanding war on Iran is like a DC-based blogger complaining about the Redskins... it happens constantly, nobody takes it very seriously and it doesn't accomplish anything. But the New York Times doing so is a serious step towards mainstreaming the idea, akin to how Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman's support for the invasion of Iraq persuaded a lot of centrists and liberals. It's as if we as a country have learned nothing from the Iraq war debate.

Alan Kuperman, the NYT op-ed's author, is best known for defending the U.S. non-response to the genocide in Rwanda (leading the late, lamented Alison Des Forges to accuse him of playing "word games to rationalize the West's ignominious failure to halt genocide in Rwanda"). While he has no evident expertise in Iran, he has determined that Iranian domestic politics and a few months of negotiations conclusively prove that negotiations can never work and that there's only one way to stop Iran -- war.

His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.
  • Does he rule out the alternative policy by default? Yes he does! "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work."
  • Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected? Yes he does! "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons."
  • Does he warn that Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists? Yes, yes he does. "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud?
  • Does he exaggerate the prospects for success? Yes, he does. Well, first he says "As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work." But he quickly moves on from that, since that will not do. Oddly, his main example of success comes from Iraq, where he claims that the first Gulf war led to the uncovering of the Iraqi nuclear program --- not the Osirak raid -- which is accurate, but rather completely contradicts his argument.
  • Does he minimize the risks of military action? Yes, he does. "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway." Try telling that to U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to leaders in the Gulf, who are slightly less cavalier with the lives of their people.
  • Does he suggest that if all else fails regime change would be easy and cheap? Yes, dear lord, he does. "If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to." Truly, this was the lesson to be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm still marveling over how easily we overthrew Saddam and the Taliban and got out of Iraq and Afghanistan more or less costlessly. That was special. On the other hand, as Matt Duss helpfully points out, "if we don't have an Iran war, how are we supposed to have an awesome Iran surge?"
  • Does he accuse those who oppose military action of appeasement? Yes, yes, of course he does. "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."
Why spend so much time on a mediocre, unoriginal op-ed? The better question is why the NYT published it. Advocates of such a military strike have been agitating tirelessly for years to mainstream and normalize an idea once seen as mad, using precisely these arguments so often that their deep weaknesses may not even register anymore. Opponents of such a military strike -- on the grounds that it would not likely stop the nuclear program, would kill lots of innocent Iranians and inflame Iranian public opinion, would destroy Obama's hopes to transform America's relations with the Islamic world and inflame anti-Americanism back to Bush-era levels, and so on -- may not take this seriously enough.

The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough. Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square. The NYT today shows that they aren't. I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.

UPDATE: see also Matt Duss, Heather Hurlburt, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner. This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.
Posted By Marc Lynch Thursday, December 24, 2009 Reposted from Foreign Policy

Friday, December 4, 2009

“Rep. Berman: ‘I Intend To Pass The Iran Sanctions Bill’… That No One Thinks Will Work And Which Iranian Dissidents Oppose” - Matt Duss

Politico reports that House Democratic leaders are planning to move forward with new sanctions legislation that “seeks to cut supplies of refined petroleum products, especially gasoline, into Iran as a means of convincing that regime to end its nuclear weapons programs”:

“I intend to pass the bill by the end of this year,” Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told POLITICO. His bill has 339 co-sponsors in the House, and it might be taken up under a parliamentary process that allows quick approval of widely supported legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) told fellow Democrats on Thursday morning that the bill would be brought to the floor within two weeks, according to Democratic aides. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee passed similar legislation at the end of October, although it is unclear if and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring that bill up for a vote. [...]

Berman and other backers of the measure hope that the economic pain caused by disruption of those imports would force Tehran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.

I don’t know of any analyst — right or left — who thinks that this legislation will be at all effective in changing Iran’s behavior. Back in August, Gal Luft wrote that “Iran is much less vulnerable to gasoline sanctions than is commonly believed on Capitol Hill, and its foreign gasoline dependence is dropping by the day.” Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective petrol rationing program, both of which have, according to Luft, “slashed Iran’s need to import petroleum products.”

Luft also noted that “Iran is becoming increasingly reliant on China for its refinery expansion program — and Beijing has shown little interest in abiding by any sanctions regime initiated by the United States.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker website also looked at the potential impact of petroleum sanctions, concluding that “the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term.” AEI’s report also notes that “the group that should be the target of strengthened sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is least likely to be affected”:

Some analysts have argued that the IRGC actually benefits from a more economically isolated Iran because it no longer has to compete with foreign companies for government contracts. For example, one of the main engineering companies under IRGC control, Khatam al-Anbiya, has secured at least $7 billion in government oil, gas, and transportation contracts. Although IRGC companies do not always have the necessary technical expertise for some projects, they still generate revenue by acting as an intermediary between the government and international companies. IRGC members may continue to receive government contracts and subsidy money even if the government adjusted domestic economic policies.

Perhaps just as significantly, leaders and spokespersons of Iran’s Green Movement have rejected these sanctions, arguing that they would hurt the Iranian people while doing little to affect the regime. In September, Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen.”

In a recent interview with the Washington Times’ Barbara Slavin, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf “specifically rejected gasoline sanctions, “saying [they] would hurt average people.” While Makhmalbaf also said that “it was better to focus on the Revolutionary Guards,” as the above reports indicate, sanctions on refined petroleum products — especially of the unilateral sort proposed in the Berman bill — are a particularly ineffective instrument for doing this. Far from forcing Iran to scale back its nuclear program, the threat of these sanctions seems only to have motivated the Iranian regime to move more quickly to harden itself against their effects.

Originally published on 12/3/09 at the Wonk Room