Brisbane, March 15, 2015 (Alochonaa): As one of Israel’s leading politicians and international spokespersons for decades, Netanyahu’s visits to the United States are always going to be partisan affairs. It is true that the major American parties have traditionally shown some public solidarity and bipartisanship over Israel policy but outward unity has been masking increasing division over the scope, objectives and outright wisdom of U.S.-Israeli relations. Today, the divides between and within Democratic and Republican camps are fissuring wider still and resentment of Israeli influence in U.S. regional policy in general, and Iran policy in particular, has been building for a long time.
That said, Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress last week has engendered an especially acrimonious debate about U.S.-Israeli relations and the role of Congress. Some commentators praised the speech as a breath of common sense amidst a weak and confused American stand against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Others have said the speech was insulting or even unconstitutional. President Obama responded to it with barely concealed contempt and said the speech contained nothing new.
The partisan food fight is understandable. Congressional Republicans are clearly trying to limit Obama’s foreign policy authority as he continues the perpetual state of undeclared war, though much of their stand against presidential authority seems cynical and hypocritical rather than principled. The invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress bypassed regular diplomatic channels and went around the White House, embarrassing the administration and placing pressure on the State Department to alter its existing framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. The speech is, therefore, an intervention in Iran policy by Netanyahu and Congress. The speech has focused more public and congressional attention on the potential deal and is providing an unwanted level of scrutiny in what are meant to be the final weeks before a deal is struck.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have now been forced to respond to critics of the deal, reaffirm their intentions to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and to create a deal which leaves Iran with no way to get an atomic weapon without leaving time for a new American response. Amazingly, despite years of negotiations, sanctions, two presidents and several teams of negotiators the basic assumptions of American policy remain unchanged and deeply flawed. These assumptions are worth some exploration.
- Iran wants nuclear weapons
- Vague diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions can prevent Iranian nuclearisation
- There is a military option open to destroy Iranian reactors
- There will be a military option available in the future if Iran violates its commitments
- In light of 2, 3 and 4 the USA can prevent a successful Iranian nuclear program
Of course, in a region like the Middle East there are good reasons why a Shia Islamist regime would want nuclear weapons. Whether or not Iran wants them today is largely irrelevant (and, of course, Iran claims it does not want them) because once the nuclear program reaches a certain level of competency the path to a dirty bomb or simple atomic weapon is easy. The fact that several states have successfully run covert nuclear programs, from Israel in the 1950s, to Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s and North Korea in the 2000s, should make us sceptical about states which do not allow transparency to the IAEA at the least. Consequently, assumption number one is the only one which is vaguely unproblematic.
Assumption 2 has always been the weakest. For years pundits have claimed that diplomatic pressure or sanctions can ward off Iranian nuclearisation but an authoritarian state committed to run the risks of military action associated with the acquisition of nuclear technology are unlikely to be scared of sanctions or quiet diplomacy. Furthermore, different states have viewed Iran and the ‘nuclear problem’ differently, resulting in no genuinely concerted action by the great powers. Germany, Britain, France and the USA can only agree to weak sanctions, much like in the Ukraine crisis, and China, Russia and many other authoritarian regimes have no incentive to support action against Iran but have strong incentives to frustrate the USA. Even sanctions of high technology or military equipment to Iran were watered down by Russia to reduce the pressure on Tehran. With such disunity Iran has been able to ‘slip the leash’ for years.
Late in the Bush years, with American troops deeply engaged on both sides of Iran (in Iraq and Afghanistan), rumours of imminent or threatened American military action against Iran circulated periodically. Likewise, speculation that Obama might authorise an attack on Iran has been commonplace, and the present administration has been careful not to rule out the possibility of an American strike on Iranian facilities in the event of non-compliance with an inspections plan. This deliberately ambiguous approach to military force is apparently thought to be a prudent way of intimidating Iran but one wonders whether the Iranians have ever thought that an American strike was, or is, credible – certainly I am unconvinced, and if the American’s cannot convince me there is no reason why they must have convinced Iran.
Since the Bush years, and particularly since Obama’s first term, the presence of U.S. troops so close to Iran has become more a liability for the USA than an asset to its Iran policy. Iran would usually have difficulty replying to an American airstrike but that wouldn’t be the case with so many USA troops and facilities in the Gulf today. The USA has its hands full, the public is tired of ground wars, and the idea of engaging a major regional power in a conventional conflict at this point seems so outrageously stupid that the Iranians can probably discount it (as I have).
Finally, whilst Obama and others are claiming that the USA will have time to respond to Iran breaking any nuclear agreement and unilaterally moving toward weaponisation in the future, such fortune telling is hopelessly optimistic. North Korea was known to be violating all manner of commitments (and did so repeatedly) and yet even with years of time on America’s side and very few friends for Kim’s regime weaponisation still occurred. Time and forewarning didn’t change the fact that the USA and its allies were never willing to attack North Korea whilst North Korea could issue a conventional reply (China’s role added more uncertainty but wouldn’t have altered the fundamental dynamics of the North Korea conventional threat). That sounds much like Iran’s situation today and it will still likely be Iran’s situation in several years’ time. If I were the Iranians and I wanted nuclear weapons I would be relatively sure I could string the Americans along with a temporary agreement, violate it at some other stage and call the bluff.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the Iranians will do that, only that they could and, critically, even if they (and I) were wrong about their adversaries and the Americans (or Israelis) launched an airstrike in the future the outcome would be worse for everybody. Iranian retaliation would be certain and further escalation would be possible but not in American interests. Everyone would lose and Iran would be free to pursue a nuclear program again in the future absent a massive commitment of American ground forces, a scenario which is politically not very feasible (particularly if the USA or Israel struck first).
Given all these problems Iran’s nuclear program is much more beyond American control than is apparently presupposed. Without occupying Iran the USA doesn’t have the diplomatic clout, the international unity, the credible threat of force or the long-term attention span to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons programs. Rather than continuing this unedifying spectacle, which only tends to reveal the gap between American ambitions and their capabilities, policymakers should concentrate on deterrence and get used to the idea that we will continue to live in a world where dictatorships have nuclear weapon.
Yes, a world with more nuclear weapons could be a bad outcome but that is not the point – the world is imperfect. The point is that such an outcome is not actually in American hands all the time. Simply accepting the reality that the situation is, at the very least, not entirely in American hands and linking Iranian-American cooperation to other issues would be a better option.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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