Today’s news brims with headlines about the White House deal with Congress over the latter’s rights to oversight, if not advice and consent, on the final June 30 agreement with Iran, should it come into being. A confrontation has been avoided for the time being, which is good—for reasons laid out below. The President made the larger concession to achieve the compromise, which is a pattern showing through also with the Iranians.Perhaps all this muss and fuss has meaning within the confines of both American constitutional precedent and with respect to whatever clinging comity can be salvaged from the wreck of our present political system. But it has, and will have, little to do with Iran and the problems it poses to the United States, its allies, and the region as a whole.There are two reasons for this: the Supreme Leader’s speech of last week, and the more recent announcement from Moscow that S-300 antiaircraft missiles would be headed to Iran.Ayatollah Khamenei’s April 9 speech was a scorcher, and exactly the sort of thing I expected and have predicted several times over in this space. It doesn’t indicate, yet, his irrevocable walking away from the negotiations, but it’s close. It sets out demands over and above the technical issues that have been left to a notional June 30 deadline, above all the immediate suspension of all sanctions. He seems to mean not just U.S. sanctions and not just sanctions having to do with nuclear technology issues, but EU and UN sanctions as well, and both Executive Branch and Legislative Branch sanctions here pertaining also to longstanding Iranian support for terrorism and an array of human rights abuses. He refers to this demand as a matter of dignity, which it may well be, but he also means without saying it that it is a matter of acute economic discomfort with potentially difficult (for him) political implications inside Iran.Obviously, since we are seemingly near the beginning of a new stage in negotiations, one could interpret Khamenei’s speech as standard-issue positioning. That is probably the best way to interpret other earlier remarks, from Rouhani and the al-Quds types, that advanced centrifuges will operate on day one of a post-accord era, that no military facilities will be open to IAEA inspection, and so on—all remarks that contradict core elements of the U.S. interpretation of what was supposedly agreed in Lausanne on April 4.Naturally, we like to think that the U.S. interpretation is the more authoritative one, but, as Khamenei pointed out, there is no agreed text and hence nothing has been signed. The words that are being variously interpreted are transcribed scribbles from Wendy Sherman’s white board. So, to sum up the situation, there is no text, there are no signatures, there are no agreed interpretations, and there is a demand from the summit of Iranian politics that the P5+1 relinquish all its leverage, via the sanctions regime, before Iran has to commute any of its obligations under a prospective post-June 30 agreement. So how would an odds-maker in Vegas score the probabilities of a sealed deal, do you think?And there is a broader observation to be repeated that reinforces a justified sense of abortive effort. Arms control negotiations between adversaries that fear and distrust each other cannot fundamentally reshape strategic reality absent strenuous and consistent activities outside the negotiating room. They can affect only the tone and timing of how geostrategic realities play out; sometimes, by redirecting competitive energies into unconstrained areas, they can ultimately make things more dangerous, not less. The level and trajectory of political enmity, not the weapons themselves, shape the ambit of possibilities in arms control. It is not foremostly a technical exercise. The result, vividly borne out by the Cold War history of U.S.-Soviet arms control, is that arms control offers few if any security benefits when you desire them most, and only modest benefits when you don’t really need them. Arms control is hard to do when it matters, easy when it doesn’t. Clearly, the Iran case fits squarely into category number one: hard to get, and potentially counterproductive if you do get it.I have a nagging sense that the Administration and its supporters do not entirely grasp this history, or this key point. But, while no one should underestimate the politico-diplomatic desperation of the Administration and its capacity for pusillanimity, even I have a hard time imagining a total collapse of the U.S. position between now and June 30. The record so far shows much bending on our part, but no irreparable breaking. As the President told Tom Friedman on April 9, it’s one thing to display great flexibility because our great strength allows us to safely put adversaries to the test, and another to drop to our knees in total abasement.Maybe Khamenei’s demands concerning sanctions relief will collapse instead; maybe the negotiations will continue and succeed based on a major Iranian concession. But it is far more likely that the Supreme Leader is saying what he means and meaning what he says. Why do Westerners have such a hard time taking dictators at their word when what they say makes us feel uncomfortable? We do it again and again (the reasons, while fascinating, need not detain us here). And we are—some of us anyway—doing it yet again. Amazing, yes. Surprising, I can only wish.The S-300 business adds a portentous layer of complexity to what is already plenty complex. In the context of the so-called reset—which I continue to maintain was a near-accidental public relations exercise, and little more—the Russians promised not to consummate the S-300 deal. Anyone who is surprised by their recent perfidy should beware of strangers offering to sell them discount bridges that span the East River.But why does this complicate things? Or better yet, why now? Well, money is always part of the mix in Russian politics and policy these days. (Is there still any distinction between the two?) That is especially so when the Russian economy is hurting from sanctions as much, perhaps, as is the Iranian one. In that context, $800 million is a lot both to pay and to pocket.But more likely, or rather in addition, the Kremlin has probably concluded that the negotiations are a bust and fighting is likely at some point. True to his own KGB-lite nature and his version of a Cold War hangover, Putin wants to hurt the United States as much as possible, merely as a matter of low principle.The older version of the S-300, were it to be integrated into the Iranian order of battle, would cause either the U.S. or the Israeli air force some grief, but not a lot. The newest version, however, would make any air attack more complex, time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Only fifth-generation fighters can roam around safely and successfully over territory covered by the most advanced generation of the mobile S-300. Depending on how many and where they are, B-2s and F-22 Raptors can operate, and the F-35 could, as well, if it were in service. Anything older is not liable to be thrown into battle—at least not right away.It will probably take nine months to a year for the S-300 to be fully integrated into the Iranian order of battle, even with the help of lots of Russian technicians and advisers (itself not a good development). That shapes the window of opportunity to use air power if lesser though still potentially very powerful actions such as economic warfare (meaning measures far beyond passive sanctions) and cyber-attacks do not work. And by “work”, note that these kinds of activities cannot destroy Iranian nuclear infrastructure; they can only ratchet up pressure for Iranian negotiating concessions. So if we do that sort of thing, we should definitely call the campaign “Say Uncle Napoleon.” (If you don’t understand the reference, take a quick course on Iranian popular culture.)Now, since U.S. policy would probably adopt non-kinetic pressures first and want to give them a chance to work before using air power, the timetable for the S-300 integration causes plenty of trouble. The window of opportunity would start to close before we would like it to, certainly within the 20-month period of what’s left of the Obama Administration. The Iranians could always show more ankle to prolong the process, too. Things would get “interesting”, in the sense of that old “Chinese” curse.There is also a chance that, as with other windows and timetables, the Israeli government might adopt a more constrained definition of an open window. My sense has been, for roughly a decade since this nasty business has been oozing along, that the Israeli government does not wish to attack Iran except as a very last resort, and by that I mean in the context of a crisis in which weapons of mass destruction are primed for actual use. The Israelis would prefer that the United States do the heavy lifting instead, and preferably well before crisis-instability became acute. The rhetoric coming out of Jerusalem has been mostly designed to keep that preferred possibility in prospect.The reasons for this are partly technical, partly political/diplomatic. Israel’s air force is very proficient but it is small and far from its prospective targets. The further away the target, the more fuel the plane must carry, and the more fuel it must carry the less ordnance it can bring along. That translates into a need for many more sorties, particularly because the ordnance to pierce protected Iranian infrastructure targets is itself pretty heavy. And that in turn translates into a far more protracted campaign, which is not good for all kinds of reasons. But if in a crisis Iranian weapons migrate from their protected nests to airplanes and missiles set up to launch, then the targets become relatively soft, visible, and vulnerable.I am no longer confident about understanding Israeli thinking. One reason is that the newly reelected Prime Minister has been saying and doing some odd and unfortunate things of late. His foray to Washington in mid-March, as predicted by many, has helped turn Israel into a wedge issue in partisan U.S. politics, which is, from the Israeli point of view, disastrous for the longer term. His diplomatic opportunism and Arab-baiting on election eve played fast and lose with delicacies whose maintenance is critical for Israeli security looking ahead. His grating and disrespectful posture toward the Obama Administration has rendered Israeli access to any continuing negotiating process close to nil, despite Ambassador Dermer’s less-than-credible efforts to “make nice.” And his recent demand that any P5+1 agreement with Iran include an explicit Iranian recognition of the right of Israel to exist, aside from being totally out of place in an arms control context, verges on the inane, if not insane.So it’s not remotely obvious to me what this government will and will not do. The more the coalition to come—Israel’s 34th government—resembles a government of national unity, the less jittery I will feel. That could happen. Isaac Herzog resembles a Labor hawk of the older school, as do most of his close advisers, and Tzipi Livni is no shrinking violet either, but they seem more balanced and nuanced than the Prime Minister has been in recent months. Moreover, they clearly can form a better bridge back to Washington—which, I hope, is one of the reasons Netanyahu is considering a coalition arrangement with them. There is oh-so-much damage to repair.All that said, things are actually turning out well, or at least as well as could have been expected in a genuinely terrible and terrifying situation. Whatever one thinks of the Administration’s negotiating performance—flexible testing from strength of true Iranian intentions, or utter fecklessness driven by a combination of wishful thinking and desperation—the fact is that the world can see, and our allies can see, that we went the extra mile. No one can credibly claim in future, should the situation melt into violence, that the United States did not give diplomacy a chance. Of course some highly anti-American actors will see what they wish to see and say what they are used to saying, but everyone else, everyone who matters that is, will know that it was the Supreme Leader who pissed in the soup, not Barack Obama. The deal between the White House and Congress contributes to that optic at least marginally, not so much by doing anything positive, but by proscribing something negative. It was Pliny the Elder who wrote in Historia Naturalis, “Optimumque est, ut volgo dixere, aliena insania frui.” [“The best plan, as the saying had it, is to profit from the folly of others.”]That optic maximizes the prospect that the leverage provided by the sanctions regime can be maintained. Of course, the continued fact that “all options remain on the table” is the mother of all leverage, and yes, even close allies of the United States originally signed up to sanctions in order to prevent or forestall a U.S. use of force. But that was then and this is now, with Iran’s nuclear infrastructure much further advanced and hopes that negotiations can really solve the problem still alive only in the minds of sleepwalkers, the naive, and the delusional.Besides, and more important, most potential sanctions cheaters are not part of the P5+1, and do not hew to the sanctions regime mainly to deter the use of American military power. Dozens of other countries and many hundreds of other companies would rush to do business with Iran if they thought they could get away with it un-penalized. That is why keeping Britain, France, and Germany on board, and perhaps China as well as the UN Security Council, would have a sweeping positive impact. That, in turn, reduces the prospective diplomatic price the United States (and perhaps one or two close allies) would have to pay if it decided to twist some arms and break some stuff. We do not need to strain hard to imagine that price; all we have to do is recall Transatlantic and trans-Channel relations after March 2003. All else equal, that makes a resort to force less unlikely, which, for both diplomatic and more literal purposes, is on balance a good thing.At times like these, “it could have been even worse” is not a particularly comforting assessment to many, especially to those who cannot reconcile themselves to the misanthropic realities of the wider political world. My advice to such people: Try harder. Even very powerful states like ours seldom get to choose between very good and less good options. Our bait bucket teems with greater and lesser evils, most of them fairly ugly when you get right down to it, and the murk is such that it’s usually hard to distinguish greater from lesser. Children deny unpleasant truths regularly, and we forgive them their innocence. When adults do it, it’s called something else.So on this day, of all days—150 years since the death of Abraham Lincoln—let us conclude by recalling one of the 16th President’s lesser-known remarks. Not many days before his assassination, Lincoln resignedly said to General Grant: “Each of us has made it possible for the other to do terrible things.” He was so very right. Alas, there may be terrible but necessary things in our future, as well.
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Published on: April 15, 2015
Iran and the BombSleepwalking
As bad as the nuclear negotiations seem, things are actually turning out well—or at least as well as could have been expected in a genuinely terrible and terrifying situation.