Brinkmanship Over Iran
By Michael MaherMarch 16, 2012
Talk of war on Iran is getting looser and louder, in both Israel and the US. Middle East diplomacy expert Vali Nasr puts that talk in perspective.
As a young man, the intellectual life of Vali Nasr was hewn from Iran's Islamic Revolution. His father, an academic, saw little future under the country's newly minted theocracy and took the family to Boston, joining many other middle-class Persians who migrated to the United States.
"I was impacted by that revolution immensely," recalls Nasr. "The events of 1979 in Iran, the revolution, the explosion of Islamic politics in the Middle East at the time, the questions that Americans had about what happened in Iran, what was happening in the Middle East, why Islam had all of a sudden become so important, were very formative."
More than 30 years on, the issue of Iran is still a burning one for both Nasr and his adopted homeland. The drums of war are being beaten by some in both the United States and Israel, who advocate attacking Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear bomb. President Barack Obama is urging caution, but in this election year his opponents are using the issue to attack his leadership.
Not long ago Vali Nasr was one of the Obama administration's key foreign policy advisors. An expert on the Middle East and Central Asia, between 2009 and 2011 Nasr served as senior advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.
Now, as the Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Nasr is a leading voice for pursuing diplomatic options with Iran rather than going down the path of war. Here he speaks with The Global Mail's Michael Maher.
TGM : Where do we stand right now with regard to Iran and possible military action against it by either the US or Israel?
Vali Nasr: The Iran nuclear issue has been on a slow burner, moving forward with sanctions and with the Iranians also gradually building their capabilities. There has been very little, in fact, in the form of diplomatic engagement since 2009 or even before. This dynamic has now moved into fast-track, where there is now a perception that Iran has moved a lot further ahead. It's getting to a point of no return and the current strategy against Iran of solely using sanctions is not working.
But I think the talk of war also has a lot to do with domestic politics in the United States and possibly also in Israel. It is election year in the US. The Republican contingent does not have a foreign policy issue to criticize the President with and it's narrowed in on Iran as a topic where they can argue that the United States has not done enough. It's a topic which also has a domestic constituency in the United States on the right, among the American Jewish community and the evangelical community, and that is also part of the reason that all of a sudden this issue has gained such prominence.
TGM : A New York Times/CBS poll has found a majority of Americans are in favor of backing Israel should it decide to attack Iran. Does this surprise you?
Vali Nasr: Obviously the public reacts to the way the politicians and the media define the threat. There are a certain set of assumptions that have now been embedded in the discussion, for instance that Iran wants a bomb. There is very little attention given to the fact that the supreme leader in Iran, in his capacity as a Shi'ite cleric, gave a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons are a great sin. It seems to me we take fatwas very seriously when it suits us and not seriously when it doesn't suit us. A fatwa is an important declaration.
Another issue is that the media and American politicians who favor a war have sold the idea in the public arena that, first of all, a military strike is going to be clinical, easy and cost-free and, secondly, that it's going to be very effective and that it's necessary. In other words, that diplomacy has been exhausted. Continuously we hear that diplomacy has been tried and has failed.
Diplomacy has not really been tried at all. One 45-minute meeting between the United States and Iran over a period of three years does not constitute diplomacy. If someone went to the American people and the politicians and said that a military strike against Iran could raise the price of oil to $6 per gallon, the likelihood of a successful strike is only 20 per cent, that there is the potential for it escalating into a major military event in the region and that it's not necessary to do it right now because they are not imminently about to get a bomb, there is enough time and diplomacy should be tried - exactly what President Obama said - I'm sure the American people are going to sit back and say, "Well that's a different set of information before me" and they are going to react differently.
TGM : All those points that you've raised, do you believe they represent the reality of the current situation?
Vali Nasr: What I'm trying to say here is that we're not playing off of objective facts, and that's why I'm saying that the domestic element is very important. Different sides are playing this interpretation of where Iran is and what the United States can do and whether there's any cost associated with what the United States and Israel do based on their own position. So the Republicans here would like to use the war argument to show the President to be weak and therefore gain ground on him during the election. I don't think if they were in the White House they would be egging on for war any more than the President. But it's convenient to them to make the argument that the President is not doing enough and that we can easily do this. And a muscular America plays well at the polls. So they interpret the information in a way that suits that argument.
TGM : That's a dangerous game isn't it?
Vali Nasr: It is a dangerous game. We played it in Iraq and the results were not terribly reassuring. We ended up in a war that tarnished our image. It was based on false information. It cost a trillion dollars plus. It broke a country that's yet to be fixed and tens of thousands of American soldiers died and tens of thousands of Iraqis died and will continue to die. And the question remains, was it really necessary to go to that war and whether there was any other alternative to it.
TGM : How close do you think the Israeli's are to mounting a strike against Iran?
Vali Nasr: My own view is that they're not close at all and I'm not sure that the Israelis could do it and if they did there would be no guarantee that it would actually be successful. What if it ends up failing? What if it ends up looking like the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 or the flotilla issue? In other words, a military strike that turns out not to be a resounding success and then there's political blowback from that. It could bring down the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. But for a variety of reasons it makes sense for Israel to keep pushing the United States on the Iran issue to take it seriously and to pressure Iran more.
Again the question of whether Iran is entering the zone of immunity, whether Iran has made the decision to build the bomb, how many bombs does Iran need to build in order to be a threat to Israel, what sort of a threat does a nuclear Iran actually pose to Israel - these are all issues which are open to interpretation. There is no doubt that Iran does pose a threat to Israel but the question is, is that threat imminent? Is it manageable? Does Israel have deterrence for it? Does war actually increase Israel's vulnerability or decrease it? These are issues to which the answers are fairly subjective.
TGM : How worried are you that the debate that is now underway is not being informed by the very issues you're presently raising with me?
Vali Nasr: It's also a historical debate. Now, a number of senior American statesman like [former national security advisor to President Carter] Zbigniew Brzezinsky and [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger have publicly said that there is a fairly strong track record of deterrence and containment. The armageddon argument about Iran is one which is not supported by history. It's not as if we've never done this before. It's not as if we didn't face a nuclear Soviet Union or China or North Korea. Or that India and Pakistan have not managed to maintain a nuclear peace. Yes, of course the Pakistanis use their nuclear shield to threaten India and send terrorists there. That's always been a strategic problem, but if India invaded Pakistan and went to war and tried to forcibly deny Pakistan its nuclear capability, would that be an easier way of dealing with this than the path India is currently pursuing? It's not that Iran is peaceful and peace-loving and has nice intentions - that's not what I'm saying at all. But there is, particularly in the American experience, a fairly long experience with managing exactly this sort of a threat. So when Europe was completely helpless before a Soviet nuclear arsenal, the United States provided a nuclear shield to Europe, laid down the conditions under which it would be used and then kept the Soviet Union out of Western Europe. The United States could very easily provide a similar kind of nuclear shield to Saudi Arabia and Israel and even put American nuclear weapons on their soil and essentially provide the same kind of deterrence.
TGM : How would you rate President Obama's performance on this issue?
Vali Nasr: I think last week he acted with a great deal of skill to create room for diplomacy and push back hard against the argument for war. But now really the key issue is to make diplomacy work, which means that you have to have a coherent plan of action when you get to the table, otherwise there are plenty of people on the right in the United States and among Republican critics who are just waiting to declare this effort a non-starter and go back to beating the drum-beats of war, particularly when they don't have to take the responsibility for it but rather just wrong-foot an administration during an election year. If this issue doesn't come to a boiling point before the November election, I think after that you're going to have a different environment for dealing with it.
TGM : Will it come to a boiling point before November?
Vali Nasr: I don't think it will. I think there is room for diplomacy. The President has put down America's red line - no nuclear weapons. And the supreme leader in Iran has said nuclear weapons are a sin. So basically what he said is that we're not going to cross that red line. If you hold the situation there you can negotiate with the Iranians to find a way of rolling the situation back even further. The Iranians have an incentive to avoid the worst of the sanctions being implemented by June, and if they want to hold off on those worst of the sanctions being implemented then they will have to give something at the table. And if you have enough of that, you may have sufficient momentum to make diplomacy look credible. If you don't end up with that, if the Iranians don't want to give anything and it fails, then it will be their responsibility.
TGM : How closely would the Iranians be looking at the US presidential election campaign? Would they be making the assessment that, in all likelihood, President Obama is probably someone they can deal with more readily than a Republican president? Would this even be a factor into their considerations?
Vali Nasr: Yes, it would. Not to say that they are extremely sophisticated about American politics but they understand well enough that President Obama is probably about as friendly a face that they're going to get and that as a second-term president he will have more latitude to deal with this issue. Diplomacy is about patience, persistence and sustained haggling. It's also about exploring the slightest common ground to build a negotiating strategy on.