Washington’s Mideast Nuclear Policy Poorly Conceived

Washington is playing an unnecessarily weak hand in its nuclear dispute with Tehran by relying on threats and failing to think through its options for a more nuanced and fair-minded policy. Clinton’s recent remarks make things worse.

Secretary of State Clinton said in Bangkok:

We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment that, if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.

Curiously, these ill-chosen words do not appear to be on the State Department website. On that website, she is quoted as saying in Thailand “we are committed to the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” Now that is a formulation that, if applied to the Mideast, would put the U.S. on the moral high ground.

The words she used regarding the Mideast, however, were unfortunate words, filled with misconceptions and logical fallacies that are likely to further complicate the nuclear dispute between Tehran and Washington.

Clinton did indeed make a “fair assessment” that a defense umbrella would counterbalance an Iranian nuclear weapon and leave Iran no better off. But where does the assumption that Tehran believes it can intimidate the region with a nuclear weapon? How could one or a few or even many Iranian nuclear bombs enable it to intimidate an Israel that, according to Iran, already has some 200, plus, by the way, the delivery systems, plus the pipeline gusher of additional weapons from the U.S.?

If we are going to make assumptions about Iran, rather than looking at facts, the far more obvious assumption is that Israel, which repeatedly threatens to attack, is intimidating Iran. The far more logical conclusion is that the surest route to solving the problem is not to further threaten Iran but to eliminate the threat to Iran. What is the purpose of egregiously underscoring the overwhelming odds against Iran and thus lending further credence to the argument that only nuclear arms will enable Iran to obtain national security or respect?

Any assumptions may of course be wrong. But starting with the assumption that one’s allies are good and one’s opponents are evil, and then putting all one’s eggs in that single basket, is hardly a professional way of designing foreign policy. More specifically, a defense umbrella of nuclear allies and everyone else against a single outsider that is either non-nuclear or armed with a primitive nuclear capability does not constitute a very thoughtful plan for the future.


Dissenting Opinion

An alternative interpretation, offered by a colleague who shall go unnamed unless he requests that he be named (and also expressed in Israeli media), suggests that the real meaning of Clinton’s remarks is that Israel has been trapped. Whereas I argued that her remarks constituted Israel and the US ganging up on Iran, my colleague’s interpretation is that she implicitly took away Israel’s freedom of movement and effectively took away the value of Israel’s nuclear capability. I’m not sure that anything really would prevent Israel from firing “through” an American nuclear umbrella, and I suspect Iran is not sure either. Nevertheless, there’s one dissenting opinion.