A Practical American Plan For Iran

The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. Bilateral acceptance of a positive-sum strategic attitude would be a game-changer.


Just as a chess game does not begin with checkmate, a state’s strategy should not begin with war. Threats, sanctions, the invasion of states bordering an adversary, the construction of archipelagos of military bases surrounding an adversary, terrorist campaigns to murder enemy scientists, references to “preventive” war, and the open consideration of using weapons of mass destruction against a non-threatening state simply because that state might be building or researching weapons of mass destruction are extremist options that should be saved for extreme circumstances. The possibility that an adversary will want some of the same weapons that everyone else has is not an extreme situation.
The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. History teaches us that it has little likelihood of succeeding. It is much more likely to provoke momentum toward precisely the disaster it claims to be designed to avoid. The further one pushes the current policy the more intense will become the resistance of a cornered adversary and the more nervous will become the rest of the world.
The alternative is a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of consistent, mutually supporting, and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward a beneficial outcome. The most effective way to achieve this is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster; everyone knows the gun is there.
A simple positive-sum American strategy for dealing with Iran should include the following components, implemented more-or-less in the following order, with Steps 1-7 to be implemented over a period of days, Steps 8-10 over subsequent weeks, and Steps 11-13 presented slowly, keeping time with Iran’s quid pro quos, over the ensuing months:
Step 1. Call Larijani’s Bluff.
In initial response to the offer by Mohammad Javad Larijani of “permanent human monitoring” to watch over Iranian nuclear transparency, Obama should respond positively to this conciliatory signal.
Step 2. End Anti-Iranian Terrorism.
Washington cannot demonstrate that it is negotiating in good faith with Iran unless it takes action to address the Israeli point on the triangle. A delicate first step vis-à-vis Tel Aviv would be a public statement by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. opposes the murder of scientists, a statement that should privately be underscored at a minimum by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, if not at a higher level.
Step 3. Terminate Rhetorical Threats. Obama should order that no one in his administration make any further public threats about the U.S. or Israel launching a war of choice against Iran. Anyone who violated this order should immediately be fired.
Step 4. Recognize the Islamic Republic.
It exists; it governs; therefore, recognize it. Then, figure out how to deal with it.
Step 5. Offer to Negotiate Naval Rules of Engagement.
States go to war, sometimes with good reason, but no one wants a war by mistake. The greatest risk of war by mistake now appears to be a naval incident in the crowded Persian Gulf. Obama should suggest technical talks to develop mutual naval rules of engagement for the Persian Gulf.
Step 6. Combat Illegal Narcotics.
An obvious positive-sum issue begging to be addressed is the flow of illegal narcotics out of Afghanistan, where the war is setting up a situation analogous to that in Colombia during the Cali heyday of Pablo Escobar. Washington should move promptly to identify precise technical solutions designed to minimize smuggling into Iran.
Step 7. Avoid provoking sectarian conflict.
The U.S. should avoid any participation in minority campaigns either by Baluchis or Kurds to dismembering the Iranian state.
Step 8. Offer to Discuss Regional Sectarian Issues. Along with avoiding the provocation of sectarian conflict, Washington should at least discuss cooperation on regional sectarian issues of concern to Iran, specifically in Iraq and Bahrain, according to the following principles:

  1. Start with cautious exchanges of views;
  2. Offer broadened venues including other regional states;
  3. Expect slow progress;
  4. Use these talks initially as an indicator of Iranian sincerity and be ready to respond quickly to Iranian signs of cooperation.
Step 9. Ignore Insults/Threats From Tehran; Condemn Anti-Iranian Insults/Threats By Tel Aviv.Washington should ignore any threatening rhetoric from Tehran and express displeasure at any threatening rhetoric from Tel Aviv, setting, as it were, a new standard of politeness.
Step 10. Put Mutual National Security on the Table.
Washington must concede up front that Iran, like every other state, has legitimate national security concerns. This gives Iran a key reason for being cooperative. It also has the advantage of permitting Washington to introduce the other side of this three-sided coin – the security concerns of the U.S. and Israel.
Step 11. Make Rejection of WMD a National Security Gain.
Washington should make the case that rejecting weapons of mass destruction can lead to enhanced security. The logical case is straightforward: “we” promise not to use weapons against you that “you” do not have. Many attractive offers can be made in this context in return for Iranian nuclear transparency:
  1. Offer to support the idea of Russian sales of defensive missiles for protection against an aerial attack in return for nuclear transparency;
  2. Offer to terminate drone overflights of Iran;
  3. Offer to limit Israeli offensive capabilities by removing U.S. bunker-buster bombs from the Israeli arsenal, constraining the use of AWACS, rationing the supply of jet fuel;
  4. Offer to advocate Iranian-Israeli talks to constrain the routes of Israeli nuclear-capable submarines. 
Step 12. Present a Plan for Resolution of the Nuclear Dispute.
  1. Offer to support the Iranian-Pakistani gas pipeline in return for nuclear progress;
  2. Offer to trade the end of sanctions for permanent human monitoring.
Step 13. Afghanistan.
  1. Offer to discuss resolution of the Afghan conflict;
  2. Include Iran in multinational effort to plan for the future of Afghanistan.
The point of defining a positive-sum strategic plan for dealing with Iran is not to solve all the problems but to create a context within which the problems can be discussed rationally. Doing business rationally does not mean all cooperation/no conflict, but it does mean the possibility of mutual benefit exists. Mutual recognition of that would be a game changer.
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Mideast Sectarian Threat and Opportunity

If Washington aspires to change the world and implement a positive-sum grand design, current conditions in the Mideast not only present a potentially fatal threat but also offer an unusual opportunity.

Several conclusions that, in combination, amount to both a serious warning and an opportunity for Washington seem possible to derive from the current Mideast mess without delving into endless details:

1. Bahrain is a festering sectarian problem that will, one way or the other, be addressed for it currently has lots of antagonisms without any equilibrium; 

2. The same is true of Iraq, except that more so, thanks to the vicious terror campaign al Qua’ida is apparently promoting there, a campaign that will likely not dissipate simply because most Americans want to pretend it does not exist;

3. The Syrian disaster is worse still, with sufficient bloodshed so that anything could happen and no one is likely to be immune;

4. All those problems in Shi’i Saudi Arabia not only still exist but are getting worse to the degree that Riyadh resists addressing them in a manner sympathetic to the residents;

5. U.S. military involvement in warfare in Yemen is creeping up; 

6. Iran and Israel, via Larijani’s historic offer in his interview by Christine Amanpour of a positive-sum deal on nukes and Dagan’s historic 60 Minutes interview dismissing the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran, have suddenly and publicly positioned themselves for compromise.

The Threat. Add it up and you have the following threat: if all the pieces fall wrong, and the tight linkages among the various Mideast factions make it likely that they will, all the Shi’a of the region could be up in arms simultaneously. Among other problems, that would not exactly facilitate Obama’s reelection.

The Opportunity. But this all adds up another way as well, leading to the following opportunity: a bit of U.S. initiative across the board to address Shi’i grievances might significantly reduce the likelihood of the looming sectarian disaster. It is doubtful that Washington has the capacity to solve any of the various problems, but it now does have the ability either to turn the heat up or turn it down. Of critical importance is that it has the opportunity to respond rationally to the entirely rational Iranian offer, simply by saying, “I call your bluff.” Washington has this opportunity now because the recently retired chief of Mossad Meir Dagan has just provided Washington with a very public blank check to tell Iran that “we” now admit that attacking Iran would not be the appropriate way forward, so therefore we are open to a negotiated solution that includes both nuclear transparency by Iran and national security for Iran.

Grand Strategy

U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the 21st century has been a strategy of military empire, with results that arrogant Washington politicians might not have been able to foresee but that Marcus Aurelius certainly would have had something to say about. Offering the obvious alternative–peace, compromise, searching for positive-sum outcomes–is easy to do, but what, exactly, might such a grand strategy be built of?

Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.

The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran’s orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the “negotiating” table.

Devising an alternative grand strategy is not simple, however, for it consists of an infinite array of distinct policies that must be coordinated so that they work toward the same goal. Otherwise, instead of strategy, one has nothing but a mess, and a mess is what the U.S. already has. Implementing such a grand strategy will be even more difficult than designing it, especially now that U.S. corporations are “people” and U.S. elections up for sale. But a good first step is to identify the specific policies that such a new grand strategy would need to include, and there are more than a few that come readily to mind.

Potential for U.S.-Iranian Cooperation on Afghanistan

It must surely be obvious that walking away from Afghanistan would simply be to repeat past errors and lay the groundwork for the roosting of more chickens. Yet endless self-defeating and self-degrading violence, from drone attacks on civilians to torture of prisoners to outright American terrorism, is not the only choice. Muslim countries from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia stand ready to make a contribution to Afghanistan, and the U.S. should encourage global Muslim activism in support of Afghan reform, stability, and development, an umbrella that could provide cover for an honorable U.S. military withdrawal.

A Pakistani policy shift could follow a similar line, but focusing on encouraging and empowering Pakistani civil society to lead the defense of its democracy with global Muslims in second place and the U.S. a distant but supportive third. Once again, every effort should be made to terminate the U.S. military involvement in Pakistani domestic affairs as fast as possible.

Positive Sum: Cooperation for Transparency

Iran policy follows naturally from this, for a key to developing a positive-sum relationship with Pakistan is supporting its desperate need for energy imports, which must include supporting its long-planned pipeline to import Iranian gas. Why would the U.S. want to do this? Simply put, encouraging countries to share resources via an expensive physical infrastructure automatically entices them to pursue moderate foreign policies: war is hard on infrastructure. The implication of U.S. support would obviously be that the U.S. was finally willing to share the world with an Iran that wants its own independent place on the world stage. The world has been shown to be too small to support a rampaging, militant U.S. but is surely big enough to include a moderate U.S. and an independent but cautious Iran. Iran talks tough (sort of like a Santorum) but acts cautiously. A profitable pipeline would help it to see the utility of less tough talk and more caution. In the context of a lucrative pipeline and a sincere U.S. invitation to put “all options” on the negotiating table, Iranian national security thinkers like Ali Larijani would be able to make more persuasive arguments for a policy of nuclear transparency, and that fake issue–promoted in Tel Aviv to cover up Israel’s West Bank land grab and in Washington as proxy for opposing Iran’s right to challenge the U.S.-centric global political system–would soon evaporate.

Of the many essential components in a positive-sum grand strategy, one of the most important would be U.S. policy toward Turkey, for Turkey represents the best hope the U.S. has for seeing the emergence of a moderate Muslim Mideast. It will require some hard swallowing of pride on the Potomac, however, just as a  positive-sum Iran policy must encompass, indeed be based on, the recognition that Iran has a right to speak out in opposition to a U.S.-centric global political system, a rational Turkey policy must be based on the recognition that Turkey’s advocacy of a moderate Islamic activism independent of the U.S. is good for the U.S.

Analogous policy reforms based on the same principles would guide policy toward the rest of the world. The U.S. would have to consider European views before asserting its right to make unilateral decisions concerning such theoretically international institutions as the World Bank, for example. And the analogy between policy shifts toward the Muslim world and Latin America are so tight that one could replace words like “Turkey” and “Iran” with “Brazil” and “Venezuela” in the above paragraphs and change almost literally nothing else at all and end up with vastly improved policies.

The real obstacle to such a transformation of the U.S. role in the world is not “the world,” messy as the place is. The real obstacle lies at home. The implementation of a positive-sum grand strategy simple is not going to happen without a fundamental strengthening of American democracy; abolition of the pernicious nonsense of a corporation being a person; and the elimination of “too big to fail, too big to manage, too big to control” investment gambling houses. In short, politicians do not just have to wash the venom of hubris out of their veins but make a fundamental choice to protect our weakening democracy against the rising corporatist state.

I would not bet my mortgage on this happening any time soon, but perhaps laying out these policies will make it obvious how logical and beneficial a positive-sum grand strategy could be.