Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shedding Light On The Saber

It's getting lonely out here in Camp Saber Rattle. Many more people are sounding the alarm - rightfully so - in response to the horrifying rhetorical deja vu being spun out of the Bush administration with respect to the WMD-enabled "Hitler" du jour that is Iran's Ahmadinejad. Regardless of whether my increasingly dubious hunch is correct - that the Bush administration is trying to brandish the military option, and make it appear plausible, in order to dispel any notions of our relative impotence so as to compel Iran to make concessions at the negotiating table - it is important that these threats are taken seriously by American citizens and the rest of the world.

If the war-speak is just saber rattling, well then, it's preferable that we play our part convincingly in the geo-political Kabuki theater. The better to make Iran - and our European/Asian partners - believe the subterfuge. And if I'm wrong, and the Bush administration actually does intend to pour the gasoline of catastrophe on to the pyre of folly in Iraq, well then we simply must protest as loudly and as eloquently as is humanly possible (see, ie, Matt Y). Speaking of eloquent, Billmon makes the case as well as any that the saber rattling theory is a piece of dangerous and naive wishful thinking (here, here and most recently here). Let's hope he's wrong.

According to Fred Kaplan, the Iranians aren't exactly buying those same threats that are eliciting impassioned admonitions from pundit circles (of course, we must recognize the possibility that Iran is in fact concerned about the threats, and that this is just a double-reverse, half axel, triple lutz counter-bluff):

The military option is so manifestly impractical that the Iranians don't seem to believe it. Their top officials dismissed Hersh's article as "psychological war." Even Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - who has criticized the current regime's harsh anti-Western stance - said in Kuwait today, "We are certain the Americans will not attack Iran because the consequences would be too dangerous."

To Kaplan's credit, he does recommend a potentially fruitful course of action: negotiations, in earnest, aimed at proposing the double-pronged incentives of improved economic/diplomatic ties on one hand if Iran cooperates, and tough, multilateral sanctions if Iran remains recalcitrant.

The one thing that Iran's leaders genuinely seem to fear is economic sanctions. They sprinted to the bargaining table, and opened more facilities to international inspectors, only after France, Britain, and Germany - which had always tolerated Iran's nuclear deceptions in order to protect their trade relations - joined in with the Bush administration's criticisms and pledged to support United Nations sanctions if Iran continued to enrich uranium.

Western Europe, Russia, and China may depend on Iran for oil, but Iran depends at least as much on them for capital investment. The United States isn't involved in either side of this equation - we've been boycotting Iranian imports and exports ever since Ayatollah Khomeini's "students" took our diplomats hostage - which is why our sudden engagement in face-to-face talks, after all these decades, would make quite an impact.

Would the drama have a payoff? Would the Iranians accept some set of inducements - massive American investment, trade, security guarantees, or whatever - in exchange for giving up their nuclear program? Maybe not. However, the important thing for the United States to do, at this point, is to appear to be making an effort. [...]

To get the other countries [Western Europe, Russia and China] to unite around some sort of sanctions (or the threat of sanctions, which may be all that's necessary), President Bush not only has to threaten to penalize Iran for bad behavior but also has to reward Iran for good behavior. They will not go along with this pressure campaign—they will not undermine their economic interests - unless there are carrots as well as sticks.

In other words, Bush should commence direct talks with Iran not because they offer a hopeful chance for peace and good will, but because they're a necessary prelude to an international campaign of economic pressure - and because more drastic military pressure would likely backfire. There are two likely outcomes from serious American efforts to negotiate, both good. First, if Iran cooperates with the talks, then it might suspend its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits. Second, if Iran doesn't cooperate, then the Bush administration will have made its case to China, Russia, and Europe that the regime is dangerous and untrustworthy. At that point it will be much easier to impose the economic sanctions that will scare the Iranians into better behavior.

Sounds like a plan. And if this were indeed the ultimate endgame, then the recent saber rattling would serve an important role: even if the Iranians remain unswayed by the threat of force (possible, though there must be a kernel of fear somewhere in Tehran), it is probably enough to bring them to the negotiating table in a slightly more open frame of mind. At the very least, Bush's bluster could convince our allies/ad hoc partners that sanctions are the more desirable route, as opposed to military means, for dealing with a stubborn and uncooperative Iran.

Here's the problem though: what if the US doesn't really want to negotiate in good faith? What if there are competing power centers in the White House that would rather sabotage negotiations, or prevent their initiation?

Kevin Drum has compiled what could be evidence of just such a reluctance on the part of key figures in the Bush White House. First, from Flynt Leverett who worked for Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council:

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

Now, as Drum notes, more information that sheds light on the decision making process. From Gareth Porter:

Realists, led by Powell and his Deputy Richard Armitage, were inclined to respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having passed on the offer.

Exactly how the decision was made is not known. "As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints," [Lawrence] Wilkerson told IPS. "But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W. Bush."

As Wilkerson observes, however, the mysterious death of what became known among Iran specialists as Iran's "grand bargain" initiative was a result of the administration's inability to agree on a policy toward Tehran.

A draft National Security Policy Directive (NSPD) on Iran calling for diplomatic engagement had been in the process of interagency coordination for more than a year, according to a source who asks to remain unidentified.

But it was impossible to get formal agreement on the NSPD, the source recalls, because officials in Cheney's office and in Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans wanted a policy of regime change and kept trying to amend it.

According to Kaplan, "[e]missaries from the United States, China, the European Union, and Iran are meeting in Moscow this week." If the Bush administration has no intention of trying to pursue a peaceful resolution through these and subsequent talks - if good faith negotiations are off the table in favor of the monomania of "regime change" - then the whole saber rattling theory crumbles into dust.

Because this theory is entirely predicated on the notion that we will increase our bargaining position, and convince allies to join our cause, by creating the impression that there are still viable military threats remaining in our arsenal. But if we're not actually looking to do any bargaining, then all this chatter is more likely a preface to Bush's second - and probably more disastrous - grand strategic blunder. Shudder to think.

[UPDATE: Lorelei Kelly adds an interesting clarification in terms of chronology regarding that earlier diplomatic outreach on the part of Iran mentioned above:

In May, 2003, the Bush Administration allegedly received a missive containing extensive concessions from Iran--including nuclear issues. They didn't respond. Keep in mind, this was right as the USA rolled victoriously into Iraq--when the Neo-Con hubris was at its most extreme. The theory is that because of the Iraq experience, the Bush administration figured that no discussion was necessary and that they could trounce the Iranians later without compromise. Most shocking missed opportunity: one Iranian concession was an offer to disarm Hezbollah. Given the pulseless response, the Iranians concluded that working with Washington was impossible.
The good news: since the US rejected this entreaty at the acme of hubris and belief in our power to achieve military-imposed regime change, we might be more willing to accept such an offer now that reality has so rudely confronted us in Iraq.

The bad news: since Iran offered this entreaty at the acme of their fear of the power of the US to achieve military-imposed regime change, they might not be as willing offer such an attractive package now that reality has so rudely confronted the US in Iraq.]

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