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Defusing the Iranian Crisis

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Attached herewith is an essay written by William R. Polk outlining a strategy for diffusing the Iranian crisis.  I am posting it with his permission. He is a former State Department official — and historian and foreign policy expert — who specializes in the Middle East and Central Asia.  The essay is written from the perspective of foreign policy.  Polk lays out parameters to be considered and introduces a possible strategy for diffusing the U.S.-Iran crisis.

Bear in mind, Polk does not address how the U.S. government would resolve what he acknowledges are ‘tricky’ — and I would add potentially explosive — domestic political issues attending to his solution; for starters, the oil and Israeli lobbies the President must neutralize when designing a solution.  An engineer might think of Polk’s proposal as a preliminary design concept that needs to be fleshed out by the limitations of what is possible. But I believe it is a good starting point for evolving a cogent national debate at a time when passions, interests, and factions are driving perceptions. 

Evolving a Pathway for Defusing the Iranian Crisis 

by William R. Polk (bio)

17 January 2012

The only real solution to nuclear weapons in the Middle East is a nuclear free zone.  I have been hammering away on that theme for years.  In addition to many papers on my website, I wrote about it extensively in my little 2009  book Understanding Iran.  However, as I pointed out in that book (p. 209-211) as hard as it would be to achieve regionally, it would be even less likely (or attractive to Iran) so long as America takes an aggressive stance toward Iran.  Since “Once a country acquires a nuclear weapon and the capacity to deliver it, it is immune to attack.  Thus, I believe, it would be ahistorical and illogical for Iran not to be acquiring at least the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon…What restraints are there, or could there be, on such a policy?  It is almost certain that threat is   not among them.  The more Iran feels threatened the more incentive it has to push its nuclear program toward the acquisition of a weapon.  Nor have sanctions worked.  Particularly against a less organized and therefore less fragile economy, sanctions have little leverage.  They were tried by the British against Iran in the 1950s without result.”  So I laid out (p 211) a three-step policy that i thought (and think) has the best chance as things now stand.

I am less sanguine about helpful intermediaries.  Turkey, China, and perhaps Brazil could play a somewhat more than cosmetic role, but the iranians are unlikely to be swayed by them if they continue to feel threatened and if, as I think, they will see the move to acquire a weapon/weapons is what would make an attack on them logically less likely.  My rule of thumb is always to imagine myself on the other side of the table: As an Iranian policy planner I would certainly urge my government to  keep going as fast and as secretly as possible toward acquisition.

What might change?  ironically, it may be that only if Iran actually acquires a weapon will the Israelis agree to a nuclear free zone.

The danger, obviously, is that the Israelis will attack during the acquisition period.  They keep on saying that they will and I believe them.  I have been crying “wolf” for years and while I, like the little boy in the fable, was wrong, the wolf really was there and finally ate the boy.  What would invite an attack — if i were an Israeli hard liner, I would think — is that Israel doesn’t have to win or even to have a chance of winning or even slowing down the Iranian acquisition process.  All it has to do is to start the conflict.  Then, the US will almost inevitably be drawn in, even if the Republicans don’t win the White House.  And once drawn in, where could the US stop?  The very momentum of conflict and the inevitable burst of short-sighted American gung-ho patriotism would carry it onto the ground.  If the Iranians surprise us all and manage to sink a carrier or even a tug, could Obama stop?  if they scare the hell out of the oil shippers and gasoline prices leap at the pumps throughout America, could Obama stop?  So, the Israelis have their hand on the throttle and no one I can see has a hand firmly on the brake.

There is another, more obscure, factor that i feel strongly:  people get jaded at the jumping off place.  I remember with real fear and personal shame that when i was a member of the Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis,  there came a moment — fortunately it quickly passed but it was seductive at the time — when I thought, “what the hell.  We might as well get it over with.”  I was exhausted.  And I assume JFK,  Bob McNamara and others were more tired than I.  I don’t profess to share many human emotions with Bibi, but I could conceive of his jumping across the line when under such (even if largely self-generated) stress.

If Obama were half the man we all thought he was, he could make the difference.  I see a fairly simple path for him:

  1. Go back over what you and I know and put on a sort of “fire-side chat” more elaborate than FDR used to do to explain what a confrontation would do, with or without nuclear weapons; in my terms, the fundamental task of a president is to be the nation’s teacher.  He could and should do that job.  He has not.  In my moves around the country, I don’t get the impression that people really appreciate what a nuclear or even a large-scale conventional exchange —  or even a one-sided attack — would do.  Hiroshima was in the Middle Ages and iraq and Afghanistan don’t much frighten anyone.  The public must be educated if our government has a chance to lead it.
  2. Either having the US take the lead or following close behind the NATO powers or, better yet, the 2nd tier powers (Turkey, Brazil, China et al), and call for a firm, clear, and definitive renunciation of the 2005 US National Security Paper.  It has been somewhat put aside but not really renounced.  It must be to make any progress.  The US  must take preemptive or first strikes off, in that dangerous phrase, “the table” .  Unless or until that is done, the Iranian government, in my opinion, would be foolish to slow down, much less give up, moves to acquire a weapon.   Such a statement must be given reality by the pull back of the massive armaments we have on the Iranian borders.
  3. There must be a universal, or as nearly universal as possible, statement recognizing Iran’s sovereign independence and outlawing threats to it.   This may not count for much.  The international record is not good on such statements, but they are necessary if not sufficient.  We should experiment with ways to give them verisimilitude.  Perhaps one would be under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of the UNGA with real penalties for violation even in policy pronouncements.
  4. Then the path divides:
    •  a) one would be to create an incentive program to give up the nuclear weapon program.  Iran certainly would not do this so long as Israel is both armed and threatening no matter what the US  or others proclaimed;
    • b) a second would be for the US to force Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.  I don’t think it ever would or even could,  so I see this as a non-starter; and
    • c) the third would be for everyone to agree that Iran be allowed the right have a nuclear weapon or several weapons.  Would this, after all, be more dangerous than for North Korea to have them?  At that point, Israel might, and I think probably would, find it reasonable to consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if Iran did too.  Then Saudi Arabia would have no compelling incentive to go nuclear.  And, after all, Israel cannot be much happier to have Saudi Arabia nuclear armed, at least over the long term, when its priorities may change as they have in the past, than Iran.

So, as I say, it seems to me that option ‘4-c’ may ironically be the most productive policy for long-term stability and peace. Fostering or allowing it to happen would certainly be tricky. Tricky domestically as well as internationally.  Here is where we need a teacher-president.   We are far less sophisticated than we need to be and the Iranians have little reason to trust us and none to trust the israelis. But I don’t see any thing better.   The path we are now on leads,  in the direction of war and my experience, particularly during the 1962 missile crisis convinces me that it is very easy, perhaps even inevitable, to trip on that path.

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