Open Zion

03.08.13

What Obama's New NSC Staffer Tells Us About His Thinking On Iran

Last week the Obama administration announced that Phillip Gordon would step in as the White House's coordinator for Middle East policy, filling a role left vacant by Amb. Dennis Ross last year. The move from being Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs to the National Security Council fills one of the last major spots on Barack Obama's team that will deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis—an issue that may well come to a head during the President's second term. Along with newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, at times, and certainly Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Gordon's record suggests a confluence with Obama's more cautious instincts.

Obama's Iran policies consist of various strains that emphasize different approaches. One, embraced by the right and trumpeted by the Obama administration before pro-Israel and more hawkish audiences, focuses on the threat of military force to delay Iran's progress. While the right runs with it—and downplays possible consequences—the administration itself leaves open the possibility of an attack, but has warned periodically of its potential consequences. For this reason, we're told, all conceivable efforts must be made to reach a diplomatic deal with the Iranians. Judging from his record at the Brookings Institution before joining State, Gordon seems to rest on more cautious edge of them. Far from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dismissal of non-military means—let alone AIPAC's push for Congressional pledges of U.S. support of an Israeli strike—Gordon has for years emphasized pressure and diplomacy; his new appointment could be an indication of a priority on avoiding war.

In keeping with what one might expect from diplomat serving at the President's pleasure, Gordon's rhetoric about Iran since joining the administration has been standard boilerplate—sans the "all options" rhetoric. (In an interview last year, Gordon did mention a military strike in the context of averting one that would be carried out by Israel.) But at Brookings, Gordon was outspoken against strikes. Calling an attack against Iran "unpalatable" in Senate testimony delivered in 2008, Gordon cited several points held up today by sober analysts and opponents of an attack: the potential that strikes wouldn't work to stop Iran; the likelihood of Iran redoubling its nuclear efforts; possible "asymmetrical" retaliation; and increased support for among Iranians for the regime. Because Iran's nuclear sites are geographically spread out and heavily fortified, Gordon said strikes would need to be "widespread, sustained, and likely to kill a number of Iranian civilians." Warning of these dangers, Gordon concluded, "The costs of a U.S. attempt to thwart Iran’s nuclear program with military force could thus be very high, without necessarily being effective." (The interactions with Europeans while serving at State seem unlikely to have altered this perspective: in a 2008 article, Gordon noted Europeans "wanted to distance themselves" from the military option against Iran.)

What did he, then, suggest? It looks a lot like what Obama's been doing: a dual-track approach of pressure and offering diplomacy. "[T]he best approach to the Iranian nuclear issue remains one that uses all possible political, diplomatic, and economic leverage to convince the Iranian leadership that the costs of defying the international community are greater than the benefits of a nuclear-weapons capability," Gordon said in his 2008 testimony, warning Senators that the sanctions they were on the cusp of enacting might alienate international allies. His prescription for offers to Iran, too, sound like early Obama efforts: "Serious Western offers to respect Iranian sovereignty and security interests, guarantee its access to civil nuclear energy, and integrate Iran economically and politically in the international community to help it meet the needs of its growing youth population, combined with costly penalties for Iranian defiance, create the best prospects for stopping or containing the Iranian nuclear program."

There's that dreaded word: "containing," scourge of Washington's Iran hawks. While Gordon seems to present here containment as a viable option, he's elsewhere held it up as undesirable (while not entirely swearing it off). Reacting in January 2008 to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons work—"misleadingly," he said, because that work was defined "too narrowly"—Gordon worried that the estimate would create a lack of urgency that could lead to a worst case scenario that would result in a "nuclear-armed Iran, and the policy issue will be how to contain and deter it rather than how to prevent it." In a 2006 Washington Post article, Gordon wrote that some in the international community "argue that there is little we can do to prevent a determined Iran from building [a bomb] eventually and that, in any case, a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained." He went on: "This view is entirely too complacent."

In the Post article, written with future Obama NATO Ambassador and then-Brookings colleague Ivo Daalder, Gordon commented on a potential Israeli strike against Iran. "The option of relying on Israel to strike Iranian targets—as alluded to last year by Vice President Cheney—would be even worse," the pair wrote, after having warned against a U.S. strike. "The Israelis would conduct the operation less effectively because of their more limited military means (striking targets in eastern Iran would be a stretch for Israel's limited-range F-15s), and the United States would bear the responsibility anyway." That's the sort of blunt honest you're unlikely to see from current officials.

Gordon's views aren't likely to tip Obama toward conatinment and away from military strikes as a last-ditch effort at prevention; however unlikely an attack might be to succeed, or even counter-productive, commitments have been made. The debate within the administration about whether to contain Iran or prevent its creation of a nuclear weapon already happened, and Obama chose prevention. But Gordon's reservations about a strike—which remain very valid today—and the incentives he proposed offering Iran to strike a deal—allowing a civilian program, economic inducements—could point to Obama's seriousness about making a deal with the Iranians. Let's hope so: describing war with Iran as "unpalatable" seems an understatement.