I like hearing Iran hawks argue for war. It’s not because I think war makes sense. To the contrary, I agree with former defense secretary Robert Gates that attacking Iran would be “a catastrophe” and with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan that it would make an Iranian bomb more likely, not less.
But I like hearing Iran hawks argue for war because I know they’re being honest. For years now, after all, hawks have insisted that Iran’s leaders constitute a “messianic, apocalyptic” (Benjamin Netanyahu) “death cult” (Joel Rosenberg in National Review) interested in “starting Armageddon” to achieve “millennial bliss.” (Charles Krauthammer).
If you genuinely believe that, of course you want to attack. If Iran’s nuclear program really is motivated by a yearning to blow up the Middle East and thus hasten the coming of the hidden Twelfth Imam—rather than by such earthly impulses as deterrence, regional influence, and nationalist chest-puffing—then both diplomacy and sanctions are useless. You can’t stop death-worshipping Armageddon-seekers by offering them an American Embassy in Tehran. Or by limiting their access to hard currency. Since they’ll never limit their nuclear program on their own, you have to do it for them.
The problem with such a view is that war frightens people, especially after two other painful and unsuccessful Middle Eastern conflicts boosted by many of the same folks who are now boosting an attack on Iran. So to promote war, hawks must first show that every other more palatable option has been tried and failed. Thus, as America and Iran pursue the most serious nuclear diplomacy in their history, Netanyahu and company insist that they’d love to see sanctions and diplomacy succeed. They just define success in a way that makes it impossible.
In recent days, the Obama administration has been pursuing an interim deal that would give Iran limited sanctions relief in return for some kind of freeze of its nuclear program. Such a deal might pave the way for a final agreement that gave Iran even greater sanctions relief, diplomatic recognition, and the right to maintain some level of low-enriched uranium in return for a highly intrusive inspections regime that guaranteed that Tehran did not produce a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu, by contrast, defines success as no enriched uranium on Iranian soil, even if it isn’t close to the level needed to make a bomb. And he wants the U.S. and its allies to maintain—if not strengthen—sanctions until Tehran knuckles under to that demand. The problem is that most governments, including those of U.S. allies such as Germany and Japan, interpret the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as allowing peaceful enrichment. And in Iran, as Georgetown’s Colin Kahl has noted, even the Green Movement generally supports the right to enrich. That’s partly because in a country like Iran, which has suffered greatly from Washington’s imperial meddling, the right to enrich has become a symbol of sovereignty and national pride, even among people who loathe the regime and don’t necessarily want a nuke. In Kahl’s words, “one is hard pressed to find a single bona fide Iran expert on the planet who believes Tehran would accept a diplomatic deal…that zeroed out enrichment for all time.”
Hawks argue that because sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, and Iran has showed increased flexibility under newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, even more sanctions will make Tehran capitulate completely. Since “international sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table,” argued House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce recently, “we should build upon this success with additional measures to compel Iran to make meaningful and lasting concessions.” But it’s hard to reconcile that view with any of the information coming out of Iran. While the pain of sanctions may be prompting Iranian leaders to make concessions they would not have previously made, there’s little evidence that the sanctions threaten what Iran’s leaders cherish most: their hold on power. To the contrary, prominent Green Revolution figures have argued that sanctions strengthen the regime at home. Were Royce’s logic correct, Rouhani would be feeling the heat from Iranian doves outraged that he is not capitulating more fully to Western demands. Instead he’s under attack from hawks outraged that he’s conceding too much and getting little in return.
It’s hard to believe that hawks such as Netanyahu and Royce really believe that ratcheting up sanctions in pursuit of a zero enrichment demand that most foreign governments, and most Iranians, oppose, will bring a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff. Then again, given what they’ve written in the past, it’s hard to believe that many hawks really want a diplomatic solution at all.