Foreign Policy

My Plan For Iran: Bugs, Not Bombs


Before answering the question Noah Millman poses me in The American Conservative, I have to note what a very strange question it is:

If war with Iran is as costly and unlikely to succeed as [Frum] outlines, shouldn’t we be thinking about other ways to deal with the Iranian nuclear program than threatening a war we oughtn’t to want to wage?

But "other ways" is exactly what the United States has been pursuing these past eight years! A tough and tightening sanctions regime has been put in place. The Iranian currency has seen its value attacked. Computers have been hacked, nuclear facilities sabotaged, and Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed or lured to defect. How much of this work is American, how much is Israeli, how much has been done by internal opponents of the Iranian regime I couldn't begin to say. But surely the United States does not object to it. These methods have delivered results too. We're nearing the tenth anniversary of George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech. The US has not struck Iranian nuclear facilities - and yet Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Can these methods work indefinitely? I don't know. They have worked till now.

Yet these are not the "other ways" that Noah Millman has in mind. Instead, he indicates what he contemplates in this sentence:

He [Romney] has done absolutely nothing to prepare the ground for retrenchment, and he has made it clear that he has contempt for diplomacy.

I've long been an advocate of aggressive American diplomacy toward Iran. In our 2004 book An End to Evil, Richard Perle and I urged a very public American offer to meet and negotiate with Iran. It's not such a unique brainwave -- Robert Kagan has urged similar ideas. President Obama tried just such an approach in 2009 -- only to find his hand brutally slapped away by the Iranian regime, which then falsified election results and brutally suppressed democracy protests. Diplomacy with Iran has failed because Iran does not want it to succeed, not because the US wants war.

As for "retrenchment" -- if that means acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon or weapons program, we all need to understand how dangerous this is. Iran wants the bomb to challenge US hegemony over the largest pool of cheap energy resources on the planet. That's not something the US can safely concede. War is a bad outcome, agreed, not only because war is costly and unlikely to be fully successful, but also (and maybe even more importantly) because it will embitter US-Persian relations for a long time to come.

Which is how we came to arrive at the sanctions-plus-sabotage middle way initiated by the Bush administration, expanded by the Obama administration, and highly likely to be continued by a hypothetical Romney administration.