Too Few Military Threats?

Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images

Has America been too nice to Iran? Does the nuclear standoff remain unresolved because America has offered too many carrots and issued too few military threats?

Remarkably, that is the argument presented in an op-ed yesterday in the Washington Post by Jamie Fly of the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative and Matthew Kroenig of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“President Obama has dangled plenty of carrots. It’s time to pull out some sticks,” they write, without identifying a single one of these mythical carrots. They complain that the international community has “engaged in an intense diplomatic effort” for the past six years, without recognizing that the diplomacy has neither been intense nor included the US. The Bush administration shunned direct diplomacy on ideological grounds. Despite sincere attempt to engage Iran in 2009 and a new attempt currently underway, the Obama administration has still up to this point spent more time talking to the Taliban than to Tehran.

The op-ed represents neo-conservatism 2.0. There are no longer open calls for invasion or military action a la Iraq. Kroenig and Fly even write that “No one wants military action.” Instead, they try to eliminate all other options by complaining that diplomacy has enabled Iran to buy time (as if Iran only has managed to advance its program amid talks, but been forced to halt it under sanctions and military threats), by bemoaning the UN Security Council’s slowness in handling Iran (as if the unilateral approach of the Bush administration was more effective), and by setting the bar for diplomacy at an impossible level in order to ensure its failure.

Success for diplomacy, the op-ed states, is to “halt Iran’s program.” This suggests the unrealistic zero-enrichment objective preferred by the Netanyahu government in Israel. This objective is so improbable that even massive military strikes would not achieve it, according to the US military.

Still, some of the blatant flaws of neo-conservatism 1.0 have not been updated in the latest release. Careless disregard for the consequences of war is still prevalent. The op-ed does not address how war would affect the pro-democracy movement in Iran, or how the conflict might spread.

In the neo-conservative narrative, Iran is simultaneously presented as a hegemonic military power that would never hesitate to strike first—if left alone. Yet, if attacked, the narrative assumes that Iran would not to respond at all. The narrative shows no understanding or regard for the implications of war. Action is always assumed to be less risky than non-action. Fly and Kroenig even argue that military threats would “calm the region.”

It’s the same thoughtlessness that got us into Iraq.

Instead of diplomatic “carrots,” the United States should resort to more military threats, the authors argue. “Only if Iran’s leaders again fully understand that future nuclear advances would result in a devastating military strike will they be deterred from inching closer to nuclear weapons,” the op-ed states. Fly and Kroenig want us to continue the reckless game of brinkmanship.

Yet, it is exactly this brinkmanship that has enabled the Iranian nuclear advances that the authors lament. In this game of pressure and counter pressure, the West has amassed economic sanctions on Iran (ostensibly to change Iran’s nuclear calculus) and Tehran has pressured back by expanding its nuclear program (ostensibly to present the West with a fait accompli). Diplomacy, in its most classic sense, has been tried very infrequently, and, consequently, no exit from this self-reinforcing cycle of escalation has been found.

Instead, the West has imposed a never-ending stream of economic sanctions, and Tehran has built new nuclear facilities, stockpiled greater amounts of enriched uranium and increased its levels of enrichment.

Contrary to the claim of the op-ed, the Obama administration has continued to pursue a dual track policy. That policy, in my estimation, remains too pressure-centric and too short on meaningful incentives. But the Obama administration deserves credit for pursuing diplomacy and for recognizing that the only way to permanently end a country's nuclear program is to convince the country that nuclear weapons are not in its best interest.

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It goes without saying that threatening a country only increases its desire to hold the card of nuclear deterrence. You simply can’t convince a country that it doesn’t need a stronger defense by threatening to bomb it: Hence the failure of the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

A much more sophisticated approach than the shoot-first-ask-later style of the neo-conservatives is needed. The Obama administration is trying to provide just that, but the efforts of unrepentant hawks are rendering that more difficult.

The unending call for more pressure and less incentives closes the President’s political space to negotiate effectively by increasing the domestic cost of offering Tehran real carrots. Clearly, the talks will fail if a balance of incentives and pressure cannot be struck.

The upcoming talks in Baghdad will test both sides. A solution can only be found if both compromise. But with hawks on all sides seeking to scuttle the talks, the Americans and Iranians may soon discover that the toughest negotiations may not be with each other, but at home.