Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

I’ve sparked more than a few arguments in these pages over the last couple of years by my support — primarily on moral grounds — for the ouster of Saddam, and by taking very seriously the threat to the West presented by Islamic extremism. While I’m not the right-wing moonbat that some folks seem to think I am (one blogger called me a “Republican, war-loving Fela fan”, when the truth is I am neither war-loving nor Republican, though the Fela part is correct), I do hold several views that are indeed more common on the Right than on the Left. Among them are the view that the threat posed by radical Islam is very real, and very grave, the view that Western civilization is a noble achievement and worth preserving, the (apparently highly controversial) view that the United States is not responsible for all the world’s ills, the view that the US is both historically and morally justified in using its strength and influence to promote its core values of freedom and democracy, and the belief, buttressed in particular by examining the history of the twentieth century, that self-flagellating placation and appeasement of ruthless opponents is a prescription not for harmony, but for disaster.

In this vein, here is an article by Norman Podhoretz in which he offers a grim assessment of the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and argues that it we may already have let things go to the point where we must strike Iran to prevent their fruition. I’d like to think he’s wrong.

A reader says in an email, arguing against Podhoretz’s view:

“[W]e just need someone with some definite ideas who will stay the course with [Iran]. No doubt these involve several things: cultivating our allies again, trying to establish friendly relations with these “evil” countries at lower levels, such as educational exchanges, and actually presenting them with specific demands and quid pro quos that are designed to be within reach but to advance the cause of peace. We can also try to undermine them covertly, and then bargain that away.

Maybe going forward we could take the position that Bush got us away from the supporting-dictatorships-because-they-were-friendly mode, but henceforth we are going back to a proactive Israeli-Palestinian resolution posture, and of course we will systematically oppose support of Islamofascist undergrounds.

Something like that.

And from another correspondent we have:

How to deal with Iran? By determining what their weak points are and applying as much leverage as possible against them. Also by finding out what they would respond positively to and trying to leverage that. If that means a naval blockade combined with the offer of trade and diplomatic relations contingent on verifiable dismantling of their nuclear facilities, then fine. If it means Radio Free Iran or taking in their dissidents or supporting the students or airlifting Tom Cruise movies, then fine. Would they accept such a deal? We don’t know: we haven’t talked to them. We worked well with the Iranians in the invasion of Afghanistan . When something suits both countries’ interests, we can work out deals with them. They are not irrational and bloodthirsty people: they are simply playing their cards (and playing them much better than we are: they are the beneficiaries of the disaster in Iraq).

Podhoretz considers these sorts of options also:

Well, to begin with, there is that good old standby, diplomacy. And so, for 3 1/2 years, even predating the accession of Ahmadinejad to the presidency, the diplomatic gavotte has been danced with Iran, in negotiations whose carrot-and-stick details no one can remember–not even, I suspect, the parties involved. But since, to say it again, Ahmadinejad is a revolutionary with unlimited aims and not a statesman with whom we can “do business,” all this negotiating has had the same result as Munich had with Hitler. That is, it has bought the Iranians more time in which they have moved closer and closer to developing nuclear weapons.

Then there are sanctions. As it happens, sanctions have very rarely worked in the past. Worse yet, they have usually ended up hurting the hapless people of the targeted country while leaving the leadership unscathed. Nevertheless, much hope has been invested in them as a way of bringing Ahmadinejad to heel. Yet thanks to the resistance of Russia and China, both of which have reasons of their own to go easy on Iran, it has proved enormously difficult for the Security Council to impose sanctions that could even conceivably be effective. At first, the only measures to which Russia and China would agree were much too limited even to bite. Then, as Iran continued to defy Security Council resolutions and to block inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was bound by treaty to permit, not even the Russians and the Chinese were able to hold out against stronger sanctions. Once more, however, these have had little or no effect on the progress Iran is making toward the development of a nuclear arsenal. On the contrary: they, too, have bought the Iranians additional time in which to move ahead.

Since hope springs eternal, some now believe that the answer lies in more punishing sanctions. This time, however, their purpose would be not to force Iran into compliance, but to provoke an internal uprising against Ahmadinejad and the regime as a whole. Those who advocate this course tell us that the “mullocracy” is very unpopular, especially with young people, who make up a majority of Iran’s population. They tell us that these young people would like nothing better than to get rid of the oppressive and repressive and corrupt regime under which they now live and to replace it with a democratic system. And they tell us, finally, that if Iran were so transformed, we would have nothing to fear from it even if it were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Once upon a time, under the influence of Bernard Lewis and others I respect, I too subscribed to this school of thought. But after three years and more of waiting for the insurrection they assured us back then was on the verge of erupting, I have lost confidence in their prediction. Some of them blame the Bush administration for not doing enough to encourage an uprising, which is why they have now transferred their hopes to sanctions that would inflict so much damage on the Iranian economy that the entire populace would rise up against the rulers. Yet whether or not this might happen under such circumstances, there is simply no chance of getting Russia and China, or the Europeans for that matter, to agree to the kind of sanctions that are the necessary precondition.

So who’s right? Read. Discuss.


  1. Jesse Kaplan says

    Well, as no one else has jumped in here, I’ll say a few things.

    Although the point of your piece is to parade the breadth behind neoconservative analysis, all the above Podhoretz quote really consists in is a quick derogatory gloss on failed diplomacy and a bit more exposition on sanctions.

    If we (actually, the neocons) misread the flowers in the streets of Baghdad, not to mention the weapons of mass destruction, we cannot expect to discern with definitude the currents of anti-mullah sentiment in Tehran. I don’t suppose we can easily understand what amounts now to a generation’s worth of adaptation to the present state of affairs. I don’t know why we can’t encourage such currents more directly than through sanctions, though; we once were able to overthrow Mossadegh, something Iran apparently remembers quite well to this day.

    The reason why “neocon” comes close to being a pejorative is the thinking that this approach knows nothing other than military force. No one disputes that diplomacy done in public asking Iran to “back down,” and relying on France, Russia, or China to throw down a gauntlet, will not get anywhere except to some brink. Especially after Iraq, no one thinks sanctions poke very directly at a particular problem. Your readers suggest a new, systematic, and wide-ranging approach. There is nothing in Podhoretz’s piece that offers helpful responses to his doomsaying. A military “solution” to Iran would not involve a brink, but a tightrope that needs at least as much forethought as waging a multi-front, multi-level, sustained campaign such as your readers are groping toward.

    Posted May 31, 2007 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Jess. To respond properly will, I think, require a separate post.

    In particular, in that separate post I would like to clarify what neoconservatism actually is. The term, properly understood, refers to a subtle, complex, intellectually consistent, historically aware, and generally optimistic view of America’s role in the world — in contrast to its customary usage by the press and in the shrill rhetoric of the Left, where the word neocon, generally, is synonymous with “stupid asshole”.

    But, for the moment, if, as you argue, a diplomatic and sanction-based policy demanding that Iran “back down” leads only to the brink of a crisis, and so should be avoided, how do we deal with the fact that Iran is arming itself as quickly as it can? Isn’t it likely that the policies our correspondents have recommended above simply will not get the job done in time, and that the world will soon be faced with a nuclear Iran?

    Posted June 1, 2007 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  3. Jesse Kaplan says

    Hi, Malcolm.

    Your request for, in effect, a complete, multilevel Iran, and perhaps Mideast, and while we’re at it a counter-Islamofascism, policy will also require a separate something.

    Meanwhile, I’ll just observe that probably large swaths of Iranians who might lend support to an “internal uprising against Ahmadinejad and the regime as a whole” probably take pride in some degree of “a nuclear Iran,” so we have our work cut out for us.

    Posted June 1, 2007 at 12:22 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Jess,

    Your request for, in effect, a complete, multilevel Iran, and perhaps Mideast, and while we’re at it a counter-Islamofascism, policy will also require a separate something.

    I didn’t think I was making any unreasonable demands; more just wondering what general approach we ought to be taking.

    In the interest of staying focused: the key question here, in responding to this particular issue, and Podhoretz’s essay, is to what extent we ought to prioritize preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power (if it is even possible to do so). Only once that is clear can we select among the various programs on offer. If we think that a nuclear Iran would be utterly disastrous for Israel, the region, and perhaps the world, then slow-moving social and diplomatic processes aren’t good enough. That’s obviously Podhoretz’s position.

    So is he right? Is the prospect of Ahmadinejad and the mullahs wielding atomic weapons dreadful enough that it justifies a drastic response? Do keep in mind Ahmadinejad’s announced intention to “wipe Israel off the map”. Is that just bluster? Or, given the weapons, would he actually follow through? Do we simply trust that even if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, a multipronged diplomatic, economic, carrot-stick policy will keep it from using them? At the very least, that would be an awful sword to have dangling over Israel’s head.

    As I say, this is the question that determines what sort of policy we need.

    Posted June 1, 2007 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  5. Jesse Kaplan says

    I don’t seem to have had much luck evoking others’ alternatives to neoconservatism; the issues rapidly spiraled out of control; and I admit some slight inadequacy at solving all the world’s problems. But before we abandon this post, and confining ourselves as you suggested to Iran, I believe we are dealing with a fairly modern, economically sophisticated place which, despite its oil, currently has serious economic problems. Probably this explains in part its nuclear program. Podhoretz notwithstanding, Iran’s economy, and the discomfort of many of its people with the mullah theocracy, probably are the obvious weak points to be worked on. Something rather resembling sanctions, and encouragement and support of liberal values, are the obvious tactics. We may be in a race against time, I agree.
    I just note, also, that one gets the impression any military response designed to take out Iran’s nuclear program would be “total.” This seems impractical, including politically, and I do not hear Podhoretz detailing how it is not. While I contradict my earlier point about wider-spread Iranian pride in its nuclear program than in its mullahs, I wonder why the first last resort could not be a carefully-calculated setback, only, to Iran’s nuclear program — a strike, for instance, against locations housing missiles for delivery — rather than something on a scale that threatens the complexities we brought on ourselves in Iraq. Our options would then remain open. The same national pride just referred to might divert into different channels in the face of precise breaches of its borders. As you know from private discussions we have had, I personally feel neoconservatives strangely overvalue an American version of abstract political beliefs, like “freedom,” and undervalue national pride as giving much the same sense of security.

    Posted June 3, 2007 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Jess,

    I agree with your opinions about where to apply pressure, and in particular I too doubt that we would be able to “total” Iran’s nuclear program (though of course I have no specific expertise, obviously, in where its components are). A “setback” is probably the best we can do, and I shouldn’t be surprised if it comes to that, either by our hand or Israel’s.

    I need to put together a post about neoconservatism, and the question you raise about whether we overvalue the universality of the appeal of freedom is of particular interest.

    Posted June 4, 2007 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    What’s to be done with Iran?

    1) While Iran poses a potential future threat, in my view the far more dangerous immediate threat – for both us and Israel — is posed by Al Qaeda or another terrorist group getting a loose nuke or enough uranium to make a dirty bomb. I think it is very unlikely that Iran would attack another nuclear country because it knows what the certain retaliation would be. However, terrorist groups are stateless and hence somewhat invulnerable. Iran will never attack us, but suicide bombers will line up around the block to detonate a dirty bomb in Times Square. There is enough nuclear material in unstable places like Pakistan and in some of the former states of the Soviet Union that surely a large sum of money could obtain it sooner or later. The Bush administration cut funding on nuclear arms control and monitoring to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully the Obama administration won’t make the same mistake.

    2) While Iran is not a democracy, they do have elections, and there is a lot of speculation that Ahmadinejad will lose in the upcoming race. One of his opponents is Mohammad Khatami, who had the job before, and is seen as a moderate (at least by Iranian standards). There is a lot of dissatisfaction within Iran that Ahmadinejad beggared and isolated the country to pursue his nuclear ambition. Their infrastructure is crumbling, including their oil operations, because of the limits other countries have placed on doing business with them and providing them with technology. There are also a lot of young people who wear jeans, think Tom Cruise is the epitome of cool, and can’t stand the mullahs or the status quo. So I think that it’s wrong to think of Ahmadinejad as the voice of Iran: my guess is that there are many voices, and other ones may come to dominate the levers of power.

    3) I think that the right course is to pursue and increase sanctions while simultaneously seeing if there is a deal to be had. Since we haven’t talked to them in eight years, we don’t know. However, what Iran wants more than anything else is to have a trade relationship with the US and an assurance that we will not attack them. The neo-conservative approach of giving them membership in the Axis of Evil and then invading Iraq was absolutely the wrong thing to do: it is hard to think of anything else which could have been more counter-productive. This did not cause Iran or North Korea to abandon or bargain away their nuclear programs; rather, it caused them to accelerate them. During the Bush years, Iran had a legitimate fear of being attacked by the US, or by Israel with American approval. It was widely speculated that this event might occur between the November elections and January 20, when there would be no political repercussions. Any rational actor who feared an attack would try to build a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible. With a new administration which seems willing to talk to them, there may very well be a grand bargain at hand, which could include all of the issues on the table, including Iranian refusal to recognize Israel and their support of Hamas and Hezbollah. This is by no means a certainty, but it certainly is worth a try.

    4) I remember reading that Podhoretz also advocated bombing Russia and China because he was convinced that they would attack us (but I’m too lazy to do the research to get the cites). In any event, who would have thought in 1941 that Germany and Japan would one day be allies, or the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland would end their feuding, or that Libya would give up its weapons, or the Boston Red Sox would win the World Series? Unexpected things do happen. A military attack on Iran – which probably wouldn’t do much anyway, and would certainly not help us in the Muslim world and elsewhere – is infeasible. The right course is to determine what levers we have to exert and to use them to negotiate: we’ve used diplomacy in the past successfully with Russia and China, both of which were far more dangerous than Iran. We haven’t tried that yet, and to resort to a military option without seeing what can be done would be criminal and reckless.

    Posted March 6, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

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