Toothless Talk

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department director of policy planning, writes in “We Must Talk Iran Out of the Bomb” that Iran’s nuclear program “may well constitute the Obama administration’s first foreign policy crisis.”

The reason is simple.  Iran is well down the path to being able to enrich uranium on a large enough scale to produce a nuclear weapon.  The International Atomic Energy Agency just reported that Iran may well reach this point in 2009.

Haass explains that a second option — an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations — also involves “serious risks and costs”:  (1) the nuclear capability might survive or be rebuilt, (2) there could be retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, (3) Iran might “unleash” terrorist attacks “throughout the region and the world,” (4) the flow of oil could be interrupted, and (5) the price of oil could go to $200 per barrel.

Haass recommends a diplomatic course — persuading Iran to “freeze or suspend its nuclear efforts or, better yet, give up an independent capability to enrich uranium.”  He would allow Iran a “small” enrichment program subject to “highly intrusive inspections,” with a three-part diplomatic package:  access to nuclear energy (but not nuclear materials), eased economic sanctions, and normal relations with “security assurances.”  If Iran refuses, he would threaten additional sanctions that would finclude Russia and China.

Henry Kissinger once said every memo he received at the State Department had three options:  (1) nuclear war, (2) unilateral disarmament, and (3) a third option, favored by the author of the memo.  The options in Haass’s article fit that template:  (a) accepting a nuclear Iran, (b) bombing its nuclear facilities, or (c) the Haass diplomatic option.

His diplomatic package is highly likely to fail, since it (a) has already effectively been rejected by Iran, (b) relies on sanctions that are rarely effective or enforceable, (c) requires Russian and Chinese support, necessitating separate negotiations with (and significant foreign policy concessions to) each of them, and (d) gives Iran exactly what it wants — more time in 2009 to complete its nuclear program while “negotiations” proceed.

Barack Obama has repeatedly said a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable.”  But that does not leave, as the only remaining option, bombing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.  There are other military options, including easier ones that Iran would fear more.  They are discussed extensively in “The Last Resort:  Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran.”

It would be useful for Iran to read an active discussion by American foreign policy experts of the various military options, since diplomacy not backed by a credible threat of force cannot succeed.  One of the surest roads to failure is to signal Iran, through an article by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, that U.S. experts have weighed the risks of force and selected the usual State Department option:  toothless talk.