Finding New Options on Iran

Last week, Ploughshares Fund grantee, the Stimson Center released a new report by co-founder and distinguished fellow Barry Blechman examining tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Iran's nuclear program and laying out options for resolution of the crisis. It's a practical, nonpartisan look at one of the most high-stakes political arguments in the news today. Ploughshares Fund gets the inside scoop from Blechman in a short interview below. 

Ploughshares Fund: Your study compares the current tension between the US and Iran to the Cold War situation between US and Russia. What are the similarities between the two situations, and why do you think it matters?

Barry Blechman: The Cold War lasted 40 – 45 years; the U.S.-Iran conflict has already lasted 33 years with no sign of abatement. Underlying both the Cold War and the U.S.-Iran conflict are clashing interests in a particular region (Europe during the Cold War, Middle East for US-Iran) and fundamentally divergent perceptions of the future world order. Both also were fought out through fierce threats, covert operations, wars by proxy armies, and sometimes direct military confrontations.

The key difference, though, is that the U.S. and USSR maintained diplomatic relations and a rich network of official and unofficial conversations virtually from the beginning of the conflict, including summits of the heads of state, military exchanges at various levels, and scientific, sports, and cultural exchanges – each putting a human face on the “enemy.” As a result, they were able to establish communications links and protocols to avoid inadvertent conflicts, to negotiate limitations on the most dangerous weapons, to reach economic agreements, agreements on measures to stabilize particular regions, and even to conclude a landmark human rights accord at Helsinki in 1975. All these exchanges and measures gradually ameliorated and eventually ended the Cold War.

We have had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979 and only rare official discussions, usually in multinational forum. Even private exchanges are limited. When Admiral Mullen, chairman of the JCS, suggested establishing communications to avoid inadvertent conflict in the Persian Gulf, he was excoriated by the Congress. The absence of talks makes the U.S.-Iran conflict far more dangerous than it need be, and much farther from resolution.

PF: You mention in the report that “the two nations [the US and Iran] have never seemed as close to a major military conflict” as they do right now. What are the factors behind this sudden increase in tension? Why is this a problem now?

BB: The immediate risk of war has declined since the report was completed, mainly because President Obama made clear to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that there was time to test out the current strategy of sanctions and diplomacy and because the Iranian Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has made a number of statements and actions suggesting that Tehran might finally be ready to reach a deal. In addition to agreeing to come back to the table in the P-5+1 forum (now scheduled for mid-April), he reissued the “Fatwa” (religious edict), first issued in 1996, that states that nuclear weapons are “anti-Islamic” and should not be pursued. He also praised President Obama’s warnings following his meeting with Netanyahu that one shouldn’t speak easily of war, that wars had dangerous and uncertain consequences.

The Iranians have also suggested that they are now prepared to permit the IAEA to inspect sites suspected of having been the location of “experiments” in various technologies necessary to build nuclear weapons. It remains to be seen whether these “signals” result in concrete progress, but there certainly has been a change of tone, which is probably due to the increasing effectiveness of the financial sanctions now crippling the Iranian economy.

PF: How has the Arab Spring influenced the situation between the US and Iran? And, how might a military conflict between the US and Iran impact the Arab Spring movement?

BB: So far, the Arab Spring has harmed Iran’s image in the Arab world, given the contrast between its brutal suppression of the “Green Movement” in 2009 and the treatment of demonstrators in most Arab nations. It also has isolated it because of Tehran’s support for the beleaguered (and equally brutal) Assad regime in Syria. This has broken Iran’s previously close alliance with Turkey (a backer of the Syrian rebels), and accentuated the divide between Shi’a Iran and the mainly Sunni Arab world. Hamas, for example, a Sunni movement previously based in Syria and supported by Iran, has announced that it would not help Iran if it sought to retaliate for an Israeli or US air strike on its nuclear facilities.

A military conflict between the US and Iran would reverse these trends – in spades. Particularly if the US acted to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through massive air strikes – a totally illegal, immoral, and stupid action, it would turn Arab populations against us and their governments, even if they secretly were pleased that Iran’s nuclear program had been delayed, would have to act to limit their relations with us (and particularly our military presence in the ME). If a protracted conflict ensued, we would find ourselves virtually isolated, with only Israel and perhaps a couple of European nations supporting us. Such an action also would unite the now alienated Iranian population behind its government and its no doubt redoubled effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

PF: Your report states that “bombing Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons would not only be incredibly “stupid,” as noted by former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, it would be totally immoral and contrary to long-standing US principles of legal and proper international behavior.” Can you explain that statement for our readers? Why is military action “stupid” and how is it a departure from longstanding US policy principles?

BB: It would be “stupid” because it would likely unleash a protracted military conflict in the Middle East whose dimensions could not be predicted but which, at the extreme, could lead to yet another US involvement in a ground war in the region. Even an air campaign lasting weeks and consisting of thousands of missions could only set back the Iranian nuclear program, not end it. It would fracture the alliance now effectively pursuing sanctions against Iran and, indeed, unite much of the world against us, just as did the Iraq invasion. It would unite the Iranians behind the current government, ending their current alienation and any possibility of human rights or governance reforms. It would cause oil prices to spike and to stay high as long as the fighting lasted and then some. It would cause equity markets to crash all over the world, ending the fragile economic recovery in this nation and worsening the economic problems in Europe. It would diminish the value of everyone’s retirement accounts.

It would violate international law because Iran has every right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as long as they don’t use that program to hide the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Although they seem to be exploring the technologies they would need to build weapons, we have no evidence that they have made a decision to do so and the judgment of the intelligence community is that they do not now have a program to build weapons. If they did decide to do so, we would know because IAEA inspectors would detect the diversion of enriched uranium. Alternatively, if they withdrew from the NPT and threw out the IAEA inspectors, it would be a clear signal that they intended to do so. Short of those actions, we would be launching a major air campaign that would likely kill thousands of Iranians, kick off a war that would kill unknown numbers of other people, including Americans, based on a suspicion that they intend to acquire nuclear weapons one day. There is no legal basis for us to take such actions. It also would be hypocritical, as we have accepted the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Israel, India, Pakistan, and even North Korea without taking military action. We profess to believe in a world governed by law. We violated that precept when we invaded Iraq. An air campaign against Iran would make clear that we really don’t believe in it at all.

PF: One of the alternative potential US policy strategies that you explore in the report is “moving beyond the nuclear issue” with Iran. What does this mean and how might the U.S. implement it?

BB: We have a broad range of differences with Iran, ranging from the legitimacy of our presence to the Middle East to the Israeli/Palestinian issue to the brutal actions of the Assad regime in Syria. Yet, there are other interests in which we might have common interests and could act effectively together. This was the case in 2002, for example, when the Iranians worked with us to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Among other things, we could work together on maritime security in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters, on avoiding inadvertent conflict by establishing certain protocols and channels of communications, on the drug trade, on avoiding chaos in Iraq, and perhaps on ending the war in Afghanistan. To do any of this, though, we need to be willing to talk with one another. The first obstacle to overcome is to establish a variety of means of discussing the issues between us.

 Want to know more? Read the full report, Iran In Perspective: Holding Iran To Peaceful Uses Of Nuclear Technology.