Iraq War Hawks Beat the Drums on Iran

Many of the same pundits who championed the invasion of Iraq are attempting to scuttle negotiations with Iran by portraying that nation’s nuclear program as an imminent threat and arguing that a diplomatic deal with the “untrustworthy” regime is impossible.

Take David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who wrote that “American over-eagerness” for a diplomatic solution will likely force Israel to strike Iran. Then there’s Danielle Pletka from the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote that attempts to negotiate with Iran are pointless because “every single step will have no meaningful impact on Iran’s capacity to produce a nuclear weapon within weeks or months.” And Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the neoconservative think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued that Iran aims to get relief from sanctions without making meaningful concessions on its nuclear program, and that the Obama administration believes that a “bad deal is better than no deal.”

In the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and Michael Makovsky used an even more confrontational tone. They argued that the Obama administration’s “soft-headed, even desperate, desire for some sort of deal, any deal” with Iran was similar to the kind of Western “failure of nerve and a collapse of will” that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill faced in the 1930s.

We have heard similar arguments before. The 2002 National Security Strategy prepared by the administration of President George W. Bush, discounted most international nonproliferation agreements in favor of a strategy of counter proliferation. It declared that deterring countries that “hate the United States and all it stands for” would be impossible.  In his now famous 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush called Iran, North Korea and Iraq the “axis of evil” and said, “the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.” These words paved the way for war with Iraq.

But in the administration’s zeal to prevent nuclear proliferation by force, it actually presided over the rapid expansion of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

In 2003, Iran offered to talk with the United States about its nuclear program, its support for the radical Hamas and Hezbollah movements, and its relationship with Israel. The Bush administration quickly rejected Iran’s offer, believing that eventual regime change would be preferable.

Even after the failures the Iraq war became evident, the Bush administration stood aside and even thwarted European efforts to negotiate with Iran. In that time, Iran’s early nuclear research program grew from a few test centrifuges to over 8,000 operational centrifuges. Iran also amassed enough low enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon if it made the political decision to do so.

The Bush Administration was even less successful when it came to North Korea. Early in his presidency, President Bush rejected Secretary of State Colin Powell’s plan to continue with Clinton-era negotiations with North Korea on the grounds that they were too accommodating and the verification measures were too weak.  The administration then named North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” and singled it out as a potential target for U.S. nuclear weapons in the 2002 nuclear posture review.

These actions caused almost a decade of improving relations to deteriorate. In 2002, North Korea threw out IAEA inspectors. It became the first state to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in 2003 and tested its first nuclear device in 2006.

At this point, it is impossible to determine whether a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program is attainable. Even if it is attainable, it will not be a perfect deal. It will not completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and it will almost certainly allow for some domestic enrichment. What is certain is that even an imperfect deal would reverse Iran’s nuclear expansion. That is a far greater victory against nuclear proliferation than any neoconservative can claim.

Lauren Shellito is a graduate student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She was previously the Media Analyst & Opinion Research Associate at ReThink Media, and she interned in the IAEA section at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. This article is adapted from an assignment for a class on nuclear policy and international security. Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are attributed to the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Ploughshares Fund.