The Neoconservative Legacy and the Deal with Iran

As Iran and six of the world's major powers reconvene in Geneva to negotiate a final resolution of the nuclear crisis, it is clear that Iranian hardliners and Israeli skepticism are not the only stumbling blocks. There is another entity threatening to upend the negotiations: the legacy of American neoconservatives.

When neoconservative voices attack the U.S. negotiating position in Geneva, they repeat the three main tenets of the Bush Doctrine: that isolation is preferable to engagement, that dictators cannot be reasoned with and that military power – be it missile defense, strikes on nuclear facilities or regime change – is the ultimate protection against weapons of mass destruction.

Dismissing “pragmatism” in Iranian leaders, Mark Dubowitz of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recommends that, “The United States should move forward with new financial sanctions to effectively lock up all of Iran’s currency reserves held abroad.” These sanctions would “[shut] down non-humanitarian imports and possibly even [collapse] the rial.” Positing that Iran is willing to live with their worst-case scenario from failed negotiations, David Frum, coiner of the “axis of evil,” wrote, “The Obama administration seems much more frightened of its worst-case outcome: the need to use military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Compared with that scenario, it seems to prefer any deal, no matter how flimsy or one-sided.” He predicts that “American over-eagerness” will compel Israel to strike Iran.

Yet, even President Obama has at times followed the counter proliferation mantra of thwarting WMDs with American military might, whether out of conviction or political expediency. This is most clear in his continued support for missile defense against potential Iranian and North Korean ICBMs and his attempt to bomb Syria, not in response to Assad’s slaughtering of civilians, but in response to his use of chemical weapons.

It is fitting that neoconservatives are so concerned about the solution to the Iranian nuclear puzzle, for it is largely a problem of their making. The expansion of the Iranian nuclear program is one of several major nonproliferation failures of the Bush Administration, along with North Korea and the health of the Nonproliferation Treaty. At the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency, Iran’s nuclear program had been in relative stasis for years, a few test centrifuges. By the end of Bush’s presidency, Iran had almost 5,000 centrifuges and a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. In part, growing tension with the United States drove this acceleration.

When Iran helped the United States overthrow the Afghan Taliban in 2001, the Bush Administration responded with their inclusion in the “axis of evil.” When Iran, frightened at the prospect of invasion, offered the United States a “grand bargain” in 2003 – what might have become the crowning glory of the Bush Doctrine – the Bush Administration responded with silence. Now, when Iran negotiates, it is over the objections of their own hardliners. Based on the Bush administration’s missteps, these hardline forces within Iran claim that the United States cannot be trusted to bargain in good faith.

At the same time, it is clear the Bush Doctrine no longer reigns in Washington. For the first time in years the United States and Iran are talking in earnest. Obama has so far managed to convince the Senate to delay passing new sanctions, and the sanctions bill introduced would give the Administration a year for negotiations before taking effect. Furthermore, Obama, lacking Congressional and public support, did not strike the Assad regime. Instead, he negotiated the removal of Assad’s chemical arsenal in cooperation with Russia, a perennial neocon boogeyman. Even seeking Congressional approval for military action was a calculated rejection of the Bush Doctrine. And although the Obama Administration claims it will not accept a nuclear North Korea, regime change is not really on the table.

The legacy of neoconservatism lives on in the nonproliferation failures of the Bush Administration, but with engagement, patience and compromise President Obama can leave a new legacy: a peaceful end to the Iranian nuclear weapon program and a rapprochement with Iran.

Lisa Bergstrom is a Master’s candidate at Georgetown University, where she studies the intersection between science, technology 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.

Photo from Tam Turse