‘We have been trying to negotiate [with the Iranians] for five, six years. We’ve tried everything. We have met every Iranian. We have tried to open every possible channel. We’ve had new ideas and the result is this: nothing.”
Thus did a senior Western diplomat recently describe to me his country’s efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with Tehran over its nuclear programs. In doing so, he also finally disposed of the myth, nearly a decade in the making, that Iran was ready to abandon those programs in exchange for a “grand bargain” with the West.
Let’s dispose of a few other myths—and hope it doesn’t take years for the lesson to stick:
(1) Military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would accomplish nothing.
That’s the argument made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last year told a Senate Committee that “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.”
Maybe so, but what’s wrong with buying time? Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor also bought time while driving Saddam’s nuclear programs underground. But it ensured that it was a non-nuclear Iraq that invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia nine years later, a point recognized by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney when he thanked the Israeli commander of the Osirak operation for making “our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
(2) A strike would rally Iranians to the side of the regime.
The case would be more persuasive if the regime had any remaining claims on Iranian patriotism. It no longer does, if it ever did. It also would be more persuasive if the nuclear program were as broadly popular as some of the regime’s apologists claim. On the contrary, one of the more popular chants of the demonstrators goes, “Iran is green and fertile, it doesn’t need nukes.”
Yet even if the nuclear program enjoyed widespread support, it isn’t clear how Iranians would react in the event of military strikes. Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri whooped up a nationalist fervor when he invaded the Falklands in 1982, but was ousted from office just a week after Port Stanley fell to the British. When a regime gambles its prestige on a single controversial enterprise, it cannot afford to lose it.
(3) Sanctions don’t work, and usually wind up strengthening the regime at the expense of its own people.
That’s only true when the sanctioned regimes have strong internal controls, relatively pliant populations, and zero interest in international respectability. It’s also true that sanctions alone are never a silver bullet. But as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies points out, they can be “silver shrapnel,” particularly when the target country is as politically vulnerable as Iran is now, and when it is also critically reliant on the consumption of imported gasoline.
That’s why the House was right when it overwhelmingly approved the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act in December, and when the Senate unanimously passed a similar bill (against the administration’s objections) last Thursday. Over time, the regime will surely find ways to skirt the sanctions, which prohibit companies that do business in Iran’s energy sector from also doing business in the U.S. But in the critical short term, these sanctions might provoke the kind of mass unrest that could tip the scales against the regime.
(4) The world can live with a nuclear Iran, just as we live with other nasty nuclear powers.
Assume that’s true. (I don’t.) Can we also live with nuclear Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey? The problem with the “realist” view is that it fails to take account of the fears a nuclear Iran inspires among the status quo regimes in its neighborhood. Containment was complicated enough during the Cold War. Now imagine a four- or five-way standoff among Arabs, Persians, Turks and Israelis, some religiously fanatic, in the world’s most volatile neighborhood.
(5) The Iranian regime is headed for the ash heap of history. The best policy is to do as little as possible until it crumbles from within.
Communist regimes were also destined for the ash heap. Unfortunately, it took them decades to get there, during which they murdered tens of millions of people. It matters a great deal to Iran’s people, and its neighbors, that the regime go quietly. But it also matters that it go quickly, and waiting on events is not a policy.
(6) The more support we show Iran’s demonstrators, the more we hurt their cause.
This was the administration’s view after the June 12 election, as it walked on tiptoes to avoid the perception of “meddling.” The regime accused the U.S. of meddling all the same.
But protest movements like Iran’s (or Poland’s, or South Africa’s) are sustained by a sense of moral legitimacy that global support uniquely conveys. When will American liberals get behind Iranian rights, as they have, say, Tibetan ones? Maybe when President Obama tells them to.
(7) Israel will ultimately dispose of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The more policy makers fall for the first six myths, the less mythical the seventh one becomes.