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Paralyzed Over Iran

I've got a new piece out in The Gadflyer about the administration's continuing paralysis over Iran policy. I hope Bush gets asked a question about this in the debates, since one hardly needs a super-clever "gotcha" formulation to bring out the problem. Something as simple as "Mr. President, some in your administration say we should engage Iran and others think we should seek regime change -- when do you plan on making up your mind?" It's not an issue that's going to move huge numbers of votes either way, but raising its profile would cause all sorts of intra-right sniping and possibly bring home to people just how messed up the policy process is at this point.

September 28, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 28, 2004 7:32:29 PM

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Tracked on Oct 7, 2005 3:28:04 AM


In the form of question you posed, I would substitute something like "invade Iran and overthrow their government" for "seek regime change," if that's what that means, because otherwise people won't understand what's being asked.

Posted by: alkali | Sep 28, 2004 9:33:49 AM

If I know George Bush, and I think I do by now, I'd imagine he'd say that a nuclear Iran is intolerable and that he'll do whatever it takes to protect the American people, and that it's important to show resolve and not flip-flop in the face of danger.

The facts won't matter.

Posted by: praktike | Sep 28, 2004 9:39:10 AM

I agree with praktike. He will have a dodge ready.
In any case look at Belmont Club today- there really are noises about military action.

Posted by: gaw3 | Sep 28, 2004 10:06:23 AM

"Debate" rules -- can't ask the other guy a question.

Posted by: Buck | Sep 28, 2004 10:16:44 AM

Your article in The Gadflyer says an option is to "talk to Iran, work out a common policy, and cooperate on implementing it." However, you don't explain what "a common policy" might be. Please explain further, because I for one haven't the vaguest what a common policy with Iran might be.

Posted by: ostap | Sep 28, 2004 10:26:17 AM

Speaking of the devil.

Posted by: JP | Sep 28, 2004 10:42:39 AM

Matthew wrote (at the Gadflyer):
other four-lettered country in the Middle East


Posted by: Ikram | Sep 28, 2004 10:51:11 AM

Bush will give a brief answer: I will protect the country from attacks by the evildoers and I can't speak about this matter in detail due to national security considerations.

Posted by: hawkseye | Sep 28, 2004 10:51:58 AM

"Well, Jim, I like to think I'm smart enough not to announce our military plans on a nationwide TV broadcast. If the mulahs in Iran want to know what we're planning, let them hire spies, like everyone else."

Saying that he won't tolerate a nuclear armed Iran only invites the question of why he's prepared to tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Sep 28, 2004 11:00:32 AM

This just shows how effective a flypaper strategy can be. Now if we can just get ours untangled from our hair...

Posted by: paa | Sep 28, 2004 11:18:25 AM

A "common policy" might be to restrict enrichment to 5% U-235, rather than 99%, the latter of which could used for a bomb. This would require a verifiable condition on the ground, which I doubt the mullahs will allow. The ball is in their court.

If you can't get a verifiable deal, you assume they're making the bomb and you first take out their reactors and centrifuges, then immediately seek regime change from the inside out using any means necessary. Once they have the bomb, it's game over. Any military action we may have taken up to that point will look like child's play compared to nuke-tipped missiles heading from Tehran to Tel Aviv.

The mullahs may think that the only way for the islamic revolution to survive is through nuclear superiority in the region (see paranoid South Africans toward the latter decades of Apartheid).

The true threat to the mullahs should be their own people. Why they have risen up before now to dethrone the clerics is baffling. If you've followed Iranian blogs and some Iranian media, you'll see that most rank and file Iranians like America and don't seek the destruction of Israel.--s

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Sep 28, 2004 1:00:44 PM

Praktike's right, of course, the facts won't matter. That's so to a great extent because most Americans have an extremely poor understanding of foreign policy in general and the details of Iran (or anywhere else) in particular. Thus Mr. No Nuance can get away with spouting some Wayneism, Eastwoodism or Schwarzeneggerism, then catch the combined laughter and applause and call it a day. Next question?

As for a real policy, the notion of ending Iran's capacity for building a bomb by blasting its nuclear facilities is chimerical. Sure, you can strike their reactors, but the Iranians learned from the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq, which is why their centrifuges are widely dispersed. I am not certified to see classified information - obviously - but most close-up observers say we're not even sure where most of the nuclear facilities in Iran are. Even for smart bombs, that presents a problem.

The Iranians, most recently their foreign minister, have made it clear that they are ready to discuss the issue in good faith, with mutual respect and NOT build any nukes.

No, I don't trust 'em. But diplomacy and negotiation wouldn't even be necessary if we all trusted each other. I don't trust Qadafi either, and, internally, his regime is far worse than Iran's, despite his apparent willingness to give up WMD precursors. Yet that didn't stop us from making nice with him without demanding regime change. Of course, that might have something to do with all that seismically unexplored Libyan desert many geologists think is full of light, sweet crude.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Sep 28, 2004 1:28:35 PM

Why do we need to do anything about Iran? Maybe if they had a few nukes the US would have second thoughts about imposing its imperialistic designs in that region of the world. The assumption is that Iran wants nukes to use them as offensive weapons, when it is more likely that they want nukes as defense against invasion.

Posted by: Colin Whitworth | Sep 28, 2004 2:00:19 PM


While I essentially agree with your analysis, I would demur over the use the term "paralysis", which suggests confusion and indecision. I suspect that "holding patter" better describes the situation. Whatever it is they plan to do, they have decided that until the Presidential election is over there is too much political risk in openly declaring for one direction over another.

The fact that there are lots of vocal people inside and on the fringes of the administration arguing for their own particular approach, doesn't mean that the people at the top have no policy - only that they haven't chosen to make it entirely plain just yet. People like Michael Ledeen like to complain "there is no Iran policy", over and over, as a way of putting pressure on the administration by making them look bad. But I doubt that it is really the case that they "have no policy" or are truly "paralyzed".

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Sep 28, 2004 2:34:58 PM

The assumption is that Iran wants nukes to use them as offensive weapons, when it is more likely that they want nukes as defense against invasion.

Yes, of course, this is absolutely right. The Iranian regime doesn't have a death wish. Only a total moron would expect it to use the weapons in an offensive capacity (and against another nuclear power like Israel, to boot).

Posted by: JP | Sep 28, 2004 3:05:47 PM

I think the main danger is that if Iran were a nuclear power, any plans it might have to go offensive via conventional warfare might be difficult to oppose. A nuclear umbrella for conventional aggression. Iran can plausibly dream of being a regional hegemon if the US ever loses that position.

Additional complications in the case of Iran, but not N.K. as far as I can see, are that the Iranian government appears less stable, both at risk of being overthrown by more liberal forces or by a coup of even more extreme Islamists. In either case, it's possible to imagine that in the ensuing chaos (revolution) or with plausible deniability (hyperextreme Islamists), a nuclear weapon might find it's way into the hands of Islamic terrorists.

The dangers of an increased nuclear arms race in the Middle East are larger than those in NE Asia.

Other than S. Korea, there are no tempting targets for N. Korean conventional aggression.
N. Korean nuclear weapons? Not that much of a problem for the US, as far as I can see, except insofar as they might sell them. Sure, Japan might nuclearize, but that doesn't worry me that much. The Japanese are surely to be trusted with dangerous toys more than the Russians are. And a nuclear Japan is likely to be more resistant to Chinese Finlandization.

Posted by: dubious | Sep 28, 2004 8:41:51 PM

There is something in Matthew's article that confuses me. He says:
"While the United States became increasingly bogged down in Iraq, the Iranian position was strengthened as anti-American sentiment rose throughout the region and it became increasingly unclear that military action would be taken. The Iranian nuclear program has proceeded apace - or even been accelerated - while the neocons fell from favor and Rice returned to her realist roots. She brought Robert Blackwill, her former boss in the first Bush administration's National Security Council, onto her staff and charged him with wresting control of Iraq policy away from the Pentagon. At this Blackwill, who favors engagement with Iran, has been successful. Paul Bremer was wooed away from the neocons, dropped his support for Ahmed Chalabi, and the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon strongholds are now seething with discontent about the outcome of their venture."
---But surely Chalabi is being accused of feeding intelligence to Iran, of endevouring to act in Iran's interest as that interest is perceived by Iranian intelligence itself, of being in effect an Iranian mole within the neocon cabal. In what way is Bremer cutting him loose supposed to illustrate a more 'realist' (i.e. negotiatory) position vis-a-vis the Iranian power elite, then?

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Sep 29, 2004 9:04:17 AM

I keep reading through these articles, one after another, just as someone without a political agenda, and am struck by the lack of real answers but the volume of complaints. As somebody who has spent most of the last couple of years in Iraq and Kuwait I become furious with the politics the "left" has chosen to play with our lives and the future of this nation in that region. We live in a world where hard choices have to be made. Right now the democrats are in a position where they can sharp shoot the choices the republicans have made. You can say that we went to war under false pretenses, but as I read the article posted giving the options to war that you posted, they say isolate and threaten - That was done for a decade without effect. They say get the French on board - The French were too financially entangled in Iraq and have no real military value to add to the effort. Now we look at the options for Iran. You want to sharp shoot the president again, without providing a reasonable course of action. So I am left, again, with a very negative impression of the liberal agenda. You are picking apart the other side without offering me an alternative. The entire Kerry Edwards campaign is not about voting for these knuckleheads, it's all about voting against Bush. That was the entire Primary theme “Who can beat bush?” This line of thought is clear in many of the articles and the responses posted here. If the Democrats want votes from people like me, who are not aligned with any particular party, then you need to give me something to vote for, not tell me what I am voting against. I will Vote for Bush, because I have already followed him to war once and I trust him to take decisive actions. Unlike you overeducated, super witty bloggers, I have put my life on the line for this nation, and I know I will be doing it again. I only hope that you appreciate the freedom and security that over a thousand of my brothers in arms have bought you, with their lives. Right now I just see you finding faults in the last fight not figuring out the answers for the next. When you have real answers on Iran, Iraq, or anything else, let me know.

Posted by: kevin | Sep 29, 2004 9:58:48 AM


those answers have been given, time and again. Yet either you choose not to read them or you choose not to think of them as solutions.

There is the grand/small bargain option. Opening an embassy in Iran. Diplomatic engagement. Security guarantees instead of talking about axis of evil/WWIV/preventive war against Iran.
Lots of dead trees are being wasted on these things.

This doesn't guarantee a nuclear free Iran. But then neither does the current US policy.

Posted by: Bla | Sep 29, 2004 10:21:09 AM

What will work in Iran is only what Iran will allow to work. Iran will not allow any real oversite of the program and will not be desuaded from thier current path. Have you seen Iran putting forward a friendly hand, Our last Embassy there wasn't the most welcome crew in town. I still don't know What Kerry is planning to do next February if he is the president.

Kerry will committ more troops to Iraq? From where? Kerry will get the international support?
From where? Kerry will do what with Iran?

I know what but thinks of the things Bush has done, but how can anybody call Bush evasive when Kerry hasn't given an answer I would consider a viable course of action on any issue to date.

Posted by: Kevin | Sep 29, 2004 10:49:28 AM

Unlike you overeducated, super witty bloggers, I have put my life on the line for this nation, and I know I will be doing it again.

You had a pretty good argument going, but then you just couldn't help yourself, could you, Kevin? Just had to slip in your factless assumption. A lot of super-witty bloggers also have put their lives on the line.

And, by the way, history is littered with tales of young men who went to their deaths for no good purpose other than the obstinate decisiveness of leaders who were morally and militarily wrong.

Posted by: Meteor Blades | Sep 29, 2004 1:26:46 PM

Meteor Blades-

Your point is well taken. When warriors without a single nation, but proud to die for their cause, launch an assault on the nation I am proud of and threaten not only the way of life we enjoy in this over privileged society but also the lives of my family and friends, then I do not consider the cause to be "obstinate decisiveness of leaders who were morally and militarily wrong". I consider all actions to eliminate that threat to be a mandate. I am far from a war monger, I hate to think of those young soldiers that are still there. The soldiers I have lead and the leaders I have followed. But they will do what they need to do, and I will be back there with them all too soon. The question is, do we as a nation have the will to follow through with the threats and the promises we have laid out to the world. And what is Kerry’s intent? I come away thinking he doesn’t have an intent beyond 2 NOV.

Posted by: Kevin | Sep 29, 2004 2:43:22 PM

Let me just reiterate my question : if Chalabi was an Iranian agent within the neocon cabal, then how does getting rid of him assist the 'realists'? Surely, if he is Iran's man in the theatre, then keeping him would be the best way to spite the neocons, who were totally fooled by him to their great cost and embarrassment.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Sep 29, 2004 2:43:35 PM

There is the grand/small bargain option. Opening an embassy in Iran. Diplomatic engagement. Security guarantees instead of talking about axis of evil/WWIV/preventive war against Iran.
Lots of dead trees are being wasted on these things.

This doesn't guarantee a nuclear free Iran. But then neither does the current US policy.

Current policy doesn't guarantee success, but the diplomatic engagement method has already shown to be a failure in North Korea, India, Pakistan, and was failing in Iraq before the first Gulf War.

That does not mean that diplomatic efforts are doomed to fail, but we certainly have serious issues with verification.

The alternative of military action has been shown to be effective in setting back nuclear programs, but the resulting death and destruction is not an optimal outcome. But the threat of military action is a significant component of the diplomatic effort and out-of-hand dismissals only make the threat less effective and the reality more likely.

Posted by: Gedanken | Sep 29, 2004 8:16:33 PM

To address the question you are all talking about, it might be worth looking at the usually sensible Uzi Benziman in Haaretz, who has fallen rightly or wrongly for the CFR line. I have much graver doubts about it, but people like Ian Lustick support it. It holds that evacuating the west bank, or at least some of it, is still feasible, that Sharon can be made to do it, and that this will defang the entire middle eastern conflict. Pollyanna-ish, but there it is. Perhaps what is really at issue here is a symbolic de-escalation of Israeli aggression in the region, if I can put it that way.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Sep 30, 2004 2:46:01 AM

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