Smother 'Em With Love

Why it’s time for the United States to cuddle up with Iran.

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," said Sun Tzu -- or maybe it was Petrarch, or Machiavelli, or Michael Corleone. Whatever: As U.S. negotiators resume talks with Iran in Geneva this week, we would do well to embrace this philosophy.

For more than three decades, the United States has done everything possible to marginalize, contain, and generally mess with Iran, yet Iran's nuclear capabilities have only advanced -- and its ability to throw up roadblocks against U.S. aspirations in the Middle East has continued unabated. It's time to accept that further efforts to marginalize and contain Iran are unlikely to improve the situation. At this point, we don't need fewer military, economic, and cultural ties to Iran -- we need more. It's time to bring Iran closer.

Consider some realities.

First Reality: Iran already has nuclear weapons capabilities. As Harvard's Graham Allison put it in an August article, "Iran has overcome the most significant obstacle to making a bomb: it has mastered the technologies to enrich uranium indigenously. It has operated production lines to produce a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) that, after further enrichment, would provide the cores for more than six nuclear bombs. Since 2010 it has been enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent (medium enriched uranium or MEU). As a technical fact, that means it has done 90 percent of the work required to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an explodable nuclear bomb."

Implication: If Iran is absolutely determined to build a nuclear weapon, it already has the ability to do so. The only real question is how long the process would take: Some experts believe it would be a matter of weeks, while others think it might be closer to a year. Opinions also vary as to the likelihood that such a bomb-making operation would be detected by the United States prior to successful completion.

This isn't good news -- there's nothing "good" about further nuclear weapons proliferation. But it's not the end of the world, either.

The cold logic of nuclear deterrence still operates, and Iran's leaders show every sign of being rational actors: The country has powerful regional enemies, which gives it a similarly powerful incentive to develop indigenous nuclear weapons capabilities. At the same time, Iran's leaders know it would be extraordinarily risky to cross that final bridge and create a nuclear bomb (Israel has an itchy trigger finger). Still more important, they know that to use a nuclear weapon would be to court national obliteration. Finally, they have zero incentive to supply nuclear technologies to terrorists: As Stephen Walt asks, "Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?"

Second Reality: At this point, piling on more sanctions is likely to damage U.S. objectives. Clearly, years of sanctions have not prevented Iran from advancing its nuclear program: On the contrary, Iran has crossed red line after red line over the last two decades.

Recent, more aggressive U.S. and international sanctions have undeniably weakened Iran's economy, but here, too, the impact of sanctions has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the economic woes brought about by tougher sanctions undeniably have played a role in bringing Iran back to the bargaining table. On the other hand, as Joy Gordon noted in an Oct. 18 Foreign Policy article, some analysts think that by "limiting Iran's ability to buy and produce oil, gasoline, and natural gas," sanctions may have convinced Iran's leaders that it's now "much more imperative to develop nuclear energy to meet the needs of the population."

Sanctions -- "smart" or not -- also hurt ordinary Iranians far more than they hurt regime leaders. That's a humanitarian problem, but it also has implications for U.S. security. Data from a Gallup poll released in early November suggests that sanctions have increased anti-U.S. sentiment in Iran: While 85 percent of Iranians now say that sanctions have affected their own economic well-being, 47 percent blame the United States, and only 13 percent blame the Iranian government. (Interestingly, only 9 percent say they blame Israel.)

Worse, sanctions seem to have led to greater popular support for Iran's nuclear program: 68 percent of Iranians -- an uptick from the last Gallup poll -- now support continuing the program despite the painful impact of economic sanctions. Even Iranian Jews recently rallied in support of Iran's nuclear program. Unsurprisingly, many Iranians view their nation's nuclear program through the lens of national pride: Why should a small number of states get to close the nuclear club? If the world can accept that Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons, why not Iran?

At this point, tightening sanctions still further would be either ineffective or dangerous, particularly while negotiations are ongoing. It could have the unintended consequence of shoring up hard-line anti-U.S. actors inside Iran, which could drive Iran away from the negotiating table. This, in turn, could increase, rather than decrease, the prospects for catastrophic military confrontation between Iran and Western powers.

Third Reality: A military confrontation with Iran would be similarly ineffective and dangerous. Iran knows it, the U.S. military knows it, the White House knows it, Israeli intelligence knows it. The only ones who seem not to know it are Benjamin Netanyahu and certain congressional Republicans.

Iran's nuclear facilities aren't soft targets: The Fordow enrichment facility is under a mountain. Most analysts believe that U.S. or Israeli strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would delay Iranian weapons production capabilities for a few years, but not destroy it, and such strikes could easily harden Iran's determination to build nuclear bombs. As a nonpartisan Wilson Center report -- produced by former top U.S. diplomats and military officials -- concluded in 2012, it's likely that "a U.S. attack on Iran would increase Iran's motivation to build a bomb, because 1) the Iranian leadership would become more convinced than ever that regime change is the goal of U.S. policy, and 2) building a bomb would be seen as a way to inhibit future attacks and redress the humiliation of being attacked." 

All this might also increase the temptation for the United States or Israel to escalate any initially limited military action, going after a broader range of Iranian military targets as well as nuclear facilities -- or even seeking regime change. But that's not a smart path to take either. Military action is expensive and unpredictable, and strikes against Iran could trigger anything from direct Iranian retaliation to a dramatic increase in anti-U.S. or anti-Israel terror attacks and spreading regional conflict. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it late in 2012, "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."  (Or as former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni memorably quipped, "I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran.")

To sum up: Iran already has the ability to create nuclear weapons, additional sanctions won't help, and military action against Iran would be foolhardy in the extreme.

What's left to do?

Smother ‘em with love.

I'm not kidding. Iran seems -- finally -- genuinely interested in seeking ways out of the current impasse. Maybe that's due to the bite of recent sanctions, maybe it's due to Iranian fears of a military strike, or maybe the Iranians are just plain tired of being international pariahs. But right now, Iran is looking for face-saving ways to reach a deal.

Let's help them. We should seek to enmesh Iran so tightly in economic and cultural partnerships with the United States and international community that future hostilities become unthinkable.

In exchange for Iranian concessions on uranium enrichment, we should offer not only an end to sanctions, but a roadmap toward full normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations. This can't happen overnight-and as with the removal of sanctions, steps toward normalization can be reevaluated if Iran reneges on its promises. But steps toward normalization should start soon, with small-scale, mutually respectful confidence-building measures that go beyond those directly linked to Iran's nuclear program.

These might include joint U.S.-Iranian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria, for instance -- or, more ambitiously, joint efforts to seek a political solution to that conflict. Iran has so far been reluctant to endorse a plan that would result in Syria's Bashar al-Assad leaving power, but there are some indications of increasing Iranian willingness to support a political transition.

Confidence-building measures could also include increased Coast Guard and Naval  maritime cooperation between the United States and Iran, as well as joint efforts to provide humanitarian aid and broker political agreements in other regional trouble spots, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Iranians have as much national pride as Americans -- and treating Iran as a genuine partner in efforts to increase regional stability will help soothe the status and security anxieties driving the country's nuclear program.

Finally, we shouldn't discount the value of old-fashioned cultural and educational cooperation and exchanges. As part of a negotiated roadmap to normalization, why not include stepped-up efforts to encourage medical and scientific collaboration on matters unrelated to nuclear technologies? What about a well-funded program designed to bring young Iranians to study or work in the United States, with a reciprocal program bringing young Americans to Iran?

At the moment, Iran is an adversary, not a friend, and there's no guarantee that such measures will lead to a harmonious friendship between the United States and Iran. After all, the nuclear issue isn't the only barrier to good relations: Iran's support for Hezbollah is another, and its dismal human rights practices also stand in the way.

But even if we never become friends, there are purely pragmatic reasons for staying close to our enemies: Increasing connections reduces incentives for conflict and augments incentives for collaboration. Enhancing connections and transparency also gives each nation a clearer understanding of the other's capabilities and motivations, which makes misunderstandings and inadvertent slights and challenges less likely.

Will we all someday sing "Kumbayah" together in Tehran? I don't know, I don't care, and actually I hope not, since I don't remember the words (and I doubt they sound better in Farsi). Bringing Iran closer isn't something we should do out of sheer loving-kindness. It's a path dictated by pure, hard-headed self-interest.


By Other Means

Privacy Is a Red Herring

The debate over NSA surveillance is about something else entirely.

There are curious parallels in the arguments made by those on opposing sides of debates about covert action and NSA surveillance. Both sides deploy the language of secrecy and privacy, but often do so in sloppy and contradictory ways.

Thus, responding to those outraged by recent revelations of mass surveillance, many NSA defenders insist, in effect, that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Stunned to discover that U.S. intelligence agencies have been "invading your privacy" by monitoring your email, web searches, and telephone records? Calm down: if you're not doing anything that threatens U.S. national security, no one at the NSA will be interested in you. Conversely, if you're one of those people determined to cover your online tracks -- by using Tor, for example -- don't be shocked if the intelligence community begins to view you with suspicion. Why would you work so hard keep your activities secret from your own government, unless you're up to no good?

Many critics of covert intelligence agency activities take a remarkably similar line in response to government outrage over the leaking of secret NSA documents. If the NSA isn't doing anything illegal or immoral -- such as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans or allied heads of state -- then there's no need for all the secrecy. Why would the NSA stamp "top secret" on everything -- and scream so loudly when classified documents are leaked - if it's not trying to hide something from the American public? Didn't Edward Snowden's leaks demonstrate that the NSA really was hiding unlawful behavior under the cloak of secrecy?

At the same time, both government actors and individuals are quick to demand that their own privacy must be respected. NSA activities inappropriately "violate people's privacy," says Google's Eric Schmidt. They constitute an "astonishing invasion of Americans' privacy," laments the ACLU. Rand Paul agrees: NSA monitoring is an "extraordinary invasion of privacy."

When the U.S. government decries leaks of "classified information," it too is invoking the concept of privacy: secrecy is the privacy of governments. Just like individuals, governments value (and, up to a point, need) the right to be left alone. In order to function, governments sometimes need to operate out of the public eye. Effective diplomats may need to take different approaches with different states. Government employees need to know that they can speak candidly to one another without fear that every conversation will be reported on Twitter.

What a muddle. On the one hand, both individuals and governments insist on the importance of their right to "privacy." At the very same time, both government actors and their critics tend to be suspicious of claims of privacy and secrecy: why would anyone need secrecy if they're doing nothing wrong?

These contradictory attitudes reflect a persistent and widely shared tendency to use the term "privacy" to cover a variety of quite different (and sometimes contradictory) things. As George Washington University Law School Professor Daniel Solove puts it, privacy is "a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means." Ask a dozen people to define privacy and you'll get a dozen different answers: privacy encompasses, notes Solove, "freedom of thought, control over one's body, solitude in one's home, control over personal information, freedom from surveillance, protection of one's reputation, and protection from searches and interrogations." (For more on the ambiguity of privacy, see J.M. Berger's FP article from last week.)

I'd add one more item to Solove's list of definitions: when people speak of privacy, often what they're really concerned about is not privacy at all, but very concrete kinds of economic and physical harm: job loss, theft, injury, imprisonment, and even death. That is: when people speak of privacy they're often speaking -- albeit indirectly -- about power, and its uses and abuses.

This becomes more evident when we push past the surface of claims about privacy.

It's impossible, of course, for either individuals or governments to possess total privacy. Our lives and actions are porous. We all know that a great deal of our "personal" information is "out there" and available to anyone willing to put in even a modicum of effort. Our neighbors can peek through our windows; strangers in cafes and on the Metro can listen in on our conversations and telephone calls; our Match.com dates can Google us -- and that's nothing compared to the data compiled about us by marketers. For the most part, this doesn't trouble us -- most of us simply accept it as the price of living in human society.

This is true for governments as well. You can put a "top secret" stamp on everything from lunch menus to NSA memos, but people still gossip, leave sensitive papers lying around, and speak indiscreetly to their spouses and friends -- and there is always a journalist or spy hanging around who can put together loose scraps of information. What's more, building strong relationships sometimes requires disclosure of secret information: just as friendships and love relationships are cemented by the sharing of intimate information, governments often find that building relationships with allies, journalists, congressional staffers, and think tanks requires at least some willingness to share "classified" information.

We know all this. Even so, we still bridle when we discover that the universe of people aware of our "private" information has unexpectedly expanded, or that the information we knew to be accessible has in fact been accessed.

It's one thing to know, in the abstract, that anyone walking by your house can see into your kitchen window, but it's another thing altogether to look out the kitchen window and discover someone staring fixedly at you. It's one thing to know that the soccer mom sitting one table over at Starbucks can probably make out the words on your laptop screen; it's another thing altogether to know that "the government" can do the same thing.

For government officials, it's one thing to know that NSA surveillance capabilities are, if not fully known, guessed at with substantial accuracy by everyone from journalists to Angela Merkel to al Qaeda operatives; it's another thing altogether to find classified memos describing those capabilities splashed all over the front page of the Washington Post.

But it's important to push ourselves to articulate just why individuals and governments are troubled when the circle of those with knowledge about them expands. Put differently, it's worth asking: when we talk about invasion of privacy, what are we really worried about?

From the government's perspective, the answer is usually straightforward: governmental privacy - secrecy -- isn't valuable in and of itself. It's valuable solely because it reduces the risk of certain harms. Secrecy about NSA capabilities reduces the likelihood that terrorists or other adversaries will find ways to evade NSA scrutiny, which increases the likelihood that the United States will be able to learn about potential threats early enough to thwart planned attacks.

On an individual level, many people find it more difficult to articulate why they're bothered by "invasions of privacy." But when you push hard enough, most people articulate a fear that isn't about that mushy concept we refer to as "privacy," but is in fact about similarly concrete issues of safety and freedom from harm. The man staring fixedly through our kitchen window bothers us not because we think he might discover us doing something "secret," but because he has violated norms of socially acceptable behavior in a way that makes him unpredictable: if he's willing to violate norms against staring, what other norms might he also violate? Will he become a stalker, a blackmailer, a burglar, a rapist, a murderer?

At bottom, something similar is true of typical public reactions to NSA surveillance. We may speak of "privacy," but what frightens most of us is not the abstract notion that "the government" might be "watching us"; rather, it is the very concrete possibility that information about us will be misconstrued, misused, or abused. We fear that we'll end up on a no-fly list, or be unable to get a security clearance, a job, or a loan. We fear being wrongly accused, harassed, detained, and -- in the era of targeted killings -- who knows what else?

This points to an essential difference between the privacy of governments and the privacy of individuals: governments have far more power than individuals. When the government's "privacy" is violated -- through the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents, for instance -- the government can prosecute the leakers, and it can generally fall back on multiple other means to preventing the harms it wants to prevent. The NSA's Internet and telephone data collection capabilities are not the U.S. government's sole means of preventing terrorist attacks, for instance: it has many other ways to gather intelligence and other ways to disrupt and defang terrorist organizations.

In contrast, individuals have far less power and far fewer ways to protect themselves. The cards are stacked in favor of the government. This is all the more true in the post-9/11 environment, in which the government has the advantage of permissive laws, deferential courts and congressmen, "black" budgets, and a vast national security bureaucracy that has expanded faster than our collective ability to control it.

I've made this point in a previous column, but I'll make it again here:

The problem [with NSA surveillance practices] is not a privacy problem at all, but an accountability problem... Given the current lack of transparency, we don't know what rules govern who can see what data, under what circumstances, for what purposes, and with what consequences. We don't know if this sweeping data collection has led to mistakes or abuses that have harmed innocent people, and we don't know what recourse an innocent person would have if harmed in some way..

[T]here needs to be a mechanism to remedy [any] damage and impose appropriate consequences on government wrongdoers. If these data collection practices (or any similar past practices) lead to innocent people getting stuck on no-fly lists, or getting harassed by federal agents, or ending up wrongly detained, there should be a prompt, transparent, and fair means for them to challenge their treatment, see the supposed evidence against them, and get the problem fixed.

"Privacy" is a red herring in the debate about NSA surveillance (and many other kinds of covert activities). If we want meaningful reform, we need to set aside the rhetoric of privacy, and focus instead on creating genuine safeguards against the abuse of government power.

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