On the unrest in Iran: Don't just do something, stand there!

I don’t know where the latest unrest in Iran will lead -- and neither does anyone else -- but it seems like the regime is losing whatever legitimacy it had left and may also be losing its capacity to squelch dissent with displays of force. (As before, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish has lots of videos and commentary on events there.) The outcome of this sort of challenge is inherently difficult to forecast, as it is nearly impossible to know ex ante when a critical “tipping point” might be reached. At a minimum, the regime has clearly gotten significantly weaker since the contested election last summer.

Here are some cautionary lessons to bear in mind. First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.

Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.

If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe. Neoconservatives used to argue that the rapid and mostly peaceful collapse of communism proved that rapid democratic transformations were possible in unlikely settings, and they used that argument to justify trying the same thing in Iraq. (We all know how well that turned out.) In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.

Finally, as I mentioned a few days ago, we should not assume that a Green triumph in Iran would eliminate all sources of friction between Iran and the West. A new government would probably seek to continue Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and will certainly want a secure (read: superior) position in its own neighborhood. In practice, that means trying to achieve an imbalance of power in its favor, which will make the U.S. uncomfortable. If the clerical regime falls and we continue to insist that Iran stop enriching uranium and conform to our policy preferences, that will convince many Iranians that the United States is irrevocably hostile to their country and not just to the current regime. So I hope somebody in the Obama administration is starting to think about a) what we do if the Green Movement succeeds, b) what we do if it fails, and c) how to keep hawks in the United States and Israel from making things worse.

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Stephen M. Walt

Time for wiser voices to pile on: Alan Kuperman's silly essay on Iran


When I started blogging last January, one of my first posts warned against believing that Obama’s election and the evident bankruptcy of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy had ended the prospect of a war with Iran. If you didn’t believe me then, the incoherent, war-mongering op-ed by Alan Kuperman in last Thursday’s New York Times should encourage you to reconsider. As Jim Lobe points out on his own blog, the fact that the Times accepted this piece in the first place is not an apolitical act, and it may herald a tilting of the public debate in a way designed to legitimate a subsequent U.S. attack.

Several features of Kuperman’s essay are worthy of note. The first is the timing: Why did the Times choose to run an unusually long (1,500-word) op-ed advocating war on the very eve of Christmas, a holiday normally associated with themes of peace, understanding, and harmony? It was also published on the last day when many people were likely to be paying much attention to mainstream news sources, which meant that prominent rebuttals would not appear or be read for several days. And that meant Kuperman’s piece could hang out there a bit longer.

The second puzzle is the dearth of new information or arguments in Kuperman’s piece. He hasn’t been to Teheran and come back with new testimony; the piece contains no scoop of leaked information or a novel piece of analysis, and as Marc Lynch points out in a compelling takedown here on his FP blog, Kuperman’s arguments in favor of war merely rehearse the same sort mixture of paranoia and over-confidence that was used to buffalo the country into attacking Iraq.

In particular, Kuperman assumes that a decision not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities will yield a series of Very Bad Results (though at least he doesn’t claim that Iran would immediately bomb Tel Aviv), yet he also assumes that our launching an attack won’t have any serious consequences. To take but one example, he discounts the possibility of Iranian retalation in Lebanon, Iraq, or Afghanistan by suggesting that Iran is already causing trouble there, conveniently ignoring the possibility that they might do a lot more if sufficiently provoked.

A third feature of Kuperman’s piece is the absence of any clear link between his proposed course of action and the U.S. national interest. He takes for granted that Iran will get nuclear weapons unless someone bombs them, and that if they do, this will have grave consequences for the United States. But even if we assume that Iran eventually gets a few bombs -- which is still far from certain -- thereby joining the ranks of Israel, Pakistan, and India, it is not clear why this event poses a sufficiently grave threat to the United States as to justify a preventive war.

Could Iran use a nuclear weapon against us, or against close U.S. allies? Only if they wanted to experience devastating retaliation. Could Iran use it to blackmail the United States or even countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia? No, the threat would not be credible because carrying it out would be suicidal. Could they give a bomb to terrorist? In theory, yes, but what leaders would run serious risks and spend billions of rials to obtain a deterrent and then blithely hand it to some third party, who might use it in a way that would trigger massive retaliation on Iran by the United States or others?

Remember that the USSR had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and was governed by ruthless men, and they never tried to blackmail us, our allies, or various non-nuclear adversaries either. Mao Zedong was equally indifferent to human life and made a number of bellicose statements about nuclear war, but getting the bomb in 1964 didn’t make China either more aggressive or more influential. Proliferation hawks have been offering doom-and-gloom forecasts nearly every time a new nuclear weapons state emerged; fortunately, virtually all of their pessimistic predictions have proven to be erroneous.

Like most advocates of preventive war, in short, Kuperman has conjured up implausible nightmare scenarios in order to justify attacking a country that has not attacked us and shows no signs of wanting to do so. And he has somehow convinced himself bombing Iran will leave us better off, even though he concedes that it can't prevent Iran from getting a weapon if it really wants one. Gee, I wonder if bombing them will make the U.S. more popular there, or decrease Iran’s desire to have a deterrent that works?

Lastly, let’s be completely clear about what Kuperman is advocating. No matter how careful and discriminating the attack might be, an aerial assault on Iran will kill a substantial number of Iranians, including innocent civilians (and possibly some who are in fact opponents of the current regime). In short, he thinks it is perfectly OK for the U.S. government to kill innocent civilians in another country, in order to prevent that country from having access to the full nuclear fuel cycle (to which Iran is entitled, under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). When respected intellectuals can say things like this in the pages of major newspapers, do we really have to wonder why the United States is so disliked in many parts of the world, and especially those areas that have been feeling the sharp end of the American spear in recent years?

The good news is that Kuperman’s piece has generated some valuable push-back in the blogosphere: in addition to the piece already cited, see the smart rebuttals from Helena Cobban, FP's Dan Drezner, Richard Silverstein, and Matt Duss. But I fear this battle is just getting underway, and I’ve lost confidence in President Obama’s ability to stand up to a relentless drip-drip-drip of hawkish advocacy, especially once it gets mainstreamed by publications like the Times and begins to take on the aura of inside-the-Beltway “conventional wisdom.”

Given the American media’s lamentable performance in the run-up to the Iraq war, now’s the time to start keeping score. Keep track of who the Times publishes on the op-ed page (the Wash Post and Wall Street Journal are mostly hopeless already), and also what they report. Pay attention to which think tanks, lobbies, and pundits are beating the war drums, and remind yourself what positions they took on the decision to topple Saddam. Remain alert for signs that officials within the administration are starting to advocate for "kinetic action" (or other euphemisms). And while you’re doing all that, ask yourself the ageless question: cui bono?

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