Will the Right Listen to Its Go-Slow Guy on Iran?

I’m as guilty as the next progressive of thinking that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, progressives are from earth and conservatives are from Pluto. In fact, I confess to wondering if they are, indeed, humans. But, it was just 50 years ago, during the Eisenhower years, when only its fringes were obsessed with giving corporations free reign to maraud across the land and with crushing programs like Social Security.

Occasionally, a conservative, though he may still strike progressives as hawkish, swims upstream against other conservatives. But the last place you think you’d find one engaging in such behavior is at WINEP. According to IPS Special Project Right Web:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) is one of a handful of influential U.S. policy institutions—sometimes referred to as the “Israel Lobby”—whose central aim is to push an Israel-centric Middle East agenda. Many of WINEP’s current and former scholars have been closely associated with neoconservatism.

Patrick Clawson (also profiled at Right Web) is the director of research at WINEP and head of its Iran Security Initiative. A quote machine for the mainstream media, he also recently authored a WINEP Policy Note: An Iranian Nuclear Breakout Is Not Inevitable. The title should clue you in that, were he not ensconced at a top right-wing think tank, he’d be in danger of being drummed out of their corps. For Clawson is no Iran hawk. In his carefully considered and well-written paper he, according to the WINEP blurb, “argues that we have time, both tactically and strategically, to prevent a breakout.”

Clawson writes, “Perhaps the most progress will come from encouraging geopolitical developments. Whereas a few years ago Iran’s star appeared to be rising and that of the United States fading, today that is much less the case.” As you can see, like conservatives, as well as realists, he’s married to the concept of a zero sum game. That said, cognizant that few Focal Points readers would read a lengthy paper by a conservative, however moderate, we’ll present some excerpts. We’ll begin with his introductory remarks.

… Iran’s closest—arguably, its only—regional ally [Syria] is in deep trouble. … Iran’s support in the “Arab street,” so prized by the regime, has slipped badly as Tehran is seen as backing a brutal dictator, while the wave of history is with popular protests against authoritarians. [This] encouraging geopolitical scene creates a better environment for the steps that Western governments can take to turn up the heat on Iran’s nuclear program. Those steps can be grouped in four large baskets: sanctions, diplomacy, soft power, and harder measures. [Emphasis added.]

Beginning with sanctions …

The more impact the sanctions have on Iran’s economy and its nuclear program, the stronger the argument that Iran’s nuclear program has incurred a heavy cost for little advantage. After twenty years, Iran is still not nuclear capable, much less in possession of a nuclear weapon, and it has paid quite a price in its relations with both Europe and the United States. In addition, the nuclear impasse has brought increased attention to Iran’s other policies, such as its support for terrorism and its human rights abuses.

What’s more:

… over and above any impact the sanctions have on Iran, those sanctions may be useful for forestalling imitation of Iran’s approach by other countries. … Many states might find the acquisition of nuclear weapons attractive if no cost were associated with the process.

Next, diplomacy. Clawson writes: “The prospects for resolution of the problems with Iran by diplomacy are poor.” Why?

If nothing else, Iran’s fractious internal politics will undermine the ability of any politician in Tehran to win broad acceptance among his peers for a deal with the international community, no matter the content of the deal.

But, diplomacy, Clawson explains, like sanctions, is for the benefit of other states, as well.

… reaching an agreement with Tehran is only one reason—and by no means the most important objective—for U.S. diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Islamic Republic. … If, for example, U.S. actions regarding Iran can reinforce European and other allies’ conviction that Washington is a responsible international actor, such an impact would be more important than any impact of diplomacy on Tehran.

In other words …

The primary objective of U.S. diplomacy toward Iran should be to persuade governments and peoples around the world that the West is being reasonable and Iran’s regime is the impediment to resolving the nuclear impasse, thus advancing U.S. interests globally.

Again, as a conservative, he’s more concerned with what benefits the United States than regional security in the Middle East, except as it affects the United States. Now, soft power.

Vigorous condemnation of Iranian human rights abuses serves multiple U.S. interests: pressuring Tehran more forcefully, promoting international understanding of Iran’s ruling regime, lending moral support to Iranian democrats. … The experience of recent decades shows that civil resistance movements can succeed against brutal dictatorships [but] the role of outsiders is modest [such as facilitating communication by, say] breaking through the “electronic curtain” that has closed off Iran. … The U.S. government can learn much from the successful U.S. experience with public broadcasting through outlets such as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. What works best is independent government-supported organizations, not government sources like VOA.

As for harder measures

Too much of the discussion of harder measures potentially aimed at the Iranian nuclear program assumes a black-or-white scenario: a massive air campaign or nothing at all. In fact, harder measures come in a wide spectrum of grays. For some years, the dark gray covert action of spurring defections and engaging in sabotage, cyber warfare, and targeted killings has been used to slow Iran’s nuclear program. … And more can be done, such as the enactment of more assertive military exercises and military cooperation.

As Clawson said in the New York Times on Thursday (January 12), “I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran. … I say, ‘Two years ago.’ ” Meanwhile, about Israel he writes:

To reduce the risk of Israeli action that is premature from a U.S. perspective, the United States needs to speak frankly with Israel about what it requires to be confident that it can act against Iran’s nuclear program if compelled to do so. Presumably, Israeli needs will include accurate and detailed intelligence, means to defeat Iranian defenses, and the capabilities to inflict devastating damage on the Iranian program. By providing Israel with more robust capabilities in all those domains, the United States can affect the Israeli debate about whether to strike Iran’s nuclear program.

Clawson seems to be saying that Israel, if supplied with even more conventional weapons and greater intelligence, might then feel secure in waiting until a later date — when or if the smoke from Iran’s nuclear gun became truly unmistakeable — to mount an attack. One can’t help but wonder, though, if the ability of Israel to cause internal havoc in Iran at the present time suggests its intelligence might be more comprehensive than that of the United States. The point is: Clawson counsels patience.

For now, some time remains. … Postponing the nuclear program may look like only a delay, but a delay could be a victory because the Islamic Republic may not last forever. … Khamenei … is preoccupied by the threat of Western cultural invasion and the possibility of a “soft overthrow.” His regime looks a lot like the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev: it no longer rules on the basis of an idea and, therefore, is becoming increasingly hollow and corroded. [Emphasis added.']

Clawson reiterates:

Using a vigorous combination of sanctions, diplomacy, soft power, and harder measures offers good prospects that Iran can be deflected from its current nuclear path.

But Clawson is not necessarily optimistic. At Yahoo’s The Envoy, Laura Rozen writes that Clawson told her

… he didn’t think prospects for a deal look promising. “I think it’s heading towards confrontation,” Clawson said. “The whole point from the beginning is if we put pressure on the regime, the Iranians will crack at some point. [Right now the] Iranians are screaming and yelling and upset and threatening,” … So why isn’t that a sign that the U.S. strategy is failing?

“It’s a lot better to have a fight” that Iran provokes, Clawson replied, before adding: “Better to enter World War II after Pearl Harbor, and World War I after the sinking of the Lusitania.”

Note that’s not his own viewpoint but, as was pointed out to me, what Clawson imagines is that of the Obama administrations. Meanwhile, one can only hope that his paper is read widely by conservatives and that they take it under advisement.