Why attacking Iran is still completely nuts

The nuclear dispute will not be resolved by negotiation, but that doesn't make an attack on Iran any less absurd.
Stephen McGlinchey
26 August 2010

Some time ago in April 2006, in what it seems were different times, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked that a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran over its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons under the cloak of a nuclear energy program was “completely nuts”. That remark is widely regarded as the final ‘straw’ that facilitated his removal in a later cabinet reshuffle at the insistence of the Bush administration. Yet, it was a rare moment of honesty and wisdom from an experienced member of the foreign policy elite. Straw had driven a negotiation round with Iran outside of the realm of the Bush administration and in doing so championed an alternative to the polarized positions that had come to characterise the Iranian-American standoff on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Such diplomatic gestures, though well intentioned, will fail in the future as they have in the past and are continuing to do so in the present. Why? Because Iran has its sights set on gaining full mastery of the nuclear cycle, not on a deal (no matter how generous it seems) involving a compromise over enriched uranium from a third party nor anything other than full independence in the nuclear process.

Iran has continually played the compromise game in a characteristic brinkmanship strategy to scatter attention and play for time, before withdrawing and continuing on its pre-ordained path. Negotiators therefore proceed, and have proceeded, with the false assumption that Iran wishes to negotiate. 

Similarly, the posture of the Bush administration (and the bulk of the international community) made it continually clear that there was no compromise on its insistence that Iran must not possess full, independent mastery over the nuclear cycle. When both sides begin a negotiation process with incompatible demands, and proceed to maintain those incompatibilities, either a conflict or a reappraisal of position from one or both parties is the inevitable eventuality. In this case, America, Israel and the international community must learn to live with a nuclear Iran, as the alternative – attacking it to remove its nuclear program – is much less palatable.

The quest to find a mutually acceptable way for the international community, most vocally America, to tolerate the reality of Iran having a nuclear programme dates back to 2003 when the EU-3 (Britain, Germany and France) collectively pursued a diplomatic solution to the issue. Faced with American insistence that Iran was not to be trusted with enriching uranium due to the possibility that this could be used to build nuclear weapons, and the general climate internationally considering the Bush doctrine and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were genuine concerns that a major regional incident would unfold including a possible preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by either Israel, America or both in tandem. After all, this had happened before in 1981 when Israel secretly bombed a French-built Iraqi nuclear plant over fears that Iraq might use it for a nuclear weapons program.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s arrival as Iranian president in 2005 presented a major problem for the negotiation process. The overt international mistrust in Iran and its intentions, developed over 25 years of witnessing rogue behaviour and state support for terrorism, had been downplayed (though certainly not forgotten) during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. Ahmadinejad’s arrival coincided with a resurgence in suspicion of Iran due chiefly to the belligerent posture of the new president and his government. His actions provoke opposition often by default, particularly regarding the perceived ‘personality’ of Iran internationally, in much the same way as President George W Bush did of America amongst nations opposed to his foreign policy posture as he polarised friends and allies alike. The result of this dynamic has been to reinforce stereotypical attitudes and fears over Iran’s character that had somewhat abated, or were at the very least open to interpretation, during Khatami’s presidency. One example that can be attributed to Ahmadinejad personally is the resurgence of an openly hostile position towards Israel together with overt holocaust revisionism, harking back to the mantra of the revolutionary father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Khomeini.

The EU-3 process failed to reach a conclusive deal, though it did have some success in stalling the Iranian programme and providing time for a future deal to be worked out. A change of administration in America, together with a highly publicised promise delivered personally by the president via video message to ‘reach out a hand’ to Iran, brought America into direct involvement in the successor P5+1 negotiations which included the original EU-3, China, Russia and America. This was a landmark considering that there have been no direct official negotiations between America and Iran for almost 30 years. Despite this, no deal with any realistic chance of long term success looks likely to be made. 

Why? The international order as we have come to know it and the Islamic Republic of Iran are incompatible. This is the inescapable fact of international politics that no sugar coating or talk of potential reformist leadership in Iran can mask. Iran will continue to enrich uranium, and continue to generally do what it likes in spite of international diplomatic rambling, much as it has done since 1979. It is not impossible that some deal will be fashioned, but if so, it is highly unlikely that it will serve as anything more than another stalling move in a larger political game by Iran in which all roads lead, and always have led, to full and independent mastery of the nuclear cycle.

Ahmadinejad recently noted that America under President Obama had not changed from the America of George W Bush in its foreign policy as applied to the middle east. Obama has stalled on closing Guantanamo Bay despite promising to do so, has not altered the American refusal to countenance a truly independent Iranian ‘civilian’ nuclear program, and he has not changed course in Afghanistan or Iraq. Similarly, support for Israel, the frequent demon in Iranian domestic discourse regarding America, has been retained (though with some qualifications). The friendly appearance and conciliatory rhetoric of the Obama administration, the Nobel Peace Prize award, and its refusal to use the term ‘war on terror’, do not detract from the reality that regarding foreign policy towards the middle east, nothing of substance has indeed changed. The fact that arguably the world’s most notorious ‘elected’ statesman has pointed towards this elephant in the room does not mean that it should be ignored. America may have not changed much recently as Ahmadinejad laments; but then again, neither has Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran owes its existence to its identity as a reaction against the western way of life and of doing business. To come to a conciliation with the international community, spearheaded by the American insistence that Iran must never have full mastery of the nuclear cycle is in essence dismantling the foundations and the pride of the regime. From its inception it was a lone actor, surviving in spite of the uproar within the international community over the 1979 hostage crisis and a gruelling war with Iraq, which it did not start. In short, it has a siege mentality soldered into its psyche. 

Iran has always been a nation that despite different manifestations in its internal shape and character has aspired to a greater stature internationally, or at the very least regional predominance. For example, the Shah of Iran whose rule was brought to an end by the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran, had harboured grand designs for Iran as the premier nation of the middle east and the Persian Gulf from early in his reign. This vision, although resisted by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy was shared by later American administrations, particularly the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations which generously armed Iran with advanced weaponry and aircraft in the mid-1970s at levels dwarfing its regional peers, including Israel, to enable it to transition from a client state to a security exporter. The current regime is in this sense, no different to the Shah, with the significant caveat that the regional and global role Iran was to play under the Shah was largely in line with western desires, while the role envisioned of the Islamic Republic is perceived as deeply antagonistic at best.

Put simply, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not consider itself the pariah state the international community, especially America, sees it as. It views itself as an ambassador for a non-western way of life, free of a perceived American global hegemony. It additionally is imbued with an incredibly adversarial and over-simplified view of the world, especially of America and Israel, another legacy of Khomeini, in which everything tends to be reduced to notions of good and evil.

Fast forward to the present day, supposedly a new era in international politics, inspired by a multilateral and diplomatic American administration, led by a man who appears in every sense to be the opposite of George W Bush, Barack Obama. The problem of course is, Iran. That ever present thorn on so many a president’s foot, is in danger of revealing Obama as another thinly veiled president of ‘more of the same’ when it comes to foreign policy. It is an often observed trend in international politics, particularly American politics, that foreign policy rarely changes. Rather it slowly evolves. President Truman famously declared that he saw foreign policy as residing above the partisan divide. In American politics and the politics of national security, his words have indeed proven largely accurate, and Iran has a valid case to that effect.

Obama has inherited a foreign policy momentum in the middle east that he has chosen to see through, rather than halt. There have been changes in language and posture, such as the careful jettisoning of the term ‘war on terror’, yet the general thrust of the Bush legacy in the region remains intact. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Iran case. It was highly doubtful even to the most faithful in the change camp that Obama would drastically re-appraise the Iraq and Afghanistan situations due to the fact that the situation on the ground in both theatres was far from ‘mission accomplished’, and in any case Congress seems to be doing that for him as its revisionism increases and its fiscal reticence increases. But in the case of Iran, Obama made visible signs that he was prepared to listen, to ‘reach out a hand’, towards Iran. This constituted a clear and incontrovertible gesture toward a 180 degree turn in policy. This was a rare occurrence, which will certainly go down in history as an early sign of naiveté and perhaps of arrogance.

As Iran marches on with its nuclear program, with any possibility of domestic revisionism dying when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ‘triumphed’ in the allegedly rigged election of 2009, Obama has reverted to the familiar constant left in place prior to his arrival in the Whitehouse of keeping the option to attack Iran ‘on the table’, as confirmed recently by a high level official. It begs the question of what exactly Obama expected the Iranian leadership to talk to him about when he reached out his hand? After all, he has always maintained the precondition that Iran must negotiate on its nuclear program (a Bush leftover). Yet, it is clear that this insistence is the very factor that has rallied Iran, in another episode in its now famous belligerence towards America.

Iran will never negotiate on the independence of its nuclear program, something that pre-dates Ahmadinejad’s reign and has been a steady goal of the regime. What is less widely known is that whilst Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was talking of embracing the west in a ‘dialogue of civilisations’ and appearing to be a reformist character, Iran was engaged in a full-scale, clandestine nuclear program that reached as far back as the 1980s. With that in mind, it is worth noting that nuclear proliferation is an all around winner when viewed within the distorted logic of middle eastern politics. Firstly it provides much needed deterrence from attack from a nuclear-armed Israel and from the ‘Great Satan’ itself, America. Secondly, it provides additional strength for the faltering clerical regime, focusing the domestic discourse on the embattled and besieged nation of Iran and redirecting sympathy and loyalty to the leadership. It is via a combination of these two factors that the solution-less and reciprocal logic of the entire situation becomes clear. In this case, change rather than continuity is looking increasingly unlikely in Washington despite the supposed presence of ‘change’ in the White House itself.

The stark truth is that the international community, and America, simply must accept Iran’s nuclear program. This is not a desirable admission, nor is it a triumph for anyone, including the Iranians themselves who would presumably more happily receive the funds spent on their own faltering economy and increasingly dire social situation. Yet, it must be seen within the deterrence paradigm, and as such, no realistic threat to anyone. If we are to accept that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rational actor wishing to survive and prosper, then we must accept that it is fully aware that using its nuclear arsenal or placing a bomb into the hands of a terrorist group such as Hezbollah or Hamas would be national suicide at worst and suicide for the regime itself at best. Its alleged proliferation is therefore a non-issue outside of standard international concerns when a country goes nuclear. 

The alternative, when viewed through the increasingly Bush-like Obama (when it comes to Iran) is to attack Iran and open up pandora’s box in the middle east. Something that is potentially so toxic that talk of World War III is surely not an exaggeration. Israel must continue to be restrained from launching an offensive against Iran, for the same reasons. Additionally, attacking Iran would put the domestic reform movement in Iran back twenty years as it would embolden support for the regime as the Iran-Iraq war did, as nationalism frequently trumps politics.

There is simply no middle ground to tread. Talk of containment and sanctions is unhelpful and tiresome in this case. Iran has been dealt every card in the containment deck short of direct force for over thirty years, and has prevailed intact, somehow. A middle ground cannot be possible when both sides insist on mutually exclusive postulates.

Iran is a rogue state in every sense of the word, but its history proves that it is also a rational actor in international politics. It must also be stated for factual purposes that neither the Islamic Republic of Iran, nor the Shah’s Iran before it ever attacked another nation. Consequently, there are only two options on the table: either to continue strangling Iran from a distance, standing tall and hoping that its internal organic political movement will enlighten or revolutionise the stale, corrupt clerical regime or, secondly, initiate the end of the Iranian nuclear program by force (most probably outside the bounds of international law). This option involves unleashing potential hell on the region that would make the current fallout from the war on terror look like a picnic. One would hope that the American military is genuinely too fatigued (or perhaps too sensible?) to genuinely push for such a mission, the Obama administration has learned the lessons of miscalculation and arrogance in foreign policy from its predecessor, and that the Israelis don’t take the initiative and do something they will regret as recent news reports suggest they are considering at a high level of urgency.

Therefore, in every sense of the word and for every sensible reason ‘on the table’, attacking Iran in any sense, at any time, remains completely nuts.

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