Friday, May 22, 2009

Clinton Makes Matters Worse on Iran

Clinton's warning that nuclear arms would only endanger Iranian security will make it more difficult to persuade Iran that it can safely compromise with Washington. If the Obama Administration is sincerely searching for a deal with Iran, it should instruct everyone to keep their mouths shut until the Iranian election...and then clearly articulate what Iran might have to gain from risking a deal.

According to Secretary of State Clinton, Iran “will actually be less secure if they proceed with their nuclear-weapons program” because "a nuclear-armed Iran with a deliverable weapons system is going to spark an arms race in the Middle East and the greater region."

One could read these remarks optimistically as evidence that the Obama Administration is at long last edging toward the breakthrough concept of disentangling nuclear weapons from security. Given the fact that the superpowers spent half a century clearly believing the opposite and the obvious attention-getting nature of any effort by a poor country to acquire nuclear arms, this will be a difficult argument to make. The argument, if effective, would be a vital contribution to American and global security, but it must be done carefully.

To couch the argument in the context of an accusation that Iran (decades behind Israel and Pakistan in terms of nuclear capability) would, by becoming the third nuclear power in the region (assuming one arbitrarily excludes U.S. Mideast forces), somehow be the cause of an arms race is an appallingly biased remark and one hardly likely to induce Iran to take Washington’s call for U.S.-Iranian talks seriously.

The Mideast security situation could hardly be graver. Extremist remarks implying or flatly stating the hope for the eradication of the opponent regime and even calling for a war of aggression to realize that goal pour out of Israel and Iran. In response to Israel’s massive military buildup of offensive weapons and its repeated use of those weapons against its neighbors, Iran is at a minimum clearly running as hard as it can to acquire an answering defensive capability, most obviously via the importation of defensive Russian ground-to-air missiles. Perhaps it also has the intention of acquiring some sort of nuclear offensive capability as well. Certainly, Washington’s public position is that such is suspected.

If the Obama Administration in fact wishes to avoid such an outcome, its officials need to be much more thoughtful about their public remarks. The Mideast arms race has been under way for a long time, and the Islamic Republic of Iran did not start it. To persuade Iran to drop out, a rational and believable argument needs to be made.

Clinton is certainly correct, given the ravings of militarist circles in Israel, that for Iran to acquire or even hint at acquiring a preliminary offensive nuclear capability would endanger Iran’s security…because it would increase the risk of Israeli aggression without giving Iran the slightest hope of being able to defend itself. But that is a pretty thin argument to make to Iran. Indeed, to any open-minded observer (much less to any educated Iranian, fully aware of the modern history of anti-Iranian aggression and threats by a very long list of countries), such an argument sounds like nothing more than a blunt demand for Iranian surrender.

Perhaps that is exactly what it is. Perhaps the Obama Administration in fact has decided to continue the neo-con policy of expansion, and Clinton’s remarks were carefully calculated to pave the way for the failure of Iranian talks as the precondition for a U.S. or Israeli act of aggression to achieve regime change and control over Iranian hydrocarbon resources.

If, on the other hand, the Obama Administration desires to achieve a compromise with Iran, then it must offer some truly significant set of inducements to make up for Iran volunteering to renounce nuclear weapons capability (e.g., a regional nuclear umbrella). Iran already has renounced nuclear arms; what it evidently wants is the ability to change that policy quickly, as a deterrent or perhaps because it may indeed plan a secret “breakout.” Whatever Iran’s intentions, Washington is, not very politely, asking it to make a concession that neither the U.S., nor Russia, nor Pakistan, nor India has done anything but treat with derision. Iran is not North Korea or Libya. The former Soviet republics might be a more relevant analogy.

Like Iran, Ukraine is a significant global player. Like Iran, Ukraine was at least under some potential threat of aggression (from Russia), though almost certainly far less serious or imminent than the Israeli threat to Iran. Ukraine nevertheless saw the wisdom in the argument that nuclear arms may decrease rather than increase security. But Ukraine reached that historic position in the context of U.S. support for both its physical and economic security.

The eve of the Iranian election is no time for new U.S. initiatives toward Iran, so until the election ends, keeping quiet about Iran would be far wiser than making provocative and biased remarks. Once the Iranian election is over, it will be high time for Obama Administration officials to start articulating how giving up nuclear weapons capability would benefit Iran.

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