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The “Wishful Thinkers and the Moralists”

by Jim Walsh
October 27, 2008

As most everyone on this online exchange knows, I support the concept of limited enrichment on Iranian soil under multi-national or multi-lateral supervision.  In a later comment/post, I will take a crack at Henry’s concerns about this alternative, but for now, I wanted to offer some general remarks about the views offered by the skeptics.  To spice things up a little, I adopt a less measured and careful style of expression.  I know most everyone on the list and consider them a friend, so I’m hoping this means I can get away with more.

The Wishful Thinkers
Many of the skeptics’ arguments seem to fall into two categories.  One is the view that the zero centrifuge option is viable.  Advocates of this position seem to be saying, well, “we are just not trying hard enough (or we tried the wrong way), and now a new president will be able to do what the US government has been unable to do for 8 years, even as our relationship with one of the key players (Russia) has significantly deteriorated.  If we really, really, truly, super sincerely tried a carrots and sticks strategy, they say, then Iran would give in.  (This is also what both the pres candidates say.)  I take this view to be the school of wishful thinking.

It seems to be that given the recent history of centrifuges and sanctions, the burden is on those who espouse this view to be very specific and very clear why we should expect this to be the case.  Exactly how does one do this? Jon endorses 10k visas for Iranian students.  (Yeah, I bet DHS is up for that. Jon, you think they will be marching in the streets? Really?  Really?)  Bob’s “splitting people from the regime” idea is a bit vague.  Isn’t that what the whole democracy promotion + covert operations was supposed to do??   And when can we expect this tree to bear fruit?  I’m guessing that will be long after the IRI has built 50k centrifuges.

Mitchell suggests that we lean on Saudi to lean on China and that the Russians will abandon their current policy once we show them that Iran is playing with extremist Muslims.  Hmmm.  I would have thought someone would have already tried that by now.  Moreover, on its face, these don’t seem very compelling.  Saudi is going to tell the new global economic powerhouse what to do, at a time when the price of oil is declining?  Call me crazy, but I’m also thinking Russia already knows what Iran is doing in the caucuses (better than we do) but has other designs right now.

And what’s supposed to happen here exactly?  Russia and China go along with what?  Cutting off gasoline?  Naval embargos? What is it that will be the sweeter carrot and the thornier stick?  Bob raises the question but doesn’t answer it. I would think a path to normalized relations is a possible nominee for the former, but the latter is a puzzle.

It is important to realize that wishful thinking has a cost.  There is an opportunity cost to sticking with the zero option. The clock is ticking and there will precious few opportunities to get this on to another track.  Sticking with zero will be a waste of time, will signal to Iran that US policy has not changed from Bush, and will create conditions that make it MORE difficult to get a good outcome, i.e., one in which Iran’s program is constrained and more transparent.  If I am to believe the wishful thinking argument, the new President should first completely, utterly fail with carrots and sticks and only THEN mount a new diplomatic initiative.  Are we expecting that the US comes into that situation in a stronger domestic position just having failed?  Doesn’t it make more sense to pursue your best option first while you still have the time and capital to be successful?

(One need only think of all the wasted years with the Bush administration and N Korea.  Now we are rushing at the end, Kim Jong Il may be dying, and there is a question about the future of the process.  Would it not have been better to have reached the Feb agreement in ‘03 rather than ’07?  (No, Henry, you don’t have to answer that one.))

The Moralists
Another set of arguments suggests that we cannot sully our sacred nonproliferation norms by acceding to Iranian enrichment (even if it is multi-lateral not Iranian).  These are the moralists.  Better they say to remain pure and clean and maintain the right to criticize and punish Iran rather than swallow their defiance of nonproliferation dictates and the oh so pure, nonpolitical UN resolutions. We must do this, they say, for the sake of the regime.

Yeah, I’m sure Iran going nuclear is way better for the regime.  Oh, and by the way, please don’t ask the moralists about US policy towards India, Israel, or Pakistan.  And that whole 6 Party Talk thing that is capping the DPRK’s program, I guess that was a bad idea too.  NK withdrew from the NPT, hell they even detonated a device, and there were plenty of UN resolutions.  Yep, we should have never talked to them until they came completely clean, stood in front of the class, and apologized.  We should focus on past transgressions even if we have a chance at changing the future.  So what if they go nuclear, as long as our principles are protected.  For the sake of the regime.

It would be nice if the moralists could point to evidence for the moral hazard argument.  I don’t see much.  Who else wants to be N Korea or Iran?  Syria, maybe?  The credibility arguments always sound so plausible, but where is the empirical evidence to support them?  Indeed, nation states seem to have short memories, non-generalizable indigenous conditions, and a high tolerance for double standards, especially if there is an expedient, reasonably effective option to deal with a big problem.  If things are so brittle, why didn’t the regime collapse following the 63 other times people have warned the regime would die (after the ‘74 test, ‘98 tests, revelations about Saddam’s program in 91, DPRK 91, DPRK 2005, the India nuclear deal, and on and on and on.)

I have a lot of other bombs to throw (e.g., on the sneak scenario, on the “Iran bomb leads to regional proliferation” prediction, on the “enrichment has to be economical not to be a nonproliferation concern” argument, and my favorite and oh so convenient “Iran is determined to get the bomb no matter what” line, which is both a delightful reprise of a nuclear age favorite (it’s inevitable that country X gets the bomb) and a handy excuse to close one’s eyes to serious negotiation.

Overall, my main claim is that the skeptics are good at complaining about Iran and saying why they think limited enrichment might be bad and completely MIA on having an alternative that is even remotely as well defined or practical.  I don’t think you can beat something with nothing, and mostly what I see is a whole lot of nothing.  In this case nothing means, drift followed by military action, followed by catastrophe.

I have no stake in being nice to Iran or being mean to Iran.  I have one focus: reducing the probability that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon.  That will help the regime.

Finally, to Gary, I hope you appreciate the fact that I have put myself at risk here.  My liberal use of sarcasm and mischievous poking will most certainly stimulate extended responses for your blog and most likely at my expense.  As I mop up the blood under my computer I want you to know I did for you Gary Samore and for CFR.

I look forward to all the ribbing I deserve.  I will next work on a response to Henry.  You can imagine what that will look like.  One caveat: I’m currently in route to Tehran and won’t get back until the night of the 30th.  I don’t know whether I will be able email while I’m in the IRI.  If not, I may not have something until Halloween.  Trick or treat!

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