Hagel Bites

Asked who America’s number one foreign enemy is, which country would you answer? If you follow the news, you’d probably say either North Korea or Iran – the former due to their recent propaganda proposing to bomb major American cities, and the latter due to the hostile, anti-American sentiment that has been prevalent in Iranian political discourse since the Islamic Revolution. But it’s not just about bluster; these states are considered threats because of their respective nuclear programs, seen as a danger to the US and to its allies in South Korea and Israel. Iran and North Korea have been very much in the news lately due to their potential nuclear agendas. And yet, though North Korea is the one actually suspected of having achieved nuclear capability (Iran is allegedly at least a year away from this goal), it is Iran whose threat is being taken more seriously. This preoccupation, largely influenced by America’s relationship with Israel, has made Iran’s nuclear program the focus of international news since the past few months’ failed non-proliferation negotiations. But though there are ostensibly three broad foreign policy courses available to the United States in its dealings with Iran, the various problems posed by each option indicate that the only ultimately viable solution (diplomacy) is not yet under serious consideration.

The first option, which has long been a controversial element of US policy towards ‘hostile nations,’ is to increase the severity of the economic sanctions on Iran. These sanctions, which according to newly-confirmed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are ‘among the toughest, most effective ever applied’, are intended to inhibit the development of the Iranian economic sectors directly related to its nuclear activities. The goal of this strategy is to pressure Iran’s leaders to submit to the will of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, who have banded together to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran) and – fingers crossed – discontinue their nuclear program.

Now, I’m no Greta Lichtenbaum (my mother is far more an expert on the ramifications of Iranian sanctions than I will ever be), but the way I see it, this policy will not affect the behavior of Iranian leaders, but will succeed only in further impoverishing their populace. This is not a new outlook on these sanctions; analysts have for years decried them as ineffectual instruments of policy when it comes to Iran. But in the past, the reason for this view was that the sanctions, which restricted only the American companies under US jurisdiction, weren’t harsh or broad enough to force the regime to change its policies. In recent years, however, the reach of the sanctions has expanded. Foreign companies and banks now face certain penalties in their commerce with the US if they do business in Iran, the UN has imposed sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program, and to top it all off, new policies out of the EU and Canada have targeted Iran’s energy sector – the driver of its entire economy. But, as a recent report citing senior US policy experts attests, while there may be ‘plenty of evidence that the sanctions are hurting Iran,’ there is ‘none that they are changing the course of the country’s nuclear program.’ The fact is, Iran’s nuclear capabilities represent ideological, even more than economic, significance to the current regime. And while increased sanctions may be causing the country’s economy (and therefore its populace) to suffer more than in the past, they are unlikely to sway Iranian politicians on the issue of their nuclear program.

Even Bibi Netanyahu believes sanctions are not the most effective route to take with Iran: which brings us to our second policy option – direct military engagement. The main reason Iran has been so much in the news lately is because Israeli politicians have been making noise about carrying out a lone military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the sanctions, they have emphasized Israel’s capability to act without the help of the United States or the international community. But in the midst of Israel’s bluster, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution last Tuesday stating the following: “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” So we’ve essentially pledged to attack Iran if Israel does, which is scary enough. However, the resolution requires Congressional approval of the legitimacy of Israel’s hypothetical motives in the event of such a strike. And given what I consider the vast unlikelihood that a) Israel’s blustering over the development of the nuclear program will evolve into a concrete military attack on Iran that garners US congressional support (Senator Lindsey Graham’s opinions don’t count) or b) Iran will amass the necessary capabilities and move forward to attack Israel (thus meriting a military response), the proposal to support Israel militarily against Iran holds little weight as a method of dealing with the latter’s nuclear program.

And now for the third option, which is currently being executed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and of which I heartily disapprove (hence this post’s rather immature title). Hagel, at this moment in the middle of a weeklong Middle East tour, is expected to finalize negotiations for a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This trade would supply these American allies with the military equipment believed necessary to defend themselves against the Iranian threat. The problem with this option, aimed to continue the long-standing US policy of maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) is that the purpose of the aid (i.e. the nature of the ‘defense’ it proposes to facilitate) is unclear. Though not intended as a US endorsement of an Israeli military strike against Iran, the arms deal provides Israel with equipment that could (and even seems designed to) be used in such an operation. According to a recent NY Times article, Israel will come away from this deal with, among other things, ‘a new generation of KC-135 refueling tanker planes’ that ‘would let Israel’s warplanes stay in the air longer, an ability essential for any long-range mission — like a strike on Iran.’ That sounds ominous. However, as the article continues on to say, ‘the tankers would also be useful for air patrols protecting Israeli borders.’ In other words, the extent to which the US supports a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran is uncertain. By keeping with the QME policy through such an aggressive arms deal, the US Defense Department makes unclear its position vis-à-vis Israel’s potential belligerence towards Iran, thereby stagnating the possibility for constructive diplomatic engagement with Iran in the future.

So if none of the above concrete policies (all already, to some extent, in effect) will do – then what?

The answer lies in a policy prescription that, while vague in its current form, has the potential to become a concrete and effective proposal: diplomacy. While simply advocating an improvement in relations with Iran would be too ambiguous, not to mention naive, diplomacy as delineated by the aforementioned policy report would be an effective means of dealing with Iran going forward. The report, released last Wednesday by the Iran Project (a non-profit dedicated to Iran-US dialogue), advises steps that would demonstrate the Obama administration’s readiness to form ties and cooperate with the current regime. These include ‘a formal bilateral channel,’ as well as ‘establishing a hot line for clarification of unclear or antagonistic events and statements, and public acknowledgement by Obama of Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons.’ These baby steps, which may seem insignificant in the short run compared to the limelit economic sanctions and military proposals, will contribute towards the essential long-term goal of improving diplomatic relations with Iran. If my experience with London’s weather this semester (which I have countered by repeatedly buying, breaking and losing crappy umbrellas) has taught me anything, it is that a temporary fix never actually solves anything. Given the various problems with each of the current policies being considered towards Iran, it is my hope that the wisdom of the long-term solution occurs soon to Hagel and the rest of the Defense Department.

2 comments

  • Benjamin Koatz

    Spectacular piece! Have we already forgotten the over 100,000 children (not the 500,000 stat that people sometimes cite, but still an unconscionably large number) who died in Iraq because of our sanctions there, and the hundreds of thousands more who suffered from stunted growth and poverty? Cuba is still a dictatorship. NK is. Libya didn’t fall because of sanctions.

    We impose sanctions in the hope that they will precipitate regime change. But TRUE regime change must come from within (unless we want a larger, lengthier, deadlier version of the Iraq invasion on our hands). How is making the population MORE dependent on its regime for basic survival going to make them liklier to overthrow it? We need to foster trade, international communication and business investment. Grow the middle class there, so THEY can create political change. This is not political idealism. The idealists are the ones who think that if they keep goods from crossing borders, somehow that will keep bombs and armies from crossing borders as well. If we foster economic interdependence between peoples and nations, only then will we know peace…

    • Annika Lichtenbaum

      Thanks, Ben. I’m not advocating regime change as the end goal for any of the options discussed in this piece – but maybe your point is that regime change is the USG’s goal? The end goal I’m talking about is a productive relationship with the Iranian government, but I don’t believe regime change is necessary for that.

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