By Doyle McManus
President Barack Obama is working against time to untangle 30 years of enmity and prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, but even his own advisers know the chance of success is slim.
So they also have been working on Plan B: What do we do if Iran gets the bomb?
Today, the Obama administration is debating its Iran policy behind closed doors. Last year, however, four of its key appointees wrote about the issue as private citizens, and their writings suggest they are planning for how to handle a nuclear Iran.
Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator who is expected to be named as Obama’s top Iran adviser, lobbied for giving diplomacy a chance to work but suggested that containment might have to be the future course of US policy.
“Maybe, even if we engage the Iranians, we will find that however we do so and whatever we try, the engagement simply does not work,” Ross wrote in a September report published by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has supplied several appointees to the new administration. “We will need to hedge bets and set the stage for alternative policies either designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear or to blunt the impact if they do.”
If diplomacy fails, another Obama adviser wrote in the same report, the alternative “is a strategy of containment and punishment.” That was the conclusion of Ashton B. Carter, Obama’s reported choice as an undersecretary of Defense, who also warned: “The challenge of containing Iranian ambitions and hubris would be as large as containing its nuclear arsenal.”
Most (and maybe all) of Obama’s advisers see the costs of attacking Iran as outweighing the benefits. If Iran gets closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, they’ve warned, military action won’t look any more appetizing than it did under George W. Bush.
But that doesn’t mean the United States would do nothing. Instead, Obama aides suggested in their writings, the US should pursue a Persian Gulf version of the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
What would that mean? For starters, a nuclear-capable Iran would face continued, serious pressure from the United States and its allies to dismantle whatever it had built. Obama might declare that a nuclear attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on the US homeland. And the US military would act to bolster Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states against conventional-warfare threats from an emboldened Iranian regime.
And there is some optimism among administration officials that a nuclear Iran would practice restraint. Gary Samore, Obama’s top adviser on nuclear proliferation, and Bruce Riedel, who is running Obama’s review of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote last year that a nuclear-capable Iran, while undesirable, would not necessarily be catastrophic. For example, they claimed, it seems unlikely that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists.
“If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is likely to behave like other nuclear weapons states, trying to intimidate its foes, but not recklessly using its weapons,” Samore and Riedel wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. “As such, Iran will be subject to the same deterrence system that other nuclear weapons states have accommodated themselves to since 1945.”
None of this thinking means Obama has abandoned hope in negotiations to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. At this point, one official said, the administration is focusing on Plan A, not Plan B. But it’s welcome evidence that behind the slogan of hope lies a realistic appraisal of the possible outcomes.
During his presidential campaign, Obama called the idea of a nuclear Iran “unacceptable,” and offered to meet with the its regime without precondition to persuade it to change course. And his advisers agree that there’s still a window for diplomacy.
Samore and Riedel forecast that Iran is “at least two or three years away” from being capable of building a nuclear weapon, and note that there are several stages between capability and deploying a bomb – stages at which the US could still work to freeze the program and contain Iran’s behavior.
The first step, Ross wrote, would be to gather support from Europe, China and Russia. (Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is working on that now.) Next, Obama would seek direct, comprehensive talks with Iran – with a tangible threat of tougher economic sanctions if the Iranians don’t cooperate, and the promise of rich rewards if they do.
So what should we expect? The contacts with Iran might start with secret talks in Europe between special envoys on both sides, but they’re unlikely to begin before Iran’s presidential election in June. To pave the way, Obama and his aides have toned down their rhetoric on Iran and talk mostly of outstretched hands and mutual respect. (They are learning to live without the phrase “carrots and sticks,” which Iranians say should be used only when talking about donkeys.)
Negotiations won’t be easy, and they won’t be fast. It’s not even clear whether the faction-ridden Tehran government will be able to agree on a coherent negotiating position.
Still, Obama has two advantages his predecessor didn’t. First, he has sent unambiguous signals that he’s ready to talk with Iran and recognize its legitimacy. That gives Iran no clear reason to walk away, and Russia and China no easy excuse for opposing tougher sanctions.
Second, with oil revenues tanking, Iran’s mullahs probably are feeling more vulnerable – perhaps the only silver lining in the global financial crisis. Russia, Iran’s biggest arms supplier, and China, Iran’s biggest nonmilitary trading partner, will have less to lose from joining in sanctions if Iran is cutting back on foreign purchases.
Ross, Carter, Samore and Riedel all declined to talk last week when asked if they wanted to expand on what they wrote last year. But their work on Iran before they joined the government adds up to this forecast: Negotiations with Iran are worth trying, but they’re not likely to succeed.
If talks fail and Iran moves closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, the US and its allies will have three options: more sanctions, even though they haven’t worked; containment, including a stronger security commitment to Israel; or war.
And of those three unpalatable choices, containment – with all its uncertainties – will look like the middle way.
McManus is a Los Angeles Times columnist.