A reader quotes from my reaction to Rouhani’s UN speech:
The US is exerting force to insist on Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal, even as we send military aid to Israel, which has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. We have threatened force to prevent Iran getting a nuclear bomb, but we give military aid to Israel, which currently has a break-out capacity of up to 300 nuclear warheads. Is it not reasonable for humankind to look at this double standard and say collectively: WTF?
Well, no, it’s not reasonable. Syria is being asked to destroy its chemical weapons in the aftermath of a chemical attack which more than likely originated with the Syrian stockpile. Iran has admitted to sponsoring terrorism and given the nature of terrorists, they are far more likely to use such weapons than even Iran would be. Given Iran’s rhetoric towards Israel, it’s pretty reasonable to not want them to have those weapons.
If you can think of a comparable situation where Israel has 1) used chemical weapons or 2) put nukes in the hands of people who would use them, then it would be a double standard. Here, the standard applied by the US isn’t hypocritical at all.
I’m not persuaded that Iran, given its history in foreign policy, would ever hand off nuclear weapons to terrorist proxies, especially given the devastating consequences that would ensue. Mercifully, not even the Pakistanis have done that, and Pakistan is a far more troubling nuclear power than Iran would be.
My point is about non-proliferation. If we are as intent on it in the Middle East as we seem to be under Obama (I’m more of a believer in deterrence than non-proliferation, for what it’s worth), then leaving the one nuclear and chemical power out of it – and never even mentioning it – does seem like a whopping double standard to most people around the globe. I’m unaware, either, of Iran assassinating Israel’s nuclear technicians. And yet we accept the reverse with nary a quibble. At some point, the US has to deal with this glaring discrepancy in the eyes of the world. Another reader:
I’m confused. According to your logic, Obama was right to threaten force in Syria because that was the only way the world would get serious about Assad’s chemical weapons. But AIPAC/neocons are wrong to push Obama to threaten force in Iran because that would … scuttle the possibility of a deal and give them the war you allege they’ve been gunning for?
Putting aside your caricature-ish portrayal of what the “Greater Israel Lobby” “wants” (by the way, do you really think anyone who cares seriously about Israel wants a war with Iran, which is almost certain to bring reprisals against Israeli citizens and interests and embolden the mullahs – or do you concede that at some point Israel might calculate a strike to be its least worst option?), let’s inject some discipline into the argument. Essentially you admitted Obama’s threat of force in Syria compelled Russia to act, producing an outcome on Assad’s CW stockpile that was at least minimally acceptable to us. If this is the case, why wouldn’t the continued pressure of sanctions and an on-the-table military option serve a similar goal in helping us get the best deal – for us, Israel, and the Gulf states – with Iran? Chuck Schumer has called for just this approach: openness to talks while keeping Iran’s feet to the fire. In short, the best diplomacy is armed diplomacy, and the surest means of avoiding a strike, either by us or the Israelis.
Yes, but there is always a moment at which that constant threat of force makes diplomacy very difficult, for a simple reason. Countries have pride. No country, and certainly not one with as ancient a civilization as Iran, wants to be seen to be cowed into submission. There comes a point at which a strategy of force-backed diplomacy has to open itself up to simple diplomacy. Reagan did it. Obama can too. To get a deal, we need to find a way for Iran to save face. With Syria, that meant giving Putin a big feather in his cap, allowing Assad to claim the decision as his own, and argue that the chemical attacks were the work of others (preposterous, I know, but necessary for him to save face). With Iran, at some point it means taking the threat of force slowly off the table – especially since they claim they want the same thing we do.
I’d argue, in any case, that the threat of military force has been less integral to Iran’s recalculation of its interests than crippling sanctions. The Iranians know that we cannot truly destroy their nuclear technology from the sky. And that technology cannot be unlearned, even if Israel assassinates mere scientists. And after such a potential attack on nuclear facilities, any regime would regard it as a point of honor to reconstitute its nuclear program as soon as possible thereafter. It’s not really a solution, as the sanest Israelis understand. But the sanctions that are wrecking the economy in a country whose regime rules by brute force and whose legitimacy, certainly in the major cities, is close to non-existent? In this case, these economic sanctions have been our major tool – and they have been critically backed by Europe as well.
In other words, the threat of force is not as effective with Iran as economic isolation has been. Using such force would cost us a great deal too. Sanctions, in contrast, cost us relatively little. It will require real statesmanship to detect the right moment to make the leap toward true engagement, to take force off the table for a while – but that’s what we elected Obama for. It’s also, it seems to me, what the Iranian people elected Rouhani for. And these opportunities do not occur very often.