• 23 September 2013
  • Posted By Bharat Vasudevan
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Iran Election 2013, US-Iran War

Iran and the Unthinkable

At a forum at the Brookings institution on Monday, September 16, Kenneth Pollack discussed his new book, “Unthinkable” with Robin Wright, addressing prospects for Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli security, and American strategy. The book, mostly written before the election of Rouhani, focuses primarily on the question of what to do if diplomacy fails to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.  At such a juncture, the United States would be forced to choose between military strikes aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear program or containment of a nuclear-armed Iran. “When I weigh the costs and risks”, Pollack asserts, “the costs and risks of containment are more bearable and more practical than the costs and risks if we do military strikes.”

Given that one of Pollacks previous books, “The Threatening Storm,” helped build the case for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Pollack is considered somewhat of a unique messenger to push back against military options against Iran.

Pollack argued that diplomacy is the far superior choice for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. However, he identified two major reasons to be skeptical about the prospects for a diplomatic solution. First, hardliners in Iran could block Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, from obtaining a nuclear deal. Second, America has overwhelmingly relied on sticks over carrots in diplomatic negotiations. The only carrot the Obama administration has offered is to “stop using sticks.” Without a significant carrot for Rouhani to sell a nuclear deal as a win, a deal cannot be achieved. More significant concessions need to be put on the table.

However, if diplomacy fails, Pollack asserted that containment would be far more prudent than military action.  Strikes would be costly and would only, at best, delay Iran’s nuclear program and increase the likelihood that they pursue one. Meanwhile, containment carries far fewer risks – the United States has, in essence, been doing it since 1979 by limiting Iran’s influence and power through isolation and ensuring that the costs of military escalation are too high.  If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, additional steps would be needed to shore up regional allies and prevent further proliferation. The United States would also need to prevent perverse incentives for nuclear escalation from emerging, as happened during the Cold War when hawks on both sides pushed for first strikes to knock out their adversary’s nuclear arsenal.

According to Pollack, Iran would continue to demonstrate rational behavior if it obtains a nuclear weapon, meaning that Iran could be deterred from using them. Contrasted with Pakistan, which became more aggressive after gaining the bomb, and Israel, which showed more restraint, Iran would largely behave the same way. Despite support for groups including Hezbollah, Iran has never toppled foreign governments.  Further, Iran is in a weak state given the impact of sanctions on its economy and currently has few reliable allies: Hamas has turned away from Iran and Syria is embroiled in a civil war.

Israel has a military option as well, but Pollack asserted that it is not a good one.  Israel could attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. However, neither America nor Israel would prefer such an option. Israel, which typically pursues a military option when it is viable, has proven that it wants to leave military strikes to the United States by debating the option publicly for the last fifteen years.

Posted By Bharat Vasudevan

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