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Needed: An Off-Ramp for Iran Policy

This morning, at a small meeting with various Washington-based analysts and European diplomats, I was asked to speculate on the future of Iran policy. While it's of course impossible to predict, I don't expect to see military action by the U.S. or by Israel. Nor do I expect to see any serious progress towards a political bargain, either a narrow one about the Iranian nuclear program nor an expansive one about Iran's place in the Middle East. Nor do I expect Iran to test a nuclear weapon.

More likely than either is a relentless slide towards a replay of the Iraq saga of the 1990's: a steady ratcheting-up of sanctions, which increasingly impact the Iranian people but fail to compel change in the regime's political behavior; episodic and frequent diplomatic crises which consume the world's diplomatic attention and resources; the growing militarization and polarization of the Gulf; ongoing uncertainty about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Eventually, as with Iraq, the choices may well narrow sufficiently and the perception of impending threat mount so that a President -- maybe Obama, maybe Palin, maybe anyone else -- finds him or herself faced with "no choice" but to move towards war. "Keeping Tehran in a Box" is not a pretty scenario, nor one which I think anyone especially wants, but it seems the most likely path unless better "off-ramps" are developed to avert it. And such "off-ramps" are the most glaring absence in the current Iran policy debate.  

The current policy debate is framed, explicitly or implicitly, around four tracks. First is the nuclear clock, with everyone keeping a close eye on how much progress they believe Iran is making towards a nuclear weapon and how successful sanctions and other disruption efforts can be in delaying it. Second is the Israel clock, this summer's obsession, with the U.S. attempting to prevent Israel by attacking unilaterally by demonstrating that it takes the threat seriously and is succeeding on the nuclear front. Third is the Iranian domestic politics track, which is not about "regime change" as many people seemed to think last summer but which is really about the sanctions and internal Iranian tensions combining to shift the political coalitions and calculations in Tehran. Finally, there's the U.S. domestic political track, where it seems likely that the Republicans will seize upon Iran as a major theme in attacking Obama's foreign policy "weakness," and may well have one or both houses of Congress as an institutional base to press their case.  

The Obama administration's strategy has been fairly successful in terms of maneuvering within these clocks and carrying out its chosen "pressure track" strategy. Its success at standing up relatively tough sanctions has demonstrated international consensus, has pushed back the nuclear and Israeli clocks, and is perhaps building political pressure inside of Iran to move away from Ahmedenejad's foreign policy strategy. There seem to be signs that the sanctions have proven unexpectedly painful for the Iranian economy, and that they are exacerbating  internal political rifts (i.e. Rafsanjani's recent warning to "stop treating the sanctions like a joke"). Still, I don't think that anyone should be overly optimistic that this will lead to significant changes. It buys time, and shifts incentives on the margins, but absent some clear "off ramp" for Iranians to take it doesn't do more than that.   

No other options appear more plausible, though. Engagement, while absolutely worth pursuing in multiple forms, is ever less likely to produce a major departure. I would have preferred to see a much broader engagement approach early in the administration, beyond the nuclear issue, but that never really materialized. That's partly because of how the Obama administration framed the issue, but also in large part because the Iranians were not able or willing to reciprocate (certainly, European diplomats express frustration at the tepid reception for their own engagement initiatives towards Tehran). The Iranian election and its aftermath consumed all the political oxygen for many long months, and since then all signs point to a narrowing decision-making circle in Tehran and a hotly polarized political scene which is not conducive to making bold concessions. Whatever might have been accomplished through engagement a year and a half ago, conditions have changed and it's hard to see either Washington or Tehran being able or willing to go back. 

Meanwhile, war remains a deeply unappealing option. I've written about that at length elsewhere, and won't elaborate further here. But the benefits of limited military strikes seem low, the costs and risks high, and the impact on a wide range of other policy objectives massive. While I do expect that we're going to be debating war with Iran frequently over the coming months, I don't think it's going to happen in the short to medium-term. An Israeli attack on Hezbollah is more likely than an attack on Iran, I think -- a topic for another day.  

With both engagement and war implausible, we seem to be left with variants of the status quo. But the political and strategic logic of the situation and historical precedent suggest that changes will only be in the direction of ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, not toward de-escalation or easing the sanctions. If and when the current sanctions are determined to have failed (what that means is an important question to be debated elsewhere), then the pressure to "do something" will require ever-tougher policies. In this scenario, expect to see a push for "crippling sanctions", and then a propaganda battle over who is to blame for the mounting humanitarian costs and constant, debilitating battles at the UN which complicate American relations with China and Russia, as well as with much of the Muslim world. Expect to see something like the ill-starred 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act calling for regime change to be official American policy. Expect to see military buildups in the Gulf to demonstrate strength (both our own and arms sales to our allies). Expect to see cultivated polarization of the region, including rising Sunni-Shi'a tensions (recent flareups in Bahrain and Kuwait offer a preview) and tense debates about Iranian responsibility for terrorism in a variety of theaters. Expect most of these developments to strengthen Ahmedenejad and other hard-liners inside of Iran, allowing them to blame the West for economic problems and to justify their crackdowns on critics while profiteering from the illicit sanctions economy. And then, in a few years, expect the regretful articles and books about how the still-ticking nuclear clock and the failure of all these alternatives leaves us no choice but to prepare for war.  

That's grim. It isn't inevitable, but it seems the most likely trajectory absent some serious new thinking about possible "off-ramps." The military strike often offered as an "off-ramp" really isn't. It would be more like U.S. attacks on Iraq in the 1990's, such as the 1998 Desert Fox attack. Even if the worst-case scenarios didn't come to pass (an assumption I'm not willing to make), most likely such a strike would neither provide certainty about the end of Iran's nuclear ambitions nor stimulate regime change. 

Other possibilities? Perhaps a new uranium-exchange deal will become a confidence building measure which will allow a different cycle to kick in. Perhaps Iranian political change will produce a different leadership coalition which is both willing and able to turn a new page and strike a deal. If better ideas for off-ramps aren't developed and given a serious chance, then even if we manage to avoid war then I fear that this simulacrum of the Iraq experience of the 1990s may be our future. And so, the challenge: what are the off-ramps? I'm all ears. 

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