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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Marc Lynch

Why the Iraq milestone matters

On Tuesday President Obama will give a major address marking the end of combat operations in Iraq, which delivers on one of his major campaign promises and marks one of the largely unremarked bright spots in his foreign policy record to date.  Given how central Iraq has been to the great foreign policy debates of the last decade, it's somewhat surprising how little attention has been paid to the steady drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq.  Skeptics on all sides have dominated what little discourse there's been:  many on the left point to the continuing presence of nearly 50,000 troops and many more civilian contractors to mock the notion that the war is over;  many on the right mutter about Obama's refusal to give Bush credit for the surge;  and many serious analysts on all sides worry about the continuing political gridlock in Baghdad and the seemingly shaky security situation.  But Obama's meeting his self-imposed deadline of drawing down to 50,000 troops by this month --- 90,000 fewer than were in Iraq before he took office --- really does matter.   There was only one shot to get the U.S. on the road to leaving Iraq, and Obama has delivered. 

It's worth taking a step back and pointing out some of the key things which have happened in Iraq under Obama's watch, and somethat haven't.  The drawdown of U.S. forces has proceeded on schedule, despite plenty of opportunities and some pressure to slow it down -- the much anticipated revolt of the generals demanding to delay the drawdown hasn't happened. Despite the continuing pattern of violent attacks grabbing headlines, the overall security situation has remained pretty good despite the steady reduction of U.S.forces and the shoddy treatment of the Awakenings movements by the Iraqi government.  Iran, despite its massive investments in Iraqi politics, has proven no more able to dictate the outcomes of Iraqi politics than has Washington, a key development which gets too little attention.   Iraqi state institutions have continued to function, for all their flaws, despite more than a half a year of political gridlock.  And that political deadlock would almost certainly been the same even if the U.S. still had 140,000 troops on the ground --- which is where the "conditions based" withdrawal favored by many of Obama's critics would have us today.   Iraq's not perfect, but who thought it would be?  Winding down America's involvement in Iraq without disaster is nothing to scoff at.

Has disaster been averted?  The political situation in Iraq is certainly disheartening -- from the institutional shenanigans such as those of the De-Baathification Commission, which badly hurt the legitimacy of the elections, through the long-running political stalemate preventing the formation of a government.   Former Bush NSC official Peter Feaver,  in a thoughtful post, argues that this disproves the "theory of the case" developed by Obama's team, including me, that a commitment to withdrawal would push Iraqi political reconciliation:  

But the Obama team sold this rigid timeline as the best way to achieve a more important political goal: incentivizing the Iraqis to make further political compromises yielding further political progress. During the campaign, Obama's Iraq advisors claimed that we did not see faster and more sustained political progress in Iraq because the Bush administration coddled Iraqi leaders and, in effect, fostered a co-dependency that allowed Iraqi dysfunctions to persist. Better, they argued, to administer the tough love of leaving on a fixed schedule regardless of the political conditions on the ground. This would concentrate Iraqi minds and get them to make the painful compromises they were resisting.

It was an interesting academic theory advanced by reasonable people... [But] We now have seen 18 months of the Obama theory in action and the results, thus far, are not promising. The Iraqi political stalemate is at least as bad as it was in Spring 2006...  There is no evidence that Obama's gambit has fostered greater political cooperation among Iraqi political elites. To be sure, the blame should also be laid at the feet of other factors: weak leadership in Embassy Baghdad; neglect of the Iraq issue at the top levels of the Obama administration; and above all, the dysfunctions of the Iraqi political leadership. But as tests of academic theory go, this is a pretty dispositive rejection of the Obama hypothesis.

Not really.  I'm more than happy to admit that my prediction right after the election didn't pan out (see below), but on the broader case I'm nowhere near willing to cede the argument.   I certainly did argue that a clear commitment to draw down U.S. troops would force Iraqi politicians to recalculate, but not that it would happen overnight or solve all of Iraq's problems.   In fact, Brian Katulis and I argued at the time that the surge had set up a "political house of cards" which had failed to resolve major political challenges -- including many of the ones currently blocking Iraqi politics. The political stalemate is rooted in the political institutionsdesigned by the Bush administration and the dysfunctional politicalclass it nurtured.   The key question is not whether Iraq now has wonderful politics -- it doesn't, and I didn't expect it to -- but rather whether the American drawdown has been a net positive for Iraqi politics or broader U.S. interests.  And there, I think the answer is yes.   

As for the current political stalemate, which (in keeping with Dan Drezner's meme of the day, was my worst prediction of the year), here's my take.  I hadn't expected Iyad Allawi's electoral upset -- accomplished primarily because Maliki split the Shi'a vote by breaking with the INA -- which was the wild card from which the game has yet to recover.   Had Maliki won even by 1 vote, as most everyone expected and for which they had gamed out their strategies, then it would have likely unfolded just as I predicted at the time -- a quick move to areconstituted government which resembled the previous one.  But Allawi's upset created a logjam.  Allawi and Maliki's personal differences, more than ideological ones, prevented their alignment, while Maliki refused to reunite with the INA except on his own terms and Allawi's ideological differences with INA were too great. The Kurds, as always,  sat around waiting for anyone to meet their terms, while the non-sectarian movements of which many Iraqis (and analyzed in depth over the years by the tenacious Reidar Visser) have dreamed have failed thus far to capture political ground. 

Obviously, seven months of stalemate show that the U.S. drawdown hasn't led these politicians to resolve their differences as I had hoped.   But on the flip side, there is no evidence that Obama's allowing the August 31 deadline to slip would have made the slightest difference in improving the situation, and probably would have made it worse.  The mission of the troops was long ago remade by the SOFA.  The only effect of delaying the drawdown would have beena hammer blow on U.S. credibility, informing all Iraqis that American commitments were always and only up for bargaining, and losing a one-time opportunity to change policy and begin to get out of Iraq.  

Obama deserves the credit he is likely to claim for drawing down troops on schedule and moving towards a vastly reduced U.S. role in Iraq.  No, the war inside Iraq isn't over yet and American forces aren't all gone yet.  And I'm perfectly willing to give credit to the Bush administration for the SOFA it eventually negotiated (which I've previously called Bush's finest moment in Iraq), which created the bipartisan framework to make the drawdown possible.   But it took Obama's determination to actually draw down to actually make it happen -- had McCain won, for instance, I'm quite sure that excuses would have been found to keep many more troops there for far longer.  There are plenty of things which I would have liked to have seen done differently, including a continuation of former Ambassador Ryan Crocker's quiet dialogues with the Iranians and more of an effort to deal with Iraq within its broader regional context.   But overall, meeting the campaign commitment to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq is a real accomplishment which should be acknowledged.