Wednesday :: Jan 14, 2009

Obama, Clinton and Iran

by eriposte

On Monday, in his post "Obama v. the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran", Glenn Greenwald quoted Charles Davis and took President-Elect Obama to task for overstating the nuclear weapons threat from Iran, when Obama said this to ABC's George Stephanopoulos last weekend (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

Well, I think that Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges. And as I said during the campaign, you know, we have a situation in which not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah, but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

As Glenn (and Davis) point out, the 2007 Iran NIE from the U.S. IC said:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program...

Glenn goes on to provide some examples and says, understandably, that "There's usually no shortage of people willing to defend Obama's statements and explain what he really means" and asks:

So what's the justification for Obama's inflammatory and obviously consequential (though seemingly baseless) claim on national television that the Iranians "are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race" when the consensus of American intelligence agencies is that they are not doing so?

Let me start by saying that Glenn's criticism - which is also based on one of Sen. Obama's statements from the past on this very issue - is quite reasonable. It is incorrect and unhelpful to assert that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon when the available evidence indicates that it is not.

That said, while there is no direct justification for the unfortunate wording used by the President-Elect, there is a broader context that I believe is understated in Glenn's critique (the context appears partially at the very end of Glenn's post), and underlying that context is a legitimate issue that needs to be discussed as part of our assessment of, and feedback to, both President-Elect Obama and Secretary-of-State nominee Clinton. The legitimate issue is the following: is it realistic for the President-Elect to assume that Iran, based on its past behaviors, will never pursue a nuclear weapons program in his years in office? Stated differently, when we are dealing with a country like Iran it is unreasonable to assume that Iran might decide to pursue a nuclear weapons program sometime in the future, depending on changes in ground realities? To answer that question, let's read more of the Iran NIE, continuing from the quoted portion above:

...we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

Also in the NIE are the following statements:

We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

  • Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be.

I am not raising this point to enable saber-rattling -  quite the opposite. My point is that, if I put on the hat of a policy analyst dealing with Iran, it would be reasonable for me to assume, based on a combination of the available evidence and lack thereof, that Iran might pursue nuclear weapons in the future, based on its past inclinations. This means, there should be an element to our policy framework vis-a-vis Iran that assumes Iran might decide to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the future - if the cost-benefit equation is favorable for Iran to do so. Now, one should debate whether this element is consequential enough, but it is an element than the POTUS cannot choose to ignore. So, President-Elect Obama will need to give this due consideration in how he crafts his Iran policy. Again, this does not mean he should assert that Iran is (currently) pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Instead, the accurate and reasonable statement would be that Iran might decide to revive its nuclear weapons program at any time - so, we need to craft a diplomacy-heavy policy response to pre-empt such a scenario and hopefully convince Iran to drop its nuclear weapons quest altogether. In summary, while there is no direct justification for the words used by the President Elect, there is justification for discussing the possible future pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran and making sure that our current policy framework accounts for it.

Further, outside of the unfortunate choice of words in the interview, I think there is good reason to believe that both the President-Elect and his Secretary-of-State (see below) are driving towards a policy framework that is consistent with the above observations in the Iran NIE. Just as the NIE talks about the possible use of a combination of aggressive diplomacy and opportunities (i.e., incentives) for Iran - in order to prevent Iran from resuming its nuclear weapons program (something that is separate from its declared civilian nuclear program) - the President-Elect is also talking about diplomacy and incentives. That much is clear, from the remainder of his comments on Iran to Stephanopoulos - something that Glenn acknowledges in his post. Let us continue from the excerpted portion discussed above:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have to do something about it in your first year.

OBAMA: And we are going to have to take a new approach. And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start. That the international community is going to be taking cues from us in how we want to approach Iran. And I think that sending a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how a international actor behaves, is…


STEPHANOPOULOS: But a new emphasis on respect.

OBAMA: Well, I think a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are. And we are in preparations for that. We anticipate that we're going to have to move swiftly in that area.

To summarize: I don't know whether or not President-Elect Obama intended to say "they might pursue a nuclear weapon" when, instead, he said incorrectly that "they are pursuing a nuclear weapon". However, the emphasis in his comments that followed immediately after that, provide some reassurance that he is not going to pursue a Bush-like or Bush-lite policy (like some seem to fear based on his Secretary of State's advisors). Personally, I am glad he clarified that his emphasis is not going to be on saber-rattling but rather diplomacy and respect for the aspirations of the Iranian people.

Let's also discuss Secretary-of-State nominee Hillary Clinton's position on Iran.

In my view her position is largely unchanged and if anything marginally softer compared to her position on Iran during the Democratic primary (which in turn was barely different from Sen. Obama's then-position and President-Elect Obama's current position). In fact, her Foreign Affairs piece in Nov/Dec 2007 spoke of combining diplomacy with incentives and considering the Iranian people separately from their Government - somewhat along the lines of what Sen. Obama said in his recent interview:

If Iran does not comply with its own commitments and the will of the international community, all options must remain on the table.

On the other hand, if Iran is in fact willing to end its nuclear weapons program, renounce sponsorship of terrorism, support Middle East peace, and play a constructive role in stabilizing Iraq, the United States should be prepared to offer Iran a carefully calibrated package of incentives. This will let the Iranian people know that our quarrel is not with them but with their government and show the world that the United States is prepared to pursue every diplomatic option.

Like Iran, North Korea responded to the Bush administration's effort to isolate it by accelerating its nuclear program, conducting a nuclear test, and building more nuclear weapons. Only since the State Department returned to diplomacy have we been able, belatedly, to make progress.

During her confirmation hearing yesterday, the topic of Iran came up numerous times. In her prepared statement she also used the unfortunate and incorrect type of phrasing that Sen. Obama used, although it is a little bit more ambiguous in her case (i.e., was she was using loose wording to discuss the notion of Iran permanently abandoning its intentions to pursue a nuclear weapons program? I don't know):

As we focus on Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, we must also actively pursue a strategy of smart power in the Middle East that addresses the security needs of Israel and the legitimate political and economic aspirations of the Palestinians; that effectively challenges Iran to end its nuclear weapons program and its sponsorship of terror; and persuade both Iran and Syria to abandon their dangerous behavior and become constructive regional actors; and that also strengthens our relationship with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, other Arab states, along with Turkey and our partners in the Gulf, to involve them in securing a lasting peace in the region.

Her statements following the above were all in responses to questions on Iran, including some extremely unhelpful language about Iran's nuclear weapons program from SFRC Chair Sen. John Kerry, among others. In large part she was trying to respond to aggressive rhetoric on Iran from some Committee members and while she did not, in my view, ratchet down the language substantially, she clearly emphasized diplomacy as the planned approach to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which was reassuring to me. For example:

KERRY:......Is it the policy of the incoming administration, as a bottom line of our security interests and our policy, that it is unacceptable that Iran has a weapon under any circumstances and that we will take any steps necessary to prevent that or is it simply not desirable? I think, as you said, it's in no one's interest, which is less than the formation of the prohibition.


CLINTON: [...]  The president-elect has said repeatedly it is unacceptable. It is going to be United States policy to pursue diplomacy with all of its multitudinous tools to do everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. As I also said, no option is off the table. So the president- elect has been very clear that it is unacceptable and that is our premise and that is what we are going to be basing our actions on.

She also said:

There is an ongoing policy review that the Obama administration has undertaken, but I think, as the president-elect said just this past weekend, our goal will be to do everything we can to pursue, through diplomacy, through the use of sanctions, through creating better coalitions with countries that we believe also have a big stake in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon power, to try to prevent this from occurring.

We are not taking any option off the table at all, but we will pursue a new, perhaps different approach that will become a cornerstone of what the Obama administration believes is an attitude toward engagement that might bear fruit.

We have no illusions, Mr. Chairman, that even with a new administration, looking to try to engage Iran in a way that might influence its behavior, that we can predict the results.

But the president-elect is committed to that course and we will pursue it.

Outside of the unfortunate phrasing on Iran's "pursuit" of nuclear weapons, these statements from Secretary-of-State nominee Clinton are consistent with the stance of the President-Elect and lack the bellicosity that one might typically expect from the neocons. I suggest that when they need to discuss Iran and nuclear weapons in the future, they do so by referring to Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons or Iran's intention to keep its options open regarding a nuclear weapons program, so that they can more effectively prepare the ground for an easier sale of their approach to the American public (and The Village).

eriposte :: 5:25 AM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!