Soft Balancing on Iran

A few days after the key findings of the Iran NIE were released Kevin Drum suggested that with the war hawks’ position so heavily damaged and the policy danger that they pose having been diminished, many, including some countries, might feel freed up to take a more hardline position now that they no longer have to tread between the Charybdis of Iran’s nuclear program and the Scylla of the Office of the Vice President (“Counterintuitive Thought for the Day on Iran,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007). He even speculated that that the continued progress of a U.N. sanctions resolution might confirm this theory (“Sanctions and the NIE, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007).

But what would this mean, that countries slow-walk actions to constrain a potential Iranian nuclear program out of fear of becoming a party to a larger U.S. plan against Iran? It would mean that a group of countries have formed a tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — agreement to impede the United States. Wouldn’t one have to admit this as a sort of primitive soft balancing against the United States. I don’t think that the case is exactly strong here. This is probably no different than the sort of actions that one could point to probably dozens of instances during the Cold War where U.S. alliance partners felt the need to mitigate some particularly egregious U.S. policy position. States engaging in minor acts of diplomatic defiance is nothing new.

On the other hand, when you consider that there have been some more hard balancing-like actions (“A Caspian Balance?,” 23 October 2007), it seems like there is a context where this doesn’t look like diplomacy as usual. Perhaps there is a slowly building effort to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East.

It’s also disturbing that the U.S. is considered a threat to stability of such a scale that states find themselves having to stake out some middle ground between us and Iran.

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Confrontation Between Israel and Iran is Strategic, Not Ideological

Yesterday I went to the Center for American Progress event, Nuclear Meltdown: Rebuilding a Coherent Policy Towards Iran (Washington, D.C., 13 December 2007). It was moderated by Center for American Progress Director for Nuclear Policy Joseph Cirincione and consisted of a discussion with authors Barbara Slavin and Trita Parsi whose books are Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, respectively. Both Ms. Slavin and Mr. Parsi were phenomenally interesting and well informed. As Mr. Cirincione points out, their books really complement each other and both have been reviewed in tandem in most papers.

The single point that most fascinated me from their discussion — and apparently it impressed Mr. Cirincione as well as he allows in his question — is Mr. Parsi’s dismissal of the ideology and the rhetoric of Israeli-Iranian relations in favor of a purely geostrategic analysis. In this regard, the first Gulf War of 1991, rather than the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the real turning point in Israeli-Iranian relations.

The Center for American Progress already has a video of the event up and Mr. Parsi gives a thumb-nail version of his theory starting about a quarter of the way in, but here is a transcript of what he says:

… Iran and Israel did have a strong relationship during the 50s, 60s and 70s. From the Israeli’s side there was the doctrine of the periphery, the idea that Israel’s security was best achieved by making alliances with the non-Arab periphery states in the region — basically Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia — in order to weaken the Arab states in Israel’s vicinity — the inner and the outer circle.

And there is a myth out there in my view and I argue strongly against it in the book that Israeli-Iranian relations radically change in 1979 because of the revolution. And certainly the revolution did change a lot. Iran had a completely new ideology and very aggressive anti-Israeli rhetoric, but the common threats that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together during the preceding decades — the common threat from the Arab world and the common threat from the Soviet Union — was still there after 1979. And strategically Israel believed that Iran was still a very, very strong periphery power that it needed to have a strategic relationship.

And immediately after the revolution the Israelis were doing everything the could to reach out to Iran, to sell arms to Iran in spite of an American arms embargo and even lobby the United States not only to talk to Iran but also that the U.S. should sell arms to Iran and that the U.S. actually should not pay attention to Iranian rhetoric because the rhetoric was not reflective of the policy. Which is a drastically different position than the Israelis took only a couple of years later.

What really changes the relationship is the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam in the first Persian Gulf War because then at the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union collapses and the last standing Arab army that could pose a conventional military threat to both Iran and to Israel was defeated by the United States. You have a completely new reconfiguration of the geopolitical map in the Middle East in which Iran and Israel emerge as two of the more powerful states. And just as much from the Israeli perspective Iran was needed to balance Iraq to a certain extent they also felt that Iraq was needed to balance Iran but there was no longer a balancer of Iran. They started to view Iran as a potential threat in the future.

So it’s in 1992 that you see a sudden shift in the Israeli position vis-à-vis Iran. Throughout the 1980s in spite of Khomeini’s tremendously aggressive rhetoric against Israel, the Israelis do not talk about an Iranian threat, they reach out to the Iranians. But after 1992 when the Iranians actually become much more pragmatic in their foreign policy their revolutionary zeal is plummeting, that’s when Israel starts to depict Iran as a global and existential threat, out of a fear that in the new Middle East if the United States was now reaching out to the Arab states as it was in the Persian Gulf War and if in addition to that they were to make some sort of a deal with the Iranians, the deal would come at the expense of Israel’s interest.

And the calculation on the Israeli side was they need to make sure that type of political process does not take place. And that is achieved by creating the political obstacles to such a process by imposing new sanctions, by depicting Iran as a global threat. And this initially actually came as a great surprise to the United States because only five years earlier the Israelis had been pushing the Iran-Contra scandal.

That last comment about the Iran-Contra scandal may just seem like a throw-away jibe at the Reagan administration, but I think it’s an important piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Parsi’s case. When I heard it, it really made things fall into place for me. I always wondered what the Israelis were doing as middle-men in that fiasco and how it was that their relationship with Iran was adequate to allow them to act in that capacity, whereas ours was not. Anyway, Mr. Parsi’s theory is what I was missing to explain that recalcitrant fact.

The Iran NIE: Mendacity, Incompetence or Just the Usual Vileness

The Iran National Intelligence Estimate finding with a high degree of confidence that Iran abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapon in 2003 seems on course to completely upend the state of political debate — provided some Democrat wants to make something of it instead of just leaving the story to follow its course in the press.

The NIE has been in essentially the state that it is today for a year. Apparently additional sourcing for the 2003 abandonment has caused the intelligence community to upgrade their confidence level in recent weeks, but that’s about it. This information has been in hand for a year now, during which time the administration continued to amp up their rhetoric on Iran with dark portents of World War III. Now the administration is obfuscating what was known and when. There are three stand-outs to me in their various stories:

  1. The President was only fully informed of the contents of the NIE on Wednesday, 28 November, or maybe 26 November 2007, depending on whether you believe Stephen Hadley or Seymour Hersh (“Hersh: Bush Told Olmert Of NIE Two Days Before President Was Allegedly First Briefed On It,” ThinkProgress, 4 December 2007). Or maybe some earlier date still, since all that Mr. Hersh has is a no-later-than date.

    Given that this information has been the subject of some rather significant administration infighting, possibly even resulting in the demotion of John Negroponte from the cabinet-level post of Director of National Intelligence to a Sate Department Deputy (Porter, Gareth, “Cheney Tried to Stifle Dissent in Iran NIE,” Inter Press Service, 8 November 2007), it would be hard to believe that it could have escaped the attention of the President. Hard to believe, but not impossible: President Bush’s attention is hardly inescapable.

  2. Bush was told — sort of — back in August as he hedgingly revealed in his Tuesday press conference (“Press Conference by the President,” White House, Washington, D.C., 4 December 2007):

    BUSH: I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John — Mike McConnell came in and said, We have some new information. He didn’t tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

    One might think from this that the President’s Daily Briefing is a guessing game between the President and the Director of National Intelligence (“I’m thinking of a rogue state that sets off a Geiger counter. Can you guess which one it is?”). But reading any book on the Bush administration by — take your pick — Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, etc. — and you quickly see that the President’s habit of punctuality and always ending meetings on time — touted by the right as a virtue over the perpetually behind schedule Bill Clinton — is actually a function of his remarkable incuriosity. Again and again you read of a briefer or primary’s amazement that after sitting through a detailed presentation, President Bush would simply jump up without a single question, issued a manly “Great work” or some such oral back-slap and exit the room.

    Given this, I wouldn’t doubt that after hearing of potential critical new information, it wouldn’t occur to President Bush to even ask what that might be. Having now become fully informed as to the new information, President Bush yesterday specifically said that it hasn’t changed his addled mind one iota. People who never reexamine their positions aren’t in need of new information, so why bother asking?

  3. The Office of the Vice President has done everything it its power to pressure the intelligence community to alter its findings (sound familiar?). Baring that, they have tried to prevent the release of the key findings and have succeeded in doing so for some months now (Porter, Gareth, ibid.). But it’s nut just for the sake of external message that they go to all these lengths. There’s been plenty of reporting on the fact that Dick Cheney and his staff engage in a significant amount of maneuver to determine who gets to speak to the President and what information reaches his desk — undoubtedly with only the best intention to wisely manage the President’s time, certainly not to squelch positions differing from that of the OVP.

    At this point President Bush is systematically kept in the dark about all manner of issues. Think of that memo from George Tennet warning about the famous sixteen words in the State of the Union that died on Stephen Hadley’s desk. Just a bureaucratic oversight?

    Of the services that an effective agent provides to a president one is that of plausible deniability in the form of the agents shielding the president from possession of certain inconvenient information, especially in the era of “what did he know and when did he know it.” It is well observed that one of the pitfalls a president faces is “the bubble.” Especially as an administration wears on, a president can wind up extremely isolated and the Oval Office is an extremely lonely place. This is an extremely complicated dynamic, but the gift of plausible deniability is one of those reasons.

    President Bush has always been more the pitch-man-in-chief more than the prime mover of this administration and to make his pitch for the administration’s policies sometimes less is more. Every president needs a sin eater and Vice President Cheney serves that roll for President Bush.

Now-a-days even the likes of Joe Scarborough are suggesting that the President is either lying or stupid (Frick, Ali, “Joe Scarborough Rips Bush On Iran NIE: He’s Either ‘Lying’ Or ‘Is Stupid’,” ThinkProgress, 5 December 2007). I see no reason to choose as I think that this administration is polymorphously evil: a nasty combination of mendacity, incompetence and the malign.

The thing I don’t get is how these people can preserve even a modicum of legitimacy. If the papers won’t just report that the President lied his way through a press conference this afternoon, you would think that at some point they might just stop reporting on what he says as it is simply too unreliable to print.

A Caspian Balance?

Again, the trump argument in the debate over whether the standard predictions of realism, that hegemony always produces a balance, applies as well to Twenty-First Century U.S. unipolarity as it has all other hegemons, is to ask, “Where is the balance?” Realists have been hard-pressed to answer this question and have made recourse to the notion of the “soft balance.” This has evoked a bit of ridicule from their neoconservative opponents, who reply that there is no such thing as soft balancing, or if there is such a thing it doesn’t count.

Well, how about last week’s Caspian Sea Leaders Summit for a hard balance (Fathi, Nazila and C. J. Chivers, “In Iran, Putin Warns Against Military Action,” The New York Times, 17 October 2007)?

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said at a summit meeting of five Caspian Sea nations in Iran on Tuesday that any use of military force in the region was unacceptable. In a declaration, the countries agreed that none would allow their territories to be used as a base for military strikes against any of the others.

Later he had a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he said he had expressed a desire for “deeper” relations between the countries, Reuters reported.

[Mr. Ahmadinejad said,] “The goal is to keep the sea clear of military competitions and keep foreigners out of the region.”

The article concedes that, “their statements appeared to have more political than military significance, and were not a departure from the status quo.” It looks to me like a departure from the status quo in so far as while it is not a clear-cut case of hard balancing — there were no mutual defense pacts signed or declarations that an attack on one would be viewed as an attack on all — a couple of states banding together in a show of solidarity to compel the hegemon to back down seems like a pretty far cry from soft balancing too.

Hard-Line in a Smart Way?

In case you were in need of some sort of a litmus test on Thomas Barnett, here is what he says in response to Michael Ledeen’s new book on Iran (“An Interesting Book on Iran,” 8 September 2007):

Ledeen’s a hard-liner on Iran but in a smart way.

Yeah, kinda like Austria-Hungary was hard-line on Serbian separatists, but in a smart way.

And while we’re at it, hey, “some self-confidence, America, please!” I’m going to vote for less self-confidence and more circumspection.