Confidence Games

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An interesting point from Michael Cohen yesterday: John McCain wants us to simultaneously believe that expressing a willingness to negotiate with Iranian leaders will “reinforce their confidence” but also to run around the country warning that people need to become much more alarmed about the threat posed by Iran, and stop dismissing them as some sort of medium-sized, middle-income country that’s far away and has a barely functioning military. It’s a bit of a tension.

More broadly, it’s worth noting how hollow McCain’s account of the Iranian threat winds up being:

But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant. On the contrary, right now Iran provides some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill our soldiers. They are the chief sponsor of Shia extremists in Iraq, and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. And their President, who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” has repeatedly made clear his government’s commitment to Israel’s destruction. Most worrying, Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The biggest national security challenge the United States currently faces is keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed.

All the work here is being done by the ludicrous hypothetical that were Iran to attempt to build a nuclear weapon (which the most recent NIE says they’re not doing) and they were to succeed (which they might or might not) and then give the weapon to a terrorist (!) who wanted to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack (!) on the United States, that that would be very dire, indeed. And indeed it would, much as if Russia decided to launch a full-scale nuclear strike on U.S. targets that would be an even more dire threat. But we don’t normally spend our time worrying about crazy not-gonna-happen scenarios.

Similarly, the Iranian government’s tough talk against Israel would be a lot more threatening to Israel were it backed up by some kind of actual capacity to destroy Israel. But in the real world, Israel has a vastly superior military establishment and a substantial nuclear deterrent.

Now we get to Iraq, where the hawks’ logic becomes circular. Iran is evil because they’re (allegedly) backing people who are fighting us in Iraq so we (a) need to stay in Iraq, and (b) need to fight the Iranians. We need to do (a) in order to stick it to the Iranians, and we need to do (b) in order to make (a) more viable. But that’s nonsense. This is precisely one of the things we should be negotiating over — a mutually acceptable outcome in Iraq. For Iran, that probably means an Iraq that’s not used by the United States as a base of operations for regime change. For the United States, it means a scenario where our soldiers aren’t being killed. Certainly the fact that we’re engaged in proxy exchanges with Iran isn’t a reason to avoid talking to the Iranians and trying to lower, rather than raise, the temperature.