The Divide on Iran

Kevin Drum and Gary Sick both make the case that there’s been more activity, and a more dramatic shift in policy, on Iran than most people realize. I spoke with a senior European official this morning who’s had some involvement in this issue, and I would say that his comments were in line with that assessment. There’s been so much change in part because there’s been continuity. Robert Gates is still at the Pentagon, William Burns is still Undersecretary of State, and David Petraeus is still running CENTCOM. Plug in a President, a Secretary of State, and a National Security Adviser who are broadly sympathetic to what they’re trying to do and things start moving quickly. That said, there’s still some points that need to be ironed out. In particular, the looming Iranian election:


Apparently, the British have one view on the merits of engaging with Iran before the election and the French have a different view. The Americans, meanwhile, disagree with themselves about this. On one level, this is a sort of minor thing to be disagreeing about relative to the big strategic picture. But on another level, it’s hard to get very far with Iran until you make a decision.

Another issue is that I don’t think western governments have had discussions amongst themselves about what to do if diplomacy can’t be made to work. It’s clear if you speak to people outside government that many analysts think a nuclear Iran is something we could live with. But nobody wants any high-level policymakers in any of the key countries to say that, lest it fatally undermine the bargaining posture. One result of that, however, is that there’s no real talk about how you respond if you give it your best shot with the Iranians and they just turn out to really want a nuclear weapon.