Bipartisan Policy Center: Preparing For Engagement To Fail

Last fall, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report on Iran entitled Meeting the Challenge, the work of an independent task force co-chaired by former Senators Dan Coats and Charles Robb. The report asserted that a nuclear weapons-capable Iran posed unacceptable risks to the United States, and that if talks and sanctions failed to deter Iran from that path — as the report clearly assumed they would — then the U.S. should be prepared to seek a military solution. As Ilan Goldenberg noted at the time, the project’s “bipartisan” nature was somewhat questionable, given the heavy emphasis on military action as well as the involvement of neocons Michael Rubin and Michael Makovsky. The strategy advocated in the report, Ilan wrote, “would escalate U.S.-Iran tensions and pretty much guarantee that any direct talks would fail.”

So it is with the BPC’s updated report, released yesterday and subtitled Time is Running Out (pdf). While assuring us that they support the Obama administration’s policy of engagement, the authors reassert the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, and advocate the preparation of harsh sanctions, as well a military option:

If by the end of 2009, the United Nations and European Union do not impose significant, binding sanctions, or if they do but Tehran does not demonstrate substantive progress and cooperation in reversing its policy on nuclear development, then we believe the Obama Administration should elevate consideration of the military option. In this regard it is necessary to make clear that the U.S. military is more than capable of launching a devastating attack on Iranian nuclear and military facilities than either Iranian officials or many journalists realize.

Speaking at the report’s release yesterday on Capitol Hill, (introduced by Senators John Kyl and Joe Lieberman, with Evan Bayh a last minute no-show) Gen. (ret) Charles Wald reiterated points he had made in a previous op-ed, saying that it was important to publicly “think through scenarios for kinetic action,” in order to prove to Iran that the U.S. was “serious” about the use of the military option, if it should come to that.


I asked Gen. Wald whether the fact that the U.S. has, within the last eight years, invaded and occupied countries on either side of Iran, and maintains a sizable military presence in both places, wasn’t a pretty fair demonstration of “seriousness” (if not good judgment)? Iran must know that we maintain a pretty robust air strike capability — something Wald acknowledged — so why the need to rattle the saber?

“It’s a question of will,” Wald replied. Iran may know that we have the capability to strike, but they need to be made to believe that we will do it.

Leaving aside whether we actually will, or should, do it, an obvious problem here, one that the report does not address, is the possibility, even the likelihood, that making a lot of noise about war with Iran while simultaneously engaged in talks to avoid war with Iran could convince the Iranians that we’re intent on making war on Iran. And Iranians don’t have to look very far back to see almost this exact scenario played out in regard to Iraq, as the Bush administration pretended to be interested in letting inspections work even as it built public support for a war that it had in fact already decided to wage.

This bit from the report is also worth highlighting:

Although technically an act of war, the White House might consider first placing a naval blockade to cut off Iran’s importation of gasoline, before resorting to a military strike. If the Islamic Republic persists in its nuclear ambitions, the Pentagon could initiate air strikes targeting key military and nuclear installations, although not civilian facilities, without initially involving ground troops beyond Special Forces. While a successful bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development, Tehran would clearly retain its nuclear know-how. It would also necessitate years of continued vigilance, both to retain the ability to strike previously undiscovered sites and to ensure that Iran does not revive its military nuclear program.

And that’s the best-case scenario.

I also doubt Iran would be inclined to make the sort of distinction between “technical” and “actual” acts of war that the report proposes. But, of course, when they treat the blockade as an actual act of war — which it is — that can be used as proof that the Iranians want war. What could possibly go wrong?


Reached for comment, Richard Parker of the progressive American Foreign Policy project — which released its own report (pdf) on Iran earlier this year — said that “No one should approach talks with Iran with a naive belief that they are sure to succeed and with no contingency plan should they fail. But that’s not the same thing as openly predicting failure and ostentatiously planning for conflict before talks have even begun. The latter is bad faith. It’s a transparent effort at intimidation that looks very much like an ultimatum. And it will backfire.”

“’Belligerent negotiation,’” said Parker, “is a self-defeating strategy on every level.”