By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Fourteen months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to talk to Iran, the failure of carrot-and-stick diplomacy to block Tehran's nuclear and regional ambitions is producing a new drumbeat for bolder action, including the possible use of force.
The emerging debate -- evident in an array of new reports, conferences and commentaries -- is still in the early stages, but some of the language urging the Bush administration to be more aggressive during its final 17 months is reminiscent of arguments from think tanks and commentators that shaped the case for invading Iraq.
"A lot of people were willing to give diplomacy a chance, but at some point there have to be results," said Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, an advocate of the Iraq war. "It's been a year since Rice agreed to talk to the Iranians if they accepted U.N. terms, and it's only bought them more time for their nuclear program."
Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are committed to economic sanctions and pressure through the United Nations. But proponents of tougher policy reflect the views of a small part of the Bush administration open to military options if Iran does not suspend a uranium-enrichment program that can be subverted for a nuclear bomb.
The drumbeats are also louder because of Iraq. Since May, the first formal talks between U.S. and Iranian envoys in 28 years have not deterred Iranian support for Iraqi Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops and the Green Zone. Explosives that U.S. officials say come from Iran accounted for one-third of U.S. combat deaths last month in Iraq, according to U.S. officials.
"Discussions about attacking Iran began with the nuclear issue, but it has now become a silver bullet to also deal with Iran's activities with Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, and even to provoke a process of regime change," said Augustus Richard Norton, a retired Army colonel now at Boston University.
A possible timetable has emerged as well. "The consensus I'm hearing is to give the [U.N.] Security Council process more time but not unlimited time, and, at some point in the spring of 2008, there has to be a good hard look at whether that process should continue and whether other options should then be considered," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert for the Congressional Research Service.
Many advocates of tougher action are speaking out at a time when the administration faces an "internal crisis of confidence" over the viability of its diplomatic strategy, said Suzanne Maloney, a former Iran expert with the State Department and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There's a sense of frustration with the strategy, even among those who favor a less kinetic approach. . . . The one clear alternative with some proponents is the bombing option," she said.
Not all those pushing for bolder action call for military force but, instead, say current policy has not changed Iran's behavior. As with Iraq, however, they do not question that Iran is working on weapons of mass destruction and is intent on dominating the region.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute recently wrote that assuming that Iran wants stability in Iraq is "as naive as it is dangerous. . . . U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq are diametrically opposed, and will continue to be until one side wins and the other loses." He depicted diplomacy with Iran as "a mirage, a tactical tool to divert U.S. policy attention away from the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officials charged with implementing the Iranian leadership's objectives."
"For the U.S. government to succeed in Iraq," Rubin argued, "it must engage not with the illusion of Iranian policy, but refine its strategies to neutralize and counter the Iranian strategies."
"Deterring the Ayatollahs," a new publication by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, backs economic sanctions and diplomacy, but co-editors Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt also conclude that neither may work, and that deterring Iran once it develops a nuclear weapon will be "much more difficult than deterrence was during the Cold War." Echoing arguments put forth before the Iraq invasion, contributor Gregory Giles writes that "a nuclear Iran would pose serious challenges in terms of controlling its nuclear force, the risk of transfer of nuclear technology, and possible support for WMD terror."
In the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, Kori Schake, a former member of the National Security Council in the Bush administration, outlines military options -- including destroying Iran's nuclear program, ousting the government by missile strikes and special forces operations, and a token "demonstration strike" to show Iran's vulnerability -- if Tehran obtains nuclear weapons.
The Heritage Foundation's Web site has a section labeled "Iran: The Rising Threat," advocating aggressive diplomacy and tough sanctions with a willingness to use force to stave off Iran's becoming a nuclear power. Heritage recently hosted a meeting on Iranian challenges to nuclear and energy security.
Author Norman Podhoretz goes the furthest in his Commentary essay "The Case for Bombing Iran." He warns that diplomacy with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is akin to appeasement of the Nazis.
"Like Hitler, [Ahmadinejad] is a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran. . . . The plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force -- any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938," he writes.
Unlike the 2003 Iraq invasion, the next step on Iran is less clear, said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "I like the idea of anything that gets rid of the nuclear weapons program and the regime, but I'm not persuaded that bombing achieves that," she said. "It may be our last option, but I'm not sure we're there yet."