Tuesday, April 14, 2009

israel, iran, obama: once more with feeling

The selection of Binyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, together with the ascension of President Obama, have brought the issue of Iranian nukes once again to the fore. Roger Cohen, a columnist with the NY Times/International Herald Tribune, has argued for a policy of engagement with Iran even (especially?) if it means getting tough with Israel, which he suggests is long overdue. At least part of the Obama Administration appears to agree: The Times reported today that the Administration would drop at least some preconditions for talks with Iran on nuclear and other matters.

That talking is as a general rule better than violence--and that military options against Iran are less than appealing--seems hard to question. The problem is exactly what to talk about. Acquiring a nuclear capability on the one hand, and driving both Israel and the United States out of the Middle East on the other, are core elements of Iranian policy that are unlikely to change without a powerful intervening event. The notion that they can be nudged out of these positions by an incremental, "carrot and stick" approach finds little support in past Iranian behavior or in their recent statements. Cohen, for example, proposes a so-called "Malaysian solution" pursuant to which Iran would continue to deny the existence of Israel but would take no affirmative steps to destroy it. But this seems at best an interim solution: could an empowered and (sooner or later) nuclear Iran really be trusted to keep to this arrangement?

There is moreover a logical contradiction to Cohen's approach. At some points, he (and others) appear to be saying that their goal is to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons without resort to force. But at other points, they appear to say that it really wouldn't be so terrible if Iran went nuclear: perhaps it would even be a good thing, restoring the "balance" with Israel and forcing a compromise peace. Although history has been unkind to them, the supporters of 1930s-era appeasement (engagement?) at least had a bottom line, going to war when Poland was invaded in summer 1939. By contrast today's engagers (appeasers?) appear to be creating a situation in which no conceivable set of events, however unpleasant, would convince them to change their minds.

My own view is that there are only two serious positions at this point: either (i) that Iran has a right to nuclear weapons and we shouldn't be terribly concerned if they get them, or (ii) that this has to be prevented at all costs and that all options, including military force, must be on the table in order to prevent it. If Cohen and his compatriots take the first view, they should say so openly and directly, and let the debate proceed from there. Pretending that there is a third way is in my view self-deluding, and delusions rarely produce good policy.


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