Iran Revisited

Iran Revisited


Howard Adelman

Last night I went to hear Elliott Abrams (MA, LSE and DJ, Harvard Law), now a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He delivered the Joseph and Gertie Schwartz Memorial Lecture entitled, “Inside the Middle East”. Abrams is the illustrious son-in-law of Midge Decter who is married to another neo-con icon, Norman Podhoretz. Abrams began his diplomatic career with democrats (Senators Scoop Jackson and Daniel Moynihan) but ended up in the Reagan administration, becoming intimately involved with Oliver North in the Iran-Contra Affair where he was left with the scar of a misdemeanour charge for unlawfully withholding information from Congress. Under Bush, Abrams served as  Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs in Bush’s first term and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in Bush’s second term.

Abrams continues the latter work with his current book on the mistreatment of the Baha’is in Iran. His last two previous major publications were a book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2013) and an essay contributed to Robert Blackwill’s 2012 edited volume, Iran: the Nuclear Challenge. I will refer to the former book in another blog when I write an update on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which Abrams dismissed as going nowhere and highly unlikely to go anywhere because the bottom lines of the positions of the two negotiating parties never cross. Those negotiations are, for Abrams, a waste of both time and American prestige.

I want to follow up on yesterday’s blog because Abrams has such a different view. Abrams contrasted the Israeli position on Iran in contradistinction with the American perspective by reiterating his five T’s:

1. Threat perception – significantly different for Israel because of Israel’s proximity to Iran and Iran’s repeated statement of determination to eliminate Israel;

2. Trauma – the exacerbation of the current threats by Iran because of the trauma of the Holocaust;

3. Timing – Israel cannot afford to be continually looking over its shoulder because of a nuclear-armed Iran;

4; Trigger – Israel is determined to ensure that Iran does not have a capability of producing a bomb while America is only determined that Iran not acquire a nuclear bomb;

5. Trust – Israel, and the Gulf states as well, have lost trust is the willingness of America to follow through and ensure its commitments and red lines mean something.

In a nutshell, Abrams buys the Netanyahu line that the Iranians are just playing at jaw, jaw in order to buy time, get relief from even harsher sanctions and, hopefully, ease up on the existing sanctions while, also hopefully, dividing the P5 + 1. To some degree, in Abrams’ view, Iran seems to have achieved that delay and division by the end of the last round of talks, Hassan Rohani, the current President of Iran, has long served the Ayatolah and has boasted about his ability to stall the previous negotiations. Rohani, who was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2002-2005, admitted that Iran’s nuclear work was never supposed to be exposed and did boat about the success of Iran’s efforts to conceal that program. For Abrams, no deal acceptable to the Iranians would or should be acceptable to the P5 + 1. Afterwards, Cliff Orwin asked Abrams about regime change related to the Arab Spring rather than to Iran, the subject Abrams had addressed in the chapter in the edited volume on Iran mentioned above. Abram’s position is that eventually the mullahcracy will collapse in on itself and, in the meanwhile, they cannot be trusted. He did not address the issue of what measures may best nudge Iran in that direction.

Though clever in allowing the points to be easily recalled, are his five T’s an accurate depiction of reality quite aside from describing Israel’s purported fears? For Abrams easily slips from a fear to simply assuming that the fear is totally based in objective reality. What is known about each of these T’s contrasts to some degree with Abram’s depiction. First, as depicted yesterday, or last month by the Israeli military intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, Iran has sought (and, in my observations, has achieved) the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon fairly quickly, if, by fairly quickly we mean 4-6 weeks.

However, Kochavi acknowledges that Iran in the last few months since the elections has gone through “significant” and “strategic” changes (Kochavi’s words) that should not be ignored.  For example, Abrams omitted to say that Rohani won with a 51% majority and was the least preferred of the candidates by the Ayatollah. Further, Ayatollah Khamenei himself has said since the election that, “Heroic flexibility is very useful and necessary sometimes.” Netanyahu in his UN address this year refused to see any fundamental difference. “Presidents of Iran have come and gone. Some presidents were considered moderates, other hard-liners. But they’ve all served that same unforgiving creed, that same unforgiving regime, that creed that is espoused and enforced by the real power in Iran, the dictator known as the supreme leader, first Ayatollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Khamenei.”

Abrams, like Netanyahu, either ignores those changes depicted by Kochavi or simply dismisses them as either rhetorical gestures in a shell game or heuristic posturing to slip free of the sanctions regime. As Netanyahu put it in his UN speech, “Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rohani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the eyes — the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Iranians are heavily invested in Syria. Iranians do threaten the Saudis and other Gulf states. The Iranian leader may no longer deny the Holocaust, but Iran remains an implacable enemy of Israel.  Rohani has also explicitly lied when Rohani said that Iran has never chosen deceit and secrecy when Iran was caught in 2002 building the underground centrifuge facility in Natanz and in 2009 was discovered to have built the newer deeply underground nuclear enrichment facility.

So if the Iranians have a record of lying, have virtual nuclear capability now but have not crossed Netanyahu’s red line of actually being in possession of 240-250 kgms of 20% enriched uranium, and is willing now to back off for strategic, economic, domestic and other reasons, then the threat, whatever it actually is, has changed. The signing of the agreement with the IAEA is proof that Rohani is willing to at least concede (mostly, though still not sufficiently) on the transparency front probably, in part, because Iran is so close to nuclear capability.

The issue then is No. 4, the trigger. Abrams was correct last night that, whatever the benefits and outcomes of the chemical weapons talks on Syria, virtually the whole world concluded that the Syrian crisis has shown how reluctant the US, and certainly the rest of the world is, to resort to a military solution once a red line has been crossed, in the case of Iran, the fear of a future expulsion of the nuclear inspectors and an attempt at a very quick breakout in the production of nuclear weapons. I personally believe that it is because the Iranians are on the threshold of having a significant nuclear capability that they are willing to be flexible. As Khamenei said to his Revolutionary Guards, a wrestler needs to know when to be flexible while not forgetting the nature of his enemy.

So the issue is whether Iran has shown enough flexibility and has conceded enough to warrant an initial easing of the sanctions. As I indicated yesterday, Iran is also on that threshold but has not crossed it yet to the satisfaction of the P5+1, but that possibility is very close and may be just around the corner. The fact with respect to the threat is that there are four lines in the sand:

a) Iran having a capability to make nuclear weapons within8-12 weeks after a breakout;

b) Iran having a capability of breaking out to make nuclear weapons in 4-6 weeks;

c) Iran having a current capability of making nuclear weapons;

d) Iran having nuclear weapons.

The consensus is that Iran has not achieved d) or even c), but has achieved a). So the issue is how best to stop Iran from getting to b) given the recognition that there has been a change in Iran and that the economic sanctions have bitten deeply. Israel and the USA are NOT divided on this issue of the threat, contrary to Abrams presentation, for Obama’s goal is also to prevent Iran from actually having a nuclear capability and not just preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons as Abrams asserted last night. Further, the issue is how to develop an agreement that ensures that Iran cannot “breakout” when it decides to do so and use its current capabilities and centrifuge capacity to very quickly become a nuclear power before the world becomes educated about the immanent threat and develops the willingness to take military action. Testing America’s willingness to take action on Syria’s chemical weapons used against its own people is one thing, but Iran recognizes and seems reluctant to test American willpower to use the military option to protect Israel, especially given the widespread consensus in Congress on this red line.

It would appear that Abrams paid little attention to Blackwill’s strictures in the final chapter of the edited volume to which Abrams contributed, for Blackwill warned against jumping to quick and clichéd conclusions, misusing false analogies and comparisons (Syria and Iran), focussing on short term thinking (Abrams) rather than longer term goals, though on this issue, Kerry may not be any further ahead than Abrams, recognizing the various cautions about a pre-emptive attack in spite of America’s much enhanced capabilities in terms of the American fleet’s proximity to targets of opportunity, its possession of deep cluster bombing capability, and its capacity to hit all the relevant targets.  The real underlying timing issue is whether this is the opportune timing both to freeze Iran’s capability development and set Iran to some degree in a reverse direction while, at the same time, reinforcing the forces of moderation within Iranian society that can further weaken the hold of the Ayatollahs on that country and even provide a new prospective link with Iran though that would certainly increase the threat to American relations with the Gulf states.

Last night Abrams also gave a reason why he cannot be trusted. He was asked that very question. How can you be trusted, Mr. Abrams, when you were a vocal voice pushing America to invade Iraq. Abrams replied that everyone, every western military intelligence service, at the time believed that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. But that was not the question. The issue was about the solidity of the evidence for such a belief, the issue of whether Iraq was even close to a nuclear capability, which very few believed, the issue of the immanence of the threat, the issue of considering alternatives to an invasion and the issue of whether, if there was even a threat of developing a nuclear capability, an invasion at that time was warranted. Abram’s refusal to contemplate and consider these finer distinctions simply indicated that continuing distrust of Elliott Abrams’ analysis is warranted even though he does not pose a nuclear or strategic threat to anyone.


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