Posts Tagged Iran
The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:
What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.
Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?
Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.
Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.
2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.
“Not worth five cents”
What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.
Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:
President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…
We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…
If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…
The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”
Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.
Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.
I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….
I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.
The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.
The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.
After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.
There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.
“Too big for business as usual”
In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.
In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”
Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.
And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:
Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”
That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17.
On Tuesday I posted a video-photo essay on the Iranian-built shine in Raqqa, northern Syria. I explained the political motive behind its construction, and why its capture by anti-regime insurgents had so much symbolic significance. I noted that the shrine was now “likely to be purged of its explicitly Iranian and Shiite references.”
Over the weekend, a video clip has been circulating around the Internet which shows just that. It originated in the television program “With Syria Until Victory,” of the well-known opposition Salafist preacher Sheikh Adnan al-Ar’ur, broadcast on Al-Shada TV last Thursday night. A reporter takes us on a tour through the “liberated” shrine, from minute 1:29:40. The clip is embedded below. (If you don’t see it, click here. Just the report, excerpted from the program, can be watched here.)
The narration is in Arabic, so I’ll quickly summarize. At the entrance, we see graffiti on both sides of the doors, announcing that this is now the Sunna Mosque. We then see the Arabic dedication plaque, where the names of Bashar Asad and Mohammad Khatami are totally effaced (but not that of Hafez Asad). Inside, we see one of the tombs, and are shown a broken bottle of wine, as well as a pile of CDs and tapes, which are described as “pornographic films.” There are books, described as evidence for Shiite proselytizing, and two Shiite banners, proclaiming “Ya Husayn” and “Ya Ali.” There is a classroom for teaching children the Shiite creed. The people of Syria, the narrator reassures us, are stronger than those who would divert them from the true path.
In Sheikh al-Ar’ur’s commentary, from minute 1:32:36, he explains that the wine and pornographic films are evidence that the shrine served as a trap for Sunni youths—an intelligence operation to film them in compromising situations.
The shrine is intact and protected (a uniformed man is glimpsed at the entrance), although there is no mention of which faction is in control. The Iranian media had earlier reported that the shrine was destroyed by Sunni extremists, but this was manifestly false. Fear of possible Sunni destruction of shrines stands ostensibly behind the deployment of foreign Shiite “volunteers” around the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus, where they are effectively bolstering the Asad regime. (This is the so-called “Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.”)
To judge from the way this latest clip has raced around the Internet and proliferated on Youtube, the symbolism of the Raqqa shrine isn’t lost on Sunnis or Shiites. That suggests that the battle to defend the Damascus shrines is certain to raise the sectarian temperature still further.
(Again, for the full context, consult my video-photo essay.)
Update: Javier Espinosa of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo has now visited the shrine and tweets as below. He assures me he saw the destruction himself.
— Javier Espinosa (@javierespinosa2) April 23, 2013
On March 4, a curious video clip from Syria appeared on the internet. It shows a large, gilt-framed double portrait of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i cast down on a stone floor. A man whose face is never shown steps repeatedly on the portrait, to the crunching sound of broken glass. (If you don’t see the embedded video below, click here.)
Four times in the 90-second segment, the camera pans up to focus on the ornate portal of an impressive building, inscribed with a verse of the Qur’an (13:24): “Peace unto you for that ye persevered in patience! Now how excellent is the final Home!” Someone off-camera mutters the name of Raqqa, a dusty provincial capital situated on the Euphrates about 200 kilometers east of Aleppo. It was seized by Sunni Islamist insurgents during the first week of March, and this clip clearly depicts an episode in the immediate aftermath of the city’s capture. But it doesn’t identify the specific place or explain the act of iconoclasm it depicts.
Had the camera panned up still further, it would have revealed the entire façade, completing part of the puzzle. The upper inscription identifies this site as the shrine of two figures from seventh-century Islamic history. The façade is striking, but just what is the connection of this shrine in Raqqa to Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i, and why is their portrait being defaced at its entrance?
I answer that question in a new photo gallery, taking you on a visit to an impoverished far corner of Syria, and to the missing link in the so-called “Shiite crescent.” Go here to join me on the journey. I’ll get you back in time for lunch.
In the November issue of Foreign Policy, Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published an essay entitled “The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct.” Until recently, Sadjadpour had been one of the foremost advocates of “engagement” with the Iranian regime—a policy that has come to naught. Now he makes a fallback case for “containment,” explicitly evoking the memory of the renowned American diplomat George F. Kennan. It was Kennan who, in his famous “long telegram” of 1946 (later published as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”), first elaborated the concept that became known as “containment.” That approach guided much of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union through the Cold War.
Sadjadpour employs the rhetorical device of taking ten passages in Kennan’s famous essay and substituting “Iranian” for “Soviet,” “Tehran” for “Moscow,” “Khamene’i” for “Stalin,” and so on. Kennan is thus transformed into a full-blown prophet “anticipating today’s Iran.… Kennan’s wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations. In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain ‘at all times cool and collected’—and allow the march of history to run its course.” One is led to conclude that a resurrected Kennan would have the United States avoid military confrontation with Iran, preferring to “contain” it by other means.
Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101, and just what he would say about Iran today is anybody’s guess. But if the exercise is valid at all, perhaps it is only fair to ask what Kennan did say about Iran. During two crises, in 1952 and 1980, he made policy recommendations—in 1952, to the State Department in private, and in 1980, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in public.
In 1951, Iran’s new nationalist premier Mohamed Mossadegh challenged Britain over control of Iran’s oil. This prompted Kennan (by that time, January 1952, a private citizen awaiting confirmation as ambassador to the Soviet Union) to write a long, unsolicited memo intended for Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
“The thesis to which we acquiesced in Iran,” he wrote, “that such arrangements [i.e. Western concessions] can be cancelled or reversed abruptly, on the basis of somebody’s whim or mood, is preposterous and indefensible.” The West had every right to thwart Iran’s actions by force: “Had the British occupied Abadan [Iran's oil fields and refineries], I would personally have no great worry about what happened to the rest of the country.” The only possible concern, he added, was the Soviet response. But if the Soviets wanted war, “I doubt that Abadan would be the place they would choose to start it. Abadan is a long way from the Soviet frontier.”
Indeed, if any of the West’s vital strategic assets in the Middle East were jeopardized by “local hostility,” Kennan argued, they should be “militarily secured with the greatest possible despatch.” “To retain these facilities and positions we can use today only one thing: military strength, backed by the resolution and courage to employ it. There is nothing else that will avail us.” The least concession would invite disaster:
The idea that the appetites of local potentates can be satiated and their deep-seated resentments turned into devotion by piecemeal concessions and partial withdrawals is surely naïve to a degree that should make us blush to entertain it. If these people think they have us on the run, they will plainly not be satisfied until they have us completely out, lock, stock, and barrel, and then they will want to crow for decades to come about their triumph, in a way that will hardly be compatible with minimum requirements of western prestige. The only thing that will prevent them from achieving this end is the cold gleam of adequate and determined force. The day for other things, if it ever existed, has now passed.
Kennan was unconcerned that the “locals” might resist in any effective way: “If we do this quietly, with determination, and without being apologetic about it, there may be a great many flamboyant words and a certain amount of brandishing of weapons against us, but I doubt that there will be much more.” And he dismissed counter-arguments that forceful action might mire the West in conflict—estimates “often based on calculations relating to a major adversary, when it is actually a local adversary with which we would have immediately to contend.” In other words, the Persians weren’t Russians.
The argument for “containment” of Iran was made not by Kennan but against him. The push-back came from State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which reacted with alacrity to his key proposal. “We cannot view with equanimity the suggestions about a possible British occupation of Abadan,” wrote the bureau head in response to Kennan, “with its conceivable attendant consequences in the rest of Iran. It appears to us that the moral disaster for us in the rest of Asia might well prove incalculable…. We still believe that patient, intelligent, constructive statesmanship offers the best prospect of basic solutions. There are still some indications that we may yet find solutions to the Iranian oil problem.”
Kennan had the last word in the exchange. If the United States persisted in its mistaken approach, he warned, it could lose “those specific facilities which are really vital and important and could probably quite successfully be held by force and determination.” The United States could only “rescue some of the most vital of the western positions” by “act[ing] rapidly, with determination, discarding our fatuous desire to be ‘liked’ and making it clear that the Russians are not the only serious people in this world.”
By the time of Iran’s revolution, Kennan’s status as a revered wise man of foreign affairs had grown enormously. In February 1980, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited him to testify in the midst of a double crisis. Iranian militants had seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November, and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December. The committee sought Kennan’s insights on the best U.S. response.
The headline of the Washington Post on the morning after Kennan’s appearance told a surprising story: “George Kennan Urges Tougher Stance on Iran.” Just how tough? Here is the first paragraph of the report (by Don Oberdorfer, February 28, 1980):
Veteran diplomat and historian George F. Kennan yesterday advocated a declaration of war against Iran over the hostage issue and quiet diplomacy with the Soviets over Afghanistan as well as a range of other alternatives to current U.S. foreign policy.
On reading this, all of Washington must have gasped, and it is worth repeating Kennan’s precise words to the committee, since he spoke some of them in prepared remarks and others in the course of an exchange. There was, he said in his prepared remarks,
a limit on the time we can afford to temporize with the problem [of the hostages]. If we temporize too long, our concern for their safety may be deprived of much of its meaning. I feel therefore that we should hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military one, which, if the efforts of the Secretary General of the United Nations should fail, might be more effective in persuading the Iranian authorities that it would be to their interest to release these people.
The committee chair, California Senator S.I. Hayakawa, a conservative Republican, could hardly believe his ears, and he pressed Kennan on “military alternatives.” “What would it do to the fate of the hostages?” Sen. Hayakawa asked. “Would we have a confrontation with the U.S.S.R. if we took that path? At the same time I am not disavowing such a path, still I would like to ask some questions about the dangers and prospects involved.”
Kennan then dropped his bombshell:
A number of times, since these people were locked up and since we began to hear the series of unprecedented insults and expressions of contempt for this country that we have heard from the ayatollah [Khomeini], I have wondered why we and our Government did not simply acknowledge the existence of the state of hostility brought about by the behavior of the Iranian Government, and, having done that, then regard ourselves as at war with that country. Having taken that step, then we could do the normal thing, which would be to ask a third power to represent our interests in Iran, in which case the hostages would become their immediate responsibility, not ours. We would then also intern the Iranian official personnel in this country, I hope humanely, and not in the way that they have interned ours—because, after all, we have obligations to ourselves, too. But by doing this, we would put ourselves in a position, first of all, to offer the Iranians something to get them off the hook; namely, an exchange of their personnel, which might be helpful. But in any case, it would also put us in a position to make our own decisions about such military action that we might wish to take if it became necessary.
I don’t think that it would be useful for me to speculate on the sort of things we could do, because some of them might necessitate taking advantage of the element of surprise.
Kennan did allow that “any sort of harsher action against Iran to solve this problem” would have to be prefaced by “careful communication with the Soviet Government in an effort to explain to them exactly what we are doing and why.” As in 1952, the Soviet reaction mattered to Kennan—and other possible reactions didn’t.
This wasn’t the only hard line Kennan toed. Even if Iran did release the American hostages, Kennan urged that the United States regard Iran as a pariah until it admitted its error. From Kennan’s prepared remarks:
Even should the hostages be released, it would be wrong for us to attempt to establish at any early date normal official relations with the present Iranian regime. What the Iranian authorities have done has been a grievous affront to international law, to diplomatic practice, and to the entire international community. To offer to forget it before there has been evidence of a clear readiness on the official Iranian side to recognize their fault, accompanied by satisfactory and reliable assurances against the repetition of such conduct, would not offer a promising basis for future relations with that regime.
In the subsequent Q&A, Sen. Hayakawa pointed to “Khomeini’s approval of the terrorists and all them being totally intransigent and not admitting any fault whatsoever.” He asked Kennan “from whom can we expect this recognition of their fault without an overthrow of the present government?” Kennan did not think the regime was “very firmly” in power. “But if they do remain in power, and if they continue to take this present attitude, I would certainly not think that we should send any other official personnel there or have diplomatic relations with them at all.”
The Kennan testimony, and especially the call for a declaration of war, ricocheted through Washington, and it prompted a column by conservative journalist William F. Buckley, Jr. “I wasn’t there,” wrote Buckley,
but I can imagine that the Senators stared at [Kennan] as though he had been entered by an incubus. Dr. Strangelove. Professor Kennan continued with his characteristic calm. Yes, we should have declared war, and then instantly interned all Iranians living in this country, holding them hostage against the safe return of our own citizens. We should, moreover, have prepared to take such military measures as might seem advisable in the event our hostages were harmed.
Holy caterpillar! To declare war in this country would require a researcher to inform the president and Congress on just how to go about doing it.
Buckley waxed enthusiastic about the idea of a war declaration (he called it “a wonderful demystifier”) and praised Kennan for proposing it: “That such a recommendation should have been made by someone once dubbed one of the principal ambiguists among American intelligentsia reminds us that purposeful thought is still possible.”
But Kennan also drew flak. One contemporary critic, the columnist and former Democratic presidential adviser John P. Roche, wrote that “some have unkindly suggested that Kennan’s declaration of war was an indication he is senile.” Not so, opined Roche, pointing instead to Kennan’s archaic notions of diplomatic privilege. Kennan, he wrote derisively, “wants foreign service clubhouses to be shown the respect they merit. If not, send for a gunboat.” Roche’s preferred option on the hostages: “We just have to sit it out.” Once again, the case for restraint was made not by Kennan but against him.
In sum, when Kennan was asked for his wisdom on Iran in 1980—and in a prominent forum, too—he expressed views directly opposed to those Sadjadpour would attribute to him. Sadjadpour: “Kennan’s wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations.” In reality, Kennan did call on the United States to shun dialogue with Iran until it admitted the error of its ways—hardly a tempered expectation. Sadjadpour: “In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain ‘at all times cool and collected’—and allow the march of history to run its course.” In reality, Kennan called for the United States to declare war on Iran and contemplate military action, in view of the “limit on the time we can afford to temporize.”
In the very same testimony Kennan urged that the United States exercise supreme caution in challenging the Soviets over Afghanistan: “It is up to us to eliminate from our words or actions anything that might unnecessarily contribute to a heightening of the existing military-political tension.” Why the vast difference in approach? For Kennan, the Soviets were a “major adversary” while Iran was merely a “local adversary.” In Kennan’s eyes, Iran wasn’t on par with the Soviet Union—not even close—and deserved to be treated accordingly. Seizing and occupying Iran’s oil fields, declaring war against it, brandishing threats of military action—Kennan consistently advocated the toughest possible posture against Iran during the two great Iran crises he witnessed. He was ever respectful of Soviet Russia and always contemptuous of Iran.
So it isn’t difficult to imagine a resurrected Kennan shocking a Congressional committee by insisting that the United States bomb Natanz. That Kennan instead has been turned into a posthumous supporter of “containing” Iran is amusing—or would be, if it weren’t so misleading.
- Sources: Kennan’s memo of January 22, 1952 and the subsequent exchange with the Near Eastern Affairs bureau are preserved in Kennan’s papers in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton, box 164, folder 28. Kennan’s Senate testimony of February 27, 1980 was published in Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Security Interests and Policies in Southwest Asia, pp. 87-123.
- Note: An abbreviated version of this post also appeared as a letter in the January 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, with a reply by Karim Sadjadpour. More on this to come.
Michael J. Totten, probably the most widely read blogger on the Middle East, has just published an interview with me, conducted in September.
I sought out Martin Kramer in Jerusalem because I knew he would give me an analysis well outside-the-box on Iranian nuclear weapons. He’s a scholar, not a politician or pundit. And while he certainly has his opinions, he doesn’t conveniently fit into anyone’s ideological box.
I was not disappointed, and I don’t think you will be either. What he has to say is different from anything you’ve read from anyone in the media, including me.
MJT: I assume you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic this summer. He asked dozens of Israeli decision-makers and analysts if they think Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, and the concensus seems to be that the odds are greater than fifty percent that it will happen before the middle of summer in 2011. What do you think?
Martin Kramer: It’s in Israel’s interest to convince the world that the decision-makers are leaning in that direction. The idea is to prompt somebody else to take action, in particular the Obama administration. So there’s a debate about whether or not Jeffrey has been spun.
MJT: Yes, and he mentioned that himself.
Martin Kramer: The whole purpose of spinning Jeffrey Goldberg—assuming that’s what happened—was to prod the United States into taking a more forward position. Americans are taking a forward position already, but the idea here would be to multiply the effect.
But I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to all the people Jeffrey talked to, and there are a lot of variables that we don’t know yet. The timeline is open to question. The intelligence is also being debated. So while I wouldn’t put a percentage on it, plans are definitely on the table. If the United States doesn’t act, the moment will come when a decision will have to be made. We don’t know what the arguments will be or in which ways the calculations will shift between now and then. Israel has the option, though, and it’s on the table. I wouldn’t say the odds are greater than fifty percent, but it’s a credible option.
MJT: What do you think Iran would actually do with a nuclear bomb?
Martin Kramer: The Iranians have a structural interest in creating doubt and uncertainty in the Persian Gulf. They have a larger population than any other Gulf state, and they don’t have the share of oil resources that Saudi Arabia has. So their first objective would be to create a climate of uncertainty.
Now, the Persian Gulf has been—since the United States took over from the British—a zone that is essentially under an American security umbrella. It is as crucial to American security as Lake Michigan. The United States doesn’t use most of the oil coming out of the Gulf, but its allies do, so the stability of the Gulf has been associated with a steady flow of oil and a price that moves within a predictable range.
Iran wants to create uncertainty there because oil is the only thing it has. Iran has nothing else—some carpets and pistachio nuts, and that’s it. Their population continues to grow, their needs continue to grow, and their grand ambitions continue to grow. So this, I think, is the first thing they would do with it. All it takes is to create a crisis or a succession of crises.
Iran knows it can’t wrest sole hegemony in the Gulf from the United States, but it wants to create a kind of dual hegemony shared with the United States. Nobody knows where the lines would run, but they wouldn’t run just five to ten miles off the coast of Iran into the waters of the Persian Gulf. Iran would like to see its share extend to both sides of the Gulf, to effectively create a kind of push and shove between the United States and Iran.
A lot of people on the Arab side of the Gulf will say they feel Iran’s breath on their faces. The United States is there now, but the British were there once, too, and now they’re gone. The Persians are always there and will always be there. So we’ll see a lot of hedging. Iran would be perceived as the rising power and the United States a declining power.
Don’t assume that in the Persian Gulf they don’t hear what we say about this. Obama was famously photographed holding a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World during the election campaign. And don’t assume they don’t hear Americans talking about imperial overstretch.
MJT: You’re talking about the Arabs here.
Martin Kramer: Yes, the Arabs. And this creates a dynamic where if Iran also has nuclear weapons they will increasingly hedge. Things they allow Americans now—such as basing rights for operations in the Persian Gulf and beyond—will become more and more difficult to negotiate if Iran opposes them. So we would see an erosion of the American position in the Persian Gulf.
I think Iran is a lot less interested in justice for the Palestinians than in establishing their command over the gulf they call Persian.
MJT: We call it the Persian Gulf, too.
Martin Kramer: For reasons of geographic exactitude and custom. But Americans don’t mean it should be dominated by Iran.
Martin Kramer: The Iranians do. That’s the longer term objective. And like I said, they’re less interested in justice for the Palestinians than they are in this. They remind me a bit of Saddam Hussein. He said at one point that he would burn half of Israel, yet turned around and instead burned a lot of Kuwait. He wasn’t as interested in being admired by the Palestinians as he was about controlling resources. The Gulf is always very much a resource game. So that would be the first objective of the Iranians. But, of course, Iran also wants to wage proxy wars elsewhere.
MJT: They do have interests in the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean].
Martin Kramer: They have interests in the Levant, but there’s nothing here that can solve their fundamental problems, which is the mismatch of population and resources. Their game in the Levant is to get around America’s flank. They see Israel as an extension of America, but it’s not their primary area of interest.
Obviously, though, they have an ideological interest here, and they’re willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese Shiite, but it’s an open question how much they’d be willing to sacrifice themselves directly.
So that’s why I think Iranian nuclear weapons are a world problem as much as, or even more than, they are an Israeli problem.
MJT: The Persian Gulf is certainly more of a world problem than an Israeli problem.
Martin Kramer: Israel has to take it seriously, though. After listening to Iran’s discourse, Israel can’t rule out the possibility that even a small faction could get their finger on the trigger.
It’s a world problem, though, and the world has to ask itself if it can tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran deliberately creating uncertainty, instability, and doubt surrounding the great reservoir of the world’s energy. If a coalition ever comes together to stop Iran, this will be the reason.
MJT: What do you think will happen in the Levant if Iran builds a bomb? Will wars with Hezbollah and Hamas be more or less likely, and peace with the Palestinians more or less likely?
Martin Kramer: Those are two separate issues.
MJT: Yes, but they’ll both be affected.
Martin Kramer: Right. It will certainly create a situation where there would be an expectation among the supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas that Iran would act to come to their defense by using its nuclear capabilities to threaten Israel, but I’m not sure Iran wants to do that. We saw during the last Lebanon war that the timing of the crisis was not to Iran’s liking. The Iranians would not have chosen the summer of 2006 to have Hezbollah in a crisis with Israel.
MJT: They were angry about it.
Martin Kramer: They view the Levant as an arena that can be integrated into their larger strategy, not so they can support a strategy that has been independently formulated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah doesn’t deliberately formulate an independent strategy, but Hamas certainly does.
If Iran decides to take the route that Israel and Japan have taken—either nuclear ambiguity or being one screw away from having a bomb—it would be less subject to moral extortion by the extremists in the Levant who would act unilaterally and expect Iran to come to their aid. So an ambiguous scenario wouldn’t increase the possibility of warfare, but if Iran becomes an explicit and open nuclear state, that’s a different story. Even the United States and the Soviet Union went on nuclear alert over an Arab-Israeli war [in 1973]. But you never know. Knowing in advance that it could lead to that kind of escalation, there might be mechanisms which would kick into action before things reached that level.
I do think a nuclear Iran creates a dynamic where Israel, from a strategic point of view, is compelled to keep a tight grip on Jerusalem and a large swath of the West Bank for the simple reason that it creates a deterrent to an Iranian attack. If all our strategic assets are concentrated on the coastal plain around Tel Aviv, we’re vulnerable. An Iranian ayatollah, Rafsanjani, has already noted that Israel is vulnerable to one strike. So how to we change that calculation?
A big country like the United States disperses its assets across a vast continent when facing nuclear adversaries. A small state can’t do that. But within this small state is a prime Muslim holy place, the liberation of which is championed by the Iranians, and it’s in Jerusalem.
So if Israel faces a real nuclear adversary that threatens its destruction and has Islamic fervor as the basis of its ideology—one that holds up Jerusalem as a symbol—it will make all the sense in the world to concentrate every strategic asset it can right next to it.
The Israeli leadership has built a duplicate command center in Jerusalem exactly like the one it has in Tel Aviv in the Ministry of Defense. So why stop at the top brass and the political leadership if you know that over the long term we’ll face a hostile nuclear adversary? It makes sense to load up Jerusalem with strategic assets which would themselves serve as a deterrent to a future exchange. And it’s a lot easier to do than position submarines in the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean.
So the long term effect would be to make Jerusalem central to Israel not only for political and cultural reasons, but also for strategic reasons. That doesn’t mean all kinds of arrangements can’t be made on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians about the day-to-day running of the city.
In the past, Israel was concerned about holding the Jordan Valley as its eastern front against an invading conventional army. In a nuclear scenario Jerusalem itself would become crucial to preventing an adversary from striking a decisive blow which would render it no longer viable as a state. The idea is to persuade that adversary that even if there is a strike against Israel’s concentration of population, Israel will still remain viable.
MJT: It sounds, though, like this would make resolving the conflict with the Palestinians much more difficult.
Martin Kramer: Yes.
MJT: I figured we’d agree, but can you explain why you think that’s the case?
Martin Kramer: If there’s a shift of Israel’s assets from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the struggle over real estate up here becomes even more acute. There will be less leeway for Israeli concessions. Concessions are difficult to make in any case. Local security issues can be, in one way or another, finessed, but once they play out in this mega arena of confrontation between nuclear states, flexibility diminishes quickly. It would create tremendous pressure on Israel to maintain its right to decide the future of different pieces of turf close to the city.
In the past we had the idea that in order for Israel to remain viable we had to settle the Negev Desert and the Galilee because they have large Arab populations. That was never for religious reasons, it was always for strategic reasons. A nuclear Iran would create strategic calculations for Jerusalem that weren’t there before. There were always other strategic calculations for Jerusalem, but this would create a powerful new one. What would the Israelis and Palestinians discuss at the table once that became a factor?
Linkage is a big issue, but there’s a debate over which way linkage runs. Some say a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it much easier for the United States to deal with Iran. But I think the absence of a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma places a high premium on Israel holding if not the totality of the occupied territories, at least a sizable bit of real estate around Jerusalem as a strategic reserve.
I say this as someone who has always believed there would be some way to compromise over Jerusalem, but when I see the prospect of a nuclear Iran on the horizon threatening Israel, I say to myself that I want as many of Israel’s strategic, demographic, industrial, and technological assets in and around the city as possible.
MJT: So what do you say to people who prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Iranian nuclear weapons?
Martin Kramer: I’d like to know more about how this is supposed to affect Iran’s calculations. I don’t think it will. I think they decided long ago that they want to have a hegemonic role enhanced by nuclear capability. A resolution of the conflict here wouldn’t deter them or persuade them from that ambition. On the contrary, they would believe that Israel would grow stronger and would be even more of a threat than it is today. They’re going to pursue this track no matter what.
The theory is that a resolution to the conflict would make it easier to mobilize Arab support.
Martin Kramer: But how much Arab support does the United States need that it doesn’t already have? Support from the Gulf Arabs is already guaranteed. They see Iran as a threat directed more at them than at anyone else.
MJT: They do.
Martin Kramer: The Arabs who could conceivably be swayed are the Arabs of Egypt and the Levant, but it’s difficult to envision a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would satisfy all of them. Quite a few formulas will alienate lots of them.
And the question is: are they really necessary? Is it that important to have the so-called Arab street? It’s extremely difficult to turn the Arab street into a strategic asset. Nasser tried to do it. Saddam Hussein tried to do it. Ahmadinejad is trying to do it. Erdogan is trying to do it. It’s flattering, I suppose, to have your poster on walls here and there, but nobody has found a way to turn that into something they can use, and I don’t think the United States has much prospect of doing so either. It’s an intangible.
A nuclear Iran, on the other hand, would be tangible. So I think linkage, in fact, runs the other way.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has a chance of being resolved if the Levant can be disconnected from the Gulf. So we have to deal with the Iranian issue first.
Look at the history of the Middle East since the creation of Israel to the present. We have had two separate periods. The first lasted from 1948 until the late 1970s. During this period we had a war between Israel and the Arabs every decade. The Gulf region was stable. The British were there. There was always a concern that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs might create a ripple effect in the Gulf, and it finally happened in 1973 when they cut off the oil.
Then the United States changed its policy. The Americans said they were going to support Israel so staunchly that the Arabs would despair of ever achieving victory and would therefore have no choice but to sign peace agreements. And that’s what happened.
Since 1973 there has been no state-to-state war in the Levant. We’ve had intifadas, we’ve had wars between Israel and non-state actors, but we haven’t had the devastation of a state-to-state war. And the oil hasn’t been shut off since then. The oil only gets cut off as an act of solidarity between states, not as an act of solidarity with the PLO, Hamas, or Hezbollah.
So we now have an architecture that works in the Levant, but the Gulf has experienced a succession of wars. The Gulf now destabilizes the region. It has seen the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the latest Iraq war, and who knows what’s to come. And we’ve seen that the instability in the Persian Gulf region has a ripple effect in the Levant. It goes the other way now, and it’s a consequence of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Israel is the stake that has been planted in the Levant. Because it’s powerful, it puts a high premium on rationality among all those who surround it. It serves as the basis for the security architecture.
When the British left the Gulf in the early 1970s, the Americans weren’t in a position to pick it up because they were busy in Vietnam. They had their dual pillars in the Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but one of them collapsed in 1979. And since that collapse, there has been no equivalent of Israel in the Gulf which the United States could use as a fulcrum around which to organize a region. So the pillar of stability has been the American deployment of its own forces again and again and again. They’ve put millions of boots on the ground, and it’s still not enough.
So here in the Levant we’re feeling the wash from the long-term destabilization of the Gulf. It is America’s primary interest to keep these as two separate regions. The regional hegemon needs to make sure there is no cross-contamination between them.
The regions used to be separate. During the British time, the Levant was run from London and the Persian Gulf from India. The Levant was called the Near East, and the Gulf was called the Middle East. These were two distinct zones. We’ve conflated them in the meantime, and it’s in the interest of the United States to disaggregate them again and to keep them disaggregated. Any attempt to project power from one into the other undermines the position of the regional hegemon. That was true when Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel, and it’s true when Iran sends missiles to Hezbollah. It’s always the radicals who do the bridging. The same was true with Nasser.
And it compels others to do the same. If Israel acts over the head of the United States against Iran, it will be just the latest example. It’s something the United States can’t afford. It means that every time we have a problem in the Levant, it will create problems for the United States in the Gulf, and vice versa.
MJT: How can the United States drive a wedge between the two regions?
Martin Kramer: That’s easy. The U.S. just has to say that it supports its Israeli ally to keep order in its arena, and the U.S. will take responsibility for keeping order in its arena. Just effectively divide responsibility. If the U.S. flags in its resolve to do that, it will be under pressure from those who are tempted to act outside their arena.
My friend Steve Rosen at Harvard once said it would be shameful if the United States were to leave it to Israel to do what it should do in the Gulf. The Persian Gulf is an area of world interest where America plays the guarantor role.
If Israel has to act as the guarantor in the Gulf, it will be a sign that America has dodged its responsibility.
MJT: The Gulf Arab states are not-so quietly hoping Israel will do it if the U.S. does not.
Martin Kramer: They’re looking for someone, anyone, to do it.
MJT: They’re the ones who should be the most worried. We don’t hear much about this from the Arab states in North Africa. They don’t have as many reasons to be concerned.
Martin Kramer: That’s a separate area altogether.
MJT: Egypt is sort of a bridge, though, isn’t it? Cairo sides to a certain extent with Israel against Hamas, and we know Mubarak isn’t thrilled about what’s happening in Tehran.
Martin Kramer: The main problem with Egypt is that its own regional role has been so much diminished. Not only can Egypt no longer project power beyond its borders as it did in Nasser’s days, it can barely control events inside its national borders as we’ve seen in the Sinai. Egypt clearly resents the rise of Iranian power. They don’t necessarily trust anyone as a counterweight. Their approach all along has been that they don’t want a nuclear Iran, but that the way to go about it is to de-nuclearize Israel as part of a grand bargain. They would achieve two goals at once. Both Iran and Israel would be cut down a peg.
MJT: Do you think that’s their sincere approach? Egyptian officials will say this in public, but what do they really think?
Martin Kramer: I think there’s no question they’d like the United States to play the role. They’d much rather have the U.S. take the lead than Israel. They know what everyone knows—the United States would do it much more effectively.
MJT: Of course.
Martin Kramer: There would be nothing worse than a botched or half-complete operation. There’s a very strong preference that the U.S. take care of this, among the Gulf Arabs and the Egyptians.
MJT: And, of course, among the Israelis.
Martin Kramer: It’s absolutely central to the strategy to maintain this division. And the only way to maintain it is for the United States to demonstrate tomorrow that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or to allow Israel to act unilaterally. The Gulf is a zone of American dominance, and the only way to assert that is to do what Carter did with the Carter Doctrine, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He said there should be no outside power or local power that is allowed to challenge the United States in the Gulf. And a nuclear Iran clearly crosses that line.
If even Jimmy Carter was compelled to issue a doctrinal statement in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan about the Persian Gulf, one would think that Barack Obama would see the need to do something similar. Obama should especially feel compelled to do so because there’s a question mark there. He should declare the Persian Gulf a nuclear-free zone. It’s too much to talk about the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone at this time, but the Persian Gulf is nuclear-free now, and it’s time for the United States to come out and say it should remain nuclear-free.
MJT: I have a hard time imaging Obama doing anything of the sort.
Martin Kramer: Yeah. Well.
MJT: But I suppose one never knows.
Martin Kramer: It would be an astonishing lapse if a man who promised to roll back nuclear proliferation watched proliferation develop in one of the least stable parts of the world, a place where the United States has only been able to maintain even a modicum of stability by a massive projection of its own forces. The region is of prime interest to the entire world for its energy resources. If it becomes nuclearized, it will be the one thing for which Barack Obama would always be remembered by history, and he would be remembered by history as a failure.