Paul Pillar

A Peril to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

There exists, right now, a problem with one side's obligations not being fulfilled as provided for under the preliminary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that Iran reached with the United States and its negotiating partners (the P5+1) last November. This lack of fulfillment endangers the process of negotiating a final agreement. It is an understandable source of consternation to the other side, which will increasingly doubt the first side's ability and willingness to make good on its commitments, including in any final deal. Hardliners on the second side will pounce on any non-fulfillment of the terms of the JPA as a reason to scuttle the whole process.

So is Iran not living up to its commitments under the JPA? Well, we do have hardliners on our own side eager to pounce. In fact, they are so eager that they are trying to pounce even though there isn't anything to pounce on. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who led the recent unsuccessful effort in Congress to impose additional deal-busting sanctions after conclusion of the JPA, have sent a letter to President Obama that bemoans indications of some increased Iranian oil sales and says “If Iran moves forward with this effort to evade U.S. sanctions and violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA” the United States should in effect renounce its obligation under the JPA to—this is the wording of the JPA—“pause efforts to further reduce Iran's crude oil sales.”

The senators make it sound as if Iran has some obligation under the agreement to knuckle under to sanctions, don't they? Otherwise how could Iran “violate” what they are talking about? But Iran has no such obligation. All the obligations in the preliminary agreement concerning sanctions are obligations of the P5+1 (including that very mild “pause efforts” clause, which does not entail rolling back the existing oil sanctions). All of Iran's obligations involve restrictions on its nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran so far is in compliance with those obligations.

No, the current problem in implementing the agreement involves another part of the P5+1's side of the deal, not Iran's side. Specifically, it involves the unfreezing in installments of a small portion ($4.2 billion out of an estimated $100 billion) of the Iranian money that already was earned from prior oil sales and is sitting in non-Iranian banks. Iran has been unable to withdraw much of the money that it was supposed to have gained access to by now. It appears the problem is not direct violation of the agreement by the U.S. Treasury or any of the other governments involved. Instead, the banks that are to handle the funds are so deathly afraid of running afoul, however inadvertently, of any continuing sanctions that Treasury is enforcing that they have not made the money move. The fear is understandable, given how huge and complex the sanctions regime has become and also how huge have been fines that Treasury has levied on transgressors. The marvelous sanctions machine is so powerful that it continues to exude power and have effects even after a switch has been turned off. Treasury needs to do more than just saying “go,” and more than it has done so far to put banks into their comfort zone, for the JPA to be implemented the way it was supposed to be.

Iranian President Rouhani had a big enough challenge domestically as it was to sell a preliminary agreement that gave the P5+1 most of what it wanted in restricting the nuclear program while getting only modest sanctions relief in return. His selling task is made all the harder when even that modest relief is not properly implemented. And there certainly are hardliners on his side ready to pounce on any such developments.

This issue is a reminder of how an Iranian belief that the West and especially the United States will come through with positive action if Iran makes desired concessions is just as important as (and given how the issue has evolved, has become even more important than) an Iranian belief that it will be hit with still more negative consequences if it does not concede.

The current problem also underscores how much work—political, not just administrative—on the U.S. side remains to be done to prepare for the undoing of sanctions that will be part of any final agreement, and that necessarily will be substantially greater than the minor sanctions relief in the JPA. Members of Congress are still talking about piling on more sanctions when they ought to be discussing how to take sanctions off the pile. We have already seen how hard it is to redirect the sanctions machine. Aircraft carriers do not turn around on a dime, and neither do sanctions, especially ones as complicated and extensive as the ones on the Iranian pile. Even if the more optimistic projections of when a deal will be struck in Vienna do not prove true, it is not too soon for Congress and the administration to be working diligently on this and for it to be a subject of public discussion.

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

NATO Expansion and the Road to Simferopol

Paul Pillar

Beyond the policy issue of what to do now to bring the crisis with Russia over Ukraine to as much of a satisfactory conclusion as may be possible, we ought to reflect on our own role—the role of the West and especially the United States—in paving the road toward this crisis. To do so is not to minimize the direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin's government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said. Nor does it negate the role of dysfunction in the Ukrainian political system. But a significant part of this story is how the West cornered the Russian bear before the bear bit back.

More specifically, an important element in that story was the eastward expansion of NATO into what had been the Soviet empire, as well as talk about expanding it even further to embrace Ukraine and Georgia. We should not only understand the importance of that development for getting to the current crisis, but also what that development exhibited about American habits of thought and action in foreign affairs. It exhibited several such American tendencies, which also have surfaced in other ways and on other issues.

Forgetting the power of promises. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe broke a promise that the United States had made to Mikhail Gorbachev and that was part of a package of understandings facilitating the peaceful reunification of Germany. Breaking the promise was probably in part the arrogance associated with being the remaining superpower and feeling untroubled about the keeping of commitments. It also reflected a general American tendency, amid one-sided focus on the credibility of threats, to overlook how the making of promises and commitments is a useful diplomatic tool. Breaking promises weakens the tool. Holding one's own side accountable for fulfilling promises is important for the same reason that the right to be sued, and not just to sue, is an important civil right domestically; it is the right to be able to make an enforceable promise.

Institutional inertia. NATO has been one of the biggest success stories among multilateral alliances. It went well beyond most such alliances in constructing a joint command structure that even the French rejoined after a Gaullist spell outside it. The hazard of such institutionalization, supported in the case of NATO by a civilian bureaucracy ensconced in its compound outside Brussels, is that the institution starts being seen as an end rather than a means, which is not what alliances are supposed to be about. This was the case with much discussion about the military mission in Afghanistan, which was seen as a way to keep NATO healthy and occupied. When earlier decisions were being made about the future of the alliance at the end of the Cold War, it was psychologically hard to bring the success story to a conclusion. This would have been like breaking up a winning team. Once it was decided to keep the team in business, eastward expansion naturally followed as a way to keep the business healthy.

Impulsively using a direct U.S. hand. For the United States, NATO has been the principal means to keep a direct U.S. role in the security affairs of Europe, and along with that much of the political affairs of the continent as well. So the United States has had this additional perceived stake in not only the continuation but the expansion of NATO. Using the instrument of NATO, however, has exemplified an American tendency to think that if something is worth doing it needs to be done by the United States itself or with the United States in the lead, rather than realizing the advantages of letting others carry most of the necessary water. As the former Soviet vassals in Eastern Europe called out for inclusion in the West, an opportunity was missed to let the West Europeans carry most of that water. In the first few years after the end of the Cold War, the European Union was at a height of attractiveness and vitality, with the Maastricht Treaty (which converted the European Community into the EU) signed in 1992 and the troubles of the eurozone still some years away. The EU was the perfect instrument for leading the way in westifying the east, and surely the economic and cultural risks that the Union would take on should be considered no greater than the commitment represented by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits every member of the alliance to come to the defense of any other member under attack. But instead the order for the East Europeans became NATO first, EU second.

Insensitivity to the fears and concerns of others. The United States, relatively secure in its North American redoubt, has historically had a hard time appreciating how much other nations see the threatening side of someone else encroaching into their own neighborhood. Even though we have had our own Monroe Doctrine, we tend not to notice equivalent sentiments on the part of others. It should not have been as hard as it apparently was to anticipate how extension of a western military alliance to the borders of the old Soviet Union, and moves toward extending it even farther, would elicit some of the Russian sentiments that it has, especially in a country that lost 20 million people in World War II.

Triumphalism. The world in American eyes is in many respects like a commercial battle for market dominance, with the outcome registered in terms of wins and losses. The Cold War was a Western win; it seemed natural for the winner to extend its market penetration even more. The win-loss outlook also resembles a sporting event, and there was a yearning not just to record but to flaunt the win. Except there would not be an opportunity for anything quite like, say, MacArthur's shogunate in Japan after World War II. Expansion of NATO became a way to put a big, bright “W” on the scoreboard.

Need for an enemy. Another aspect of the typically Manichean way in which Americans tend to look at international politics is that there has to be a foe—something or somebody against whom the United States leads the forces of freedom and light. Once 9/11 came along there were Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, but terrorist groups never make as good a foe as a state. Besides, the eastward expansion of NATO was already under way before 9/11. Iran has served as a more recent bête noire, but it has not entirely displaced Russia, which evokes old Cold War habits and actually does have nuclear weapons.

Few, if any situations, will bring into play each of these habits in the same way the stand-off over Ukraine has. But the habits appear unhelpfully in other situations as well, and Americans would be well advised to be more conscious of them.

TopicsEuropean UnionNATOGreat Powers RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Who Sticks Up For Israeli Arabs?

Paul Pillar

The hang-up in current well-intentioned U.S. efforts to wring out of Israeli-Palestinian talks something that could be called a framework agreement—with the administration evidently so anxious for such a result that it is contemplating a move to buy favor with Israel that would be just as mistaken as the last time it came up—is a familiar example of each side wanting the other to move first. This sort of situation has arisen repeatedly in what we still call the Middle East peace process. The present stand-off involves implementation of a prior understanding according to which the Israelis would release some Arab prisoners while the Palestinian Authority would limit its diplomacy to talking with the Israelis and Americans rather than referring its grievances to international fora where anyone perpetuating an illegal occupation would have a decided legitimacy deficit.

Israelis are understandably reluctant whenever they are called on to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Palestinians are understandably reluctant to limit themselves perpetually to a talkfest that, 47 years and 650,000 Israeli settlers after the occupation began, still leaves them stateless.

The reluctance to go first is old. What is new in this round of the talkfest is the Netanyahu's government insistence that the Palestinian Authority perform some sort of anointment of Israel—the full and formal name of which is “State of Israel,” and which the Palestinians long ago formally recognized—as a “Jewish state”. The demand regarding the “Jewish state” formulation was not one that ever appeared during negotiation of Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, when indefinite delay was not an Israeli government objective.

Robert Satloff makes one of the more game and creative efforts to rationalize this inconsistency by saying that the conflicts with Egypt and Jordan were “essentially territorial disputes” whereas the one with the Palestinians is “existential” and raises “deep in the minds of many Israelis” that the Palestinians with whom they are negotiating “have a long-term plan to destroy Israel.” The idea of such an existential threat to an Israel that is overwhelmingly more powerful than the Palestinians and would remain so with a two-state solution is, of course, risible. It might cease to become so only over the long-term, and only because of demographic reasons and not secret plans, in the absence of a two-state solution. 

The Palestinian leadership is understandably resistant to the “Jewish state” demand partly because it would implicitly bias how to resolve the “right of return” issue, which today is really more an issue of right to compensation. The reluctance also is understandable because acceding to the demand would mean having Palestinian leaders explicitly endorsing second-class status for Arabs within Israel. That latter factor gets back to the current impasse over release of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas says Arab Israeli prisoners should be included in the release; the Israeli government strongly opposes including them and contends that was never part of its understanding with the Palestinian Authority.

So there is another inconsistency at hand. The “Jewish state” demand implicitly draws a line that leaves on the outside the more than 20 percent of Israel's residents who are not Jewish. But the Israeli government has drawn another line that also leaves these people outside the orbit of those on whose behalf Abbas can speak or negotiate.

Israeli Arabs do have some political rights, being able to vote and elect members of the Knesset—although with an unwritten rule that Arab representatives can never be part of a governing coalition or form part of the necessary support for one. That would hardly make any less offensive a Palestinian Arab leader endorsing their second class status. The fact that there exist U.S. Congressional districts with large Jewish populations that regularly elect Jewish representatives would not make it any less offensive (and not just to the establishment clause of the Constitution) if the United States were to declare itself a “Christian state” and to insist that other nations declare it so as well.

The “Jewish state” demand is clearly another way for the current Israeli government to avoid coming to closure on creating a Palestinian state while seeking to attribute blame for any breakdown of negotiations to the Palestinians. It thus is a way to continue the occupation indefinitely without admitting that this is what is happening.

More broadly, the tactic is yet another indication of this Israeli government's refusal to recognize, as a geographic and demographic reality, that Israel cannot be democratic, Jewish, and sovereign over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It can be any two of those things but not all three. Netanyahu's government has in effect chosen, without admitting it, democracy as the characteristic to be discarded. This choice is the fundamental reason this round of negotiations, although it was admirable for the U.S. administration to have a go at it, faces failure. 

TopicsHuman RightsReligionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Forgotten Principles of Deterrence

Paul Pillar

An irony of how the events in Ukraine and the associated altercation with Russia have thrown many commentators and policy critics into a Cold War mode is that those same commentators and critics seem to have forgotten (or never learned) much relevant doctrine that was developed and honed during the real Cold War. The doctrine in question embraces many principles involving any attempt to exert power and to exercise influence over other states. The most relevant aspects of doctrine involve deterrence—using threats to dissuade someone from doing something we do not want done—as well as some related concepts also involving coercive methods of trying to influence an adversary's behavior.

Sophisticated treatment of these topics can become somewhat complicated, getting into such matters as multiple levels of deterrence and stability-instability paradoxes. But what much of the commentary on current issues ignores is really rather simple. It is stuff that should be apparent upon careful but straightforward thinking about the objectives, costs, and benefits that apply to the people on the other side of a conflict. Although applications of the principles have endless variations, the principles themselves are immutable. Probably what is still the clearest statement of them came during the height of the Cold War from Thomas Schelling, who received the Nobel memorial prize in economics largely for that work.

One major point of doctrine that has been routinely ignored in the recent commentary is that successful deterrence depends on much more than just the reputation of the deterring state and its demonstrated willingness to use coercion. It depends at least as much on characteristics of the particular conflict, including how much of a stake each side feels it has in it. We should have learned this lesson with the Vietnam War. The United States went so far in demonstrating its willingness to use costly force that it built up an army of over a half million in Vietnam and fought so long that it suffered over 50,000 combat deaths. But it was unable to deter the regime in the north from waging continued war in the south because the nationalist objective of uniting a Vietnam free of foreign domination was much more important to that regime than the United States's objectives in Vietnam were to it.

I have commented previously on the fallacious nature of the notion that for the United States not to take up a gauntlet in one conflict makes it more likely that some adversary in an unrelated conflict elsewhere on the globe would do aggressive things that it would not otherwise have done. Yet that notion persists, most recently in the assertion that Vladimir Putin would not have seized Crimea if the United States had only shown more toughness elsewhere. For many, of course, such an assertion is just one more disingenuous way for Barack Obama's political opponents to bash him. But the notion gets repeated so often that many who hear it, and at least some who say it, probably believe it.

This mistaken belief is related to another erroneous notion about deterrence, which is that taking coercive action against an adversary provides deterrence, rather than making such action conditional on the adversary doing certain carefully defined things we do not want him to do. Senator John McCain exhibited this mistake when he bemoaned how the modest steps the Europeans have taken in response to the situation in Ukraine would not deter Putin. He's right about that, but not because, as he further comments, commercial interests of the Europeans keep them from implementing harsher measures now. From exactly what are we trying to deter Putin? He says he has no intention of seizing any more of Ukraine after Crimea. We may have good reason to worry about the possibility that he might do so anyway, but he has not done so yet. Unconditionally imposing costs when he has not yet done so may satisfy political and other urges on our side, but it lacks deterrence value.

In some situations there may be a grain of truth, which can be found in Schelling's writings, in the idea that doing something forceful now can enhance deterrence against a future contingency, if the forceful action demonstrates a willingness to act in response to that particular contingency and there was reason to doubt that we would so act. But if there is not good reason for that doubt, again there is no deterrence value. The clearest recent instance of this fallacy was the failed attempt in the U.S. Congress to enact more anti-Iran sanctions legislation under the rationale that this would deter the Iranians from stalling or abandoning the negotiations. In fact, one of the least needed things to demonstrate to Tehran, given the now long history of overwhelming support in the Congress for serial enactment of sanctions against Iran, is a willingness to impose quickly still more sanctions if the Iranians did not negotiate seriously. There was disingenuousness here, too, in that much of the push for the legislation came from those who want negotiations with Iran to fail. But once again there were others who sincerely, but mistakenly, believed in the rationale.

A principle repeatedly ignored in American discourse is that in attempting to influence an adversary's behavior, getting him to believe he will not be punished if he behaves as we wish is just as important as getting him to believe that he will be punished if he does not so behave. This is true not only in situations of true deterrence, in which we want to prevent something from happening, but also in situations, for which Schelling created the term compellence, in which we want the other side to take action it is not currently taking. The principle is repeatedly ignored in discussions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which a challenge much greater than convincing Iranians of American willingness to inflict more punishment is to convince them that punishment will end if they strike a deal satisfactory to us.

A similar deficiency in thinking has begun to infect the public discourse about Ukraine. Exactly what do we want from Putin at this point? Presumably it is more than just not invading eastern Ukraine, and includes positive, cooperative behavior in fashioning a settlement in which a Crimea-less but otherwise whole Ukraine can live in greater peace and prosperity and have positive relations with all its neighbors. What that behavior should be must be clear in our own minds and statements and thus clear in Putin's mind as well for any coercive or punitive action at this time to have compellent value.

Also too frequently ignored is attention to the costs of carrying out a threat—costs not just to the target of the threat, but to the side that would execute it. This attention is important not only to calculate costs and benefits if the threat ever did get carried out, but also because of how this affects credibility of the threat itself. If the other side does not believe the threat ever would be executed because doing so would be highly costly and damaging to the side making the threat, there again is no deterrent value. Such threats are worse than useless, because they risk exposing us as bluffers. Any show of military force by the United States in the vicinity of Ukraine (not the minor redeployments that merely provide some reassurance to Poland and the Baltic states) would exhibit this problem, given the patent folly for the United States to engage in a war with Russia, especially in Russia's backyard and especially given the much greater importance to Russia than to the United States of the distribution of power in this region.

Anyone guilty of exhibiting any of these mistaken ideas should take a refresher course in deterrence. If you yearn to be a Cold Warrior again, that should be one of the first things to do. Reading (or re-reading) Schelling would be a good way to fulfill that requirement.

TopicsCongressDefenseGreat PowersSanctions RegionsRussiaIranUnited StatesUkraine

The Sheldon Primary

Paul Pillar

From the 1890s until finally outlawed by the Supreme Court some fifty years later, one device used in the segregated South to maintain the white power structure and to prevent blacks from any effective political role was called the white primary. This was a sort of preliminary election, open only to white Democrats, that ostensibly was a nonofficial event not run by the state and thus did not adhere to laws and constitutional principles providing for equal treatment and universal voting rights. There would be a later official election in which blacks could vote, but it usually was meaningless because electoral contests had in effect already been decided in the white primary.

Now we have a procedure reminiscent of the white primary that is being called the “Sheldon primary,” as in political bankroller Sheldon Adelson. Republican presidential hopefuls are kneeling at the feet of the casino magnate in the hope of receiving his blessing, and thus his money, as the party's nominee for 2016. It seems that Adelson, who together with his wife dropped $93 million on political campaigns in 2012, has concluded that he erred in that year in backing for too long candidates whose ideology appealed most to him but ultimately proved unelectable. This time he wants to anoint early on someone he can stick with right through the general election. He doesn't want to see messy primary contests that would weaken the eventual nominee. If things work the way Adelson wants—and that he is willing and able to pay to make them work that way—caucuses in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire will matter less than the Sheldon primary. Last time he let us have a good hard look at the likes of Newt Gingrich while votes in Republican primaries still meant something. Next time he doesn't want primary voters to have that much of a choice.

For this man who will likely have such enormous influence on who will be the Republican presidential nominee, the Republican party isn't even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party. Adelson's money also plays a very big role in Israeli politics, much of it in subsidizing a free-distribution newspaper, Israel HaYom, which has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Israel and functions as a cheerleader for Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.

Nor is the United States Adelson's first love among countries. He has said that when he performed military service as a young man it “unfortunately” was in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He has expressed the wish that his son become a sniper in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Back in the United States, Adelson does have some unsurprising plutocratic impulses, but with a blatantly narrow focus. Perhaps when the objective is to advance the interests not only of the one percent, but of whatever small fraction of one percent that an estimated net worth of $38 billion makes a person a part of, narrowness is inevitable. Adelson's biggest push for, and most lavish financing of, a domestic U.S. issue is his attempt to get online gambling outlawed. The ostensible purpose is to protect the morals of our youth, but of course it also would protect the market share of his casinos.

Adelson's most distinctive foreign policy pronouncement is that a nuclear weapon should be dropped on Iran.

The Sheldon primary is the sort of thing we get when the Supreme Court, an earlier incarnation of which eliminated the white primary, shreds efforts to limit the role of money in U.S. elections. Even if that mistake cannot be corrected, voters—including those Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere—ought at least to be fully aware of what type of man is trying to use his wealth to make their choice for them.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsIsraelUnited States

Russia, Sanctions, and Politics in Iran

Paul Pillar

The crisis over Crimea has naturally raised questions about possible effects of this disturbance on other issues and specifically ones that depend on U.S.-Russian cooperation. This includes the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov raised eyebrows with a comment this week about how dealings with Iran may be an area where his government would look for possible options in responding to Western sanctions against Russia.

So far there is no indication of a change in Russian policies regarding Iran. This is not surprising. Russia is geographically closer to Iran than are any of its negotiating partners in the Vienna talks, and if there were to be any threat from an Iranian nuclear weapon—prevention of which is a main purpose of the negotiations—Russia would be at least as vulnerable as any of the others. Putin's government also can openly accept that it would be in Russia's interests as well as Iran's for the two countries to have a full and normal relationship. Putin can do so because unlike in the United States, whose interests also would be well served by a full and normal relationship of its own with Iran, he does not have strong domestic political elements dedicated to keeping relations with Iran perpetually bad.

Moscow does have, however, an option for using the Iran issue to show displeasure with the West without harming (and maybe even helping) the prospects for reaching an agreement with Iran. That option would be to reach new trade deals, either civilian or military, with Tehran. Besides being in Russia's economic interests, such transactions would be well-suited symbolically as an anti-sanctions gesture in the face of sanctions against Russia itself.

If Russia were to move in this direction, there of course would be in the United States moans of disapproval and dismay about how the anti-Iran sanctions regime was in danger of falling apart. Such dismay would come partly from those who honestly but mistakenly believe that getting the desired concessions out of Tehran is all a matter of pressuring Iran, and that more pressure through economic sanctions is always good and less pressure is always bad. The mistaken belief comes from apparent ignorance of a historical record that does not really support the catechism that “sanctions brought Iran to the table.” It also comes from failure to understand that the other side's confidence that pressure will stop if desired concessions are made is just as important as the belief that pressure won't stop if the concessions aren't made.

Expressions of disapproval and dismay also would come from those who oppose any agreement with Iran and precisely for that reason have been pushing for piling on still more sanctions at inopportune times. Expressions from that quarter, such as from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have already begun over the mere possibility of what the Russians might do.

Those who want, for whatever reason, to keep harsh sanctions against Iran in place for now can relax. The big, debilitating sanctions involving banking and oil are still in place, and U.S. actions have far more to do with keeping them in place than anything Russia can do unilaterally. The Treasury Department is very good at the sanctions enforcement business. It is so scarily good that even relaxations of the sanctions regime on the periphery have little practical effect because anybody who might want to take advantage of such relaxation usually has no way of moving the necessary money around if they cannot persuade any banks, fearful of being penalized by Treasury, to handle the transactions. This is probably true, for example, of a recently issued general license to permit academic exchanges between Iran and the United States.

Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations at this point. What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter—and that includes more than those at the negotiating table—that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek.

Any failure to understand all this is a failure to understand that there are real politics in Tehran, which means factions with different views and objectives contending for power and seeing their influence rise and fall with policy successes and failures. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has much at stake with the economic consequences of the nuclear issue. He was elected last year by people who placed in him high hopes for economic improvement. He has managed so far to clean up somewhat the problems left by his predecessor, which are due partly to economic mismanagement as well as to the sanctions. But Rouhani needs to show a lot more improvement, and fairly soon, or else he will be a lame duck for the rest of his term. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are as good as it's going to get as far as Iranian interlocutors for the West are concerned. If they come to be seen as failures the alternatives will be worse.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has a different perspective and different position but has to deal at one remove with some of the same realities. His views toward the West are far more unreconstructed than Rouhani's and in some respects even despicable. His very pessimistic pronouncements about the negotiations are partly an effort to separate himself from possible failure but also partly a genuinely strong suspicion about Western and especially U.S. motives. Khamenei is not a dictator, however, and that is part of what it means to have real politics in Tehran. He cannot ignore the economic problems and the views about them that put Rouhani into office. He can talk about self-reliance and say sanctions be damned, but he surely knows that such lectures are an insufficient palliative.

If the negotiations were to fail—tragically, given what has been achieved so far—it would not be because of anything the Russians, annoyed about reactions to Crimea, might do, and it won't be because of a weakening of sanctions. It would be because of the efforts of hardliners elsewhere, including in the United States as well as Iran, to kill the prospects for an agreement, with the hardliners in each place playing off each other.

More specifically, it might be that given the influence of the hardliners, the U.S. position in particular would remain too inflexible to make it possible for the Iranians to make further concessions. One Western official summed up well what is most needed now in the negotiations:

The greater power has to bend. We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we're serious. It's alarming that this seems out of our ability today.

TopicsBankingDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTrade RegionsRussiaIranUnited States

Putin's Instructive Speech

Paul Pillar

Vladimir Putin's speech about Russia's annexation of Crimea was a rhetorical tour de force and an apt accompaniment to his regime's tactical skill in pulling off the annexation, however many strategic regrets there may later be. There was, to be sure, much that was identifiably phony or facetious in what he said, such as the assertion that Crimean Tatars “lean towards Russia.” The attempted separation from Soviet history, by a leader who has deemed the dissolution of the USSR to be history's greatest calamity, was also rather rich. This involved not only blaming Khrushchev for his transfer of Crimea but also invoking divinity while blaming old Bolsheviks—“may God judge them”—for messily drawing the other boundaries between Ukraine and Russia. But the speech contained other observations that it behooves us to contemplate.

The rhetoric, like all good rhetoric, had punch because of a correspondence with reality. While attention in the weeks ahead will inevitably be focused on what kind of punishment can be inflicted in response to Putin's fait accompli, and more appropriately on how to keep this crisis from damaging other initiatives in which Russia necessarily has a role, there are longer-term lessons to be learned in two respects.

One concerns how Ukraine came to be a point of confrontation between Russia and Western powers in the first place. We heard from the Russian president a good expression of Russian perceptions and sentiment, rooted in nationalism and a sense of national security, in response to what appeared to be a Western attempt to extend a presence and power into Russia's immediate neighborhood with insufficient thought given to what the responses would be. However rightly prime blame for the immediate crisis might be attributed to Putin himself, what he said about this background is a valid part of the story.

The West and especially the United States, observed Putin, “must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions.” Sounds like the kind of criticism Barack Obama's domestic opponents have been directing against him, except that the principal chapter in the story to which Putin was referring involved a previous administration's support for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin was very believable when he said, “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

A larger set of long-term lessons goes beyond the crisis over Ukraine. It involves patterns of behavior by the West and specifically the United States that have cropped up repeatedly in other confrontations and crises. One of those patterns is apparent unawareness of how our own actions rile the nationalism of other people. Russians are by no means the only ones to get their nationalist dander up, and Putin is certainly not the only leader to exploit the phenomenon.

A second pattern, which Putin's speech milked for all it was worth, is inconsistency in the application of principles such as self-determination and democracy. However much one might argue over how a case such as Kosovo might be different from Crimea—and the differences do not necessarily support any attempt to make the West's actions in the first seem more justifiable than Russia's in the second—the inconsistency in Western policy has been glaring. Brushing aside principles for the sake of expediency in pursuing an immediate objective can be foolish if we disregard the longer-term damage to our credibility when we try to invoke such principles somewhere else. Those who like to invoke the concept of credibility and how it can act at long range ought to take notice.

The third pattern, related to the second, applies particularly to the United States, and it is largely a matter of acting as if we did not have to follow rules that apply to everyone else. The passage in Putin's speech that may have been most instructive, though most painful, for Americans to hear was this:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This is the ugly, outward-facing side of American exceptionalism. Americans should not need Vladimir Putin to tell us how it looks, but now that he has, we may as well try to learn something about what he is addressing.

TopicsNATOInternational LawGreat Powers RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Ukraine and the Zero-Sum Impulse

Paul Pillar

It is perhaps unsurprising, but nevertheless unhelpful, for so much of the discussion in the United States about policy toward Ukraine to be fueled by Cold War-type juices that the crisis has gotten flowing. Current-day Russia gets equated with the earlier USSR, within a frame of mind that equates any Russian advance with a setback for U.S. interests. Even the Cold War itself was never that zero-sum, and a failure to realize that fact got the United States into some significant mistakes, the Vietnam War being the costliest one. But at least in the Cold War there was a global competition of ideologies, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two lodestars. No such competition is involved in the standoff in Crimea. The balance of forces in the northern Black Sea region is of major importance to Russia; it is not of such importance to the United States.

Some of the most outspoken and unadulterated expressions of the frame of mind involved come from Senator John McCain. He declares that for Vladimir Putin, “all rivalries are zero-sum.” The senator warns us that even if President Obama says we are not in competition with Russia, “Mr. Putin believes Russia is in competition with us, and pretending otherwise is an unrealistic basis for a great nation's foreign policy.” Of course Russia is in competition with the United States in various respects, just as every other nation in the world, including ones generally termed “allies,” are in competition with the United States on something or other. But clearly McCain is making a much more extensive assertion than that, one that sees an all-encompassing zero-sum competition. Even if Putin did think in such terms, why should the United States let itself get sucked into a similar brand of mistaken thinking? That sounds like letting our competitor set the rules of the game.

This situation most resembles accepting a playground dare: buying into some win-or-lose proposition just because a tough kid we don't especially like challenges us to do so. And don't worry, Senator McCain assures us, about possibly losing, because—check your lexicon of foreign policy clichés—the “tide of history” is on the side of Ukraine and “the political values of the West.”

In fact, Putin surely is smart enough to realize that not all rivalries are zero-sum. Moreover, he probably realizes what he would be losing if he swallows Crimea. The losses would include not only economic countermeasures by the West but also a major blow to any hope of moving the rest of Ukraine, shorn of one of its more pro-Russian pieces, closer into the Russian orbit. A tough-thinking Vladimir Putin has good reasons to be thinking about possible ways out of this crisis that are not all unilateral, not all military, and certainly not all zero-sum.

While he is doing such thinking, he also sees how domestic Russian politics have been working to his benefit in a traditional rally-round-the-flag way in response to this crisis and to how the Russian regime and media have been spinning it. The tough Putin we see is surely responding more to this political dynamic than acting out delusions about zero-sum competition with the West. The West does have an interest in this dynamic, but it is not the one Senator McCain is talking about. We have an interest in not encouraging and empowering the sort of elements within Russia that would welcome a new Cold War. Unfortunately a zero-sum, Cold War-like reaction from our side may already be tending to do that. The Center for the National Interest's Dimitri Simes observes about what is going on in Russia, “Hard-line people, more nationalist people, they are being energized, they think this may be their moment,” and besides the hardliners from whom we are already hearing “there is a lot behind them that is potentially more serious and more ominous.”

There is much sound policy advice about the Ukraine crisis available on the U.S. side that is not at all stuck in Cold War thinking, such as from John Mearsheimer or Graham Allison. Mearsheimer stresses the importance of thinking in geopolitical terms, understanding the concept of spheres of interest, and realizing that Russia has much more at stake in and around Ukraine than the United States does. Such thinking is what leads two of America's foremost elder strategists steeped in the continental realist tradition, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, both to invoke explicitly Finland as a model for how Ukraine could exist peacefully and prosperously with both Russia and the European Union. That concept is in sharp contrast to how “Finlandization” was used as a dirty word at times during the Cold War and again has been invoked as a pejorative in the current crisis.

The zero-sum mentality frequently accompanies the notion of supposed American weakness as the cause of ills throughout the world, and McCain joins in that theme with gusto. He blames the current U.S. administration and “a growing disregard for America's credibility” for having “emboldened” not only Vladimir Putin but a wide variety of “other aggressive actors.” Looking backward, that notion is invalid as gauged by the historical record. Looking forward, the notion is poor policy guidance both for that reason and because if one were to start drawing lines in sand to try to demonstrate credibility, the Ukraine crisis would be a poor place to do it. Mearsheimer persuasively emphasizes how much the current crisis grew out of earlier Western and especially U.S. moves to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The fact that a central part of the crisis has been the overthrow of a fairly elected, even if corrupt, leader also ill serves the cause of democracy and other “political values of the West.”

In years following the Cold War one has heard much lecturing in Washington about the need to get past a “Cold War mindset.” Such a mindset, unfortunately, is alive and well today, although not primarily in the government bureaucracies that were the principal targets of the lectures. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have many challenges if they are, along with leaders of the European Union and Ukraine, to resolve the current crisis successfully. One of those challenges is to cope with domestic elements in both countries that pine for the Cold War and that end every addition problem with the number zero.

TopicsEuropean UnionDemocracyNATOIdeologyGrand StrategyPublic OpinionGreat PowersSanctions RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Speculative Mischief and Flight 370

Paul Pillar

The longer the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, the more opportunity there will be for stories about what happened to the plane to take root and to endure well after an investigation has debunked them. The start of such a story does not require much beyond someone's sheer speculation—perhaps some scrap, some grain of truth, out of which an entire scenario gets spun. And then the story becomes another example of the urban legend phenomenon: of how nothing much more than the longevity and ubiquity of a belief leads many people to accept it as true.

Beliefs about happenings with uncertain explanations can have consequences for public policy. This is not necessarily wrong when investigations have yet to reach a conclusion and the belief in question might still turn out to be true. For some time after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in 1996, the possibility that the plane was intentionally downed contributed to an increase in resources the United States allocated to counterterrorism. The response reflected the occurrence in rapid succession of the plane crash and two actual terrorist attacks in 1996: a pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics and the truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia.

What is certainly not warranted is to continue to run with a particular belief after a completed investigation has dismissed it. Eighteen years after the crash of TWA 800, it still provides fodder for those who refuse to accept the investigative finding that an accidental explosion in a fuel tank brought the plane down.

This kind of thing is mostly the work of the usual corps of private sector conspiracy theorists, What is even more inexcusable is when anyone with a policy agenda does something similar. Richard Cheney continued to refer to a meeting that 9/11 chief hijacker Mohamed Atta supposedly had with an Iraqi official in Prague, after U.S. agencies had exhaustively investigated the possibility and determined that no such meeting had taken place.

Perhaps a policy agenda has helped to generate a story that appeared during the past week at Al-Jazeera alleging that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 was the doing of Iran, working through the group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. The idea that the PFLP-GC had planted the bomb was actually an early investigative hypothesis, although the state sponsor mentioned most often was Syria, which provided a haven to the group. The hypothesis proved to be a dead end. A very long and laborious investigation, which painstakingly pieced together the forensic evidence, determined conclusively that the bombing was instead the work of Libya.

There are multiple reasons to hope that there soon will be a breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and that investigators can rapidly get to the truth of what happened to the plane. One of the reasons is to prevent the build-up of momentum of untruthful stories about what happened to it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Laurent ERRERA. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsIranLibyaUnited StatesSyriaMalaysia

What the Saudis Fear

Paul Pillar

As the government of Saudi Arabia does strange things and pitches fits, such as at the beginning of this year declining to take up one of the usually-coveted rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, we tend to view Saudi motivations and concerns through a lens that distorts confrontations in the Middle East into our own preferred way of looking at such conflicts. Thus we often view the Saudis as prominent members of a “moderate” bloc of regional states that are principally in confrontation with a different bloc led by Iran. This view was augmented by misinterpretation of a leaked diplomatic cable that was taken to mean that the Saudi leadership would welcome a U.S. military attack on Iran. Actually, the Saudis would view any such warfare in their neighborhood as a calamity. Riyadh certainly does have concerns about Iran, but its usual way of dealing with those concerns has been through rapprochement with Tehran. The Saudis are once again taking steps to improve relations with the cross-Gulf neighbor.

American perceptions of Saudi apoplexy about the Syrian civil war also tend to to be viewed in the context of debate and discussion among Americans—in this case, in terms of charges that American unwillingness or inability to do anything significant about the civil war is a manifestation of U.S. “retreat” from the world. But the apoplexy isn't about American retreat, either real or imagined. Rather, the Saudi concern is different and it is simple; it is about sectarian conflict. It is seeing fellow Sunnis fight against Alawites and Shia, and it believes it has a strong stake in the Sunnis winning.

This stake in another country's sectarian conflict is related to the peculiar nature of the al-Saud family's claim to legitimacy and to political power. It is a claim based on religion, and not at all on popular sovereignty. It is not for nothing that the Saudi king calls himself the custodian of the two holy mosques. Protection of Sunni brethren is part of upholding the claim to legitimacy.

Another piece of odd Saudi behavior—a vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood—also is rooted in matters of political legitimacy and religion. Saudi Arabia, along with its allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recently withdrew its ambassador from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. The Qataris have been a thorn in the Saudis' side for several reasons, but the biggest immediate one has been Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Saudis have strongly supported the Egyptian military's coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Now the Saudis have formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group—a designation that has no basis in the behavior of the Brotherhood, which foreswore violence many years ago and is the only organization on the Saudis' terrorist list that is not an armed group.

The Muslim Brotherhood evokes especially strong fear among Saudi royals not because of any moves it is making to undermine the Saudi regime directly but instead because it embodies a combination of religious commitment to Islam (on the Sunni side) and pursuit of political power through democratic means. This combination presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.

U.S. interests do not converge at all with the fears that are driving the Saudis. The United States has no stake in sectarian contests between Sunni and Shia, and it can only hurt itself by appearing to take sides. As for the Saudi confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the American proclivity for viewing Islamists dimly, combined with the image of Saudi Arabia being among the “moderates,” has led Americans to overlook who in this confrontation is Islamist and democratic and who is Islamist and authoritarian.

The United States has valid realist reasons to be heavily engaged with Saudi Arabia. But it has nothing in common with the chief fears that are motivating Saudi Arabia's rulers.

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyUNReligionTerrorism RegionsEgyptIranQatarSaudi Arabia

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