The Buzz

Mattis and Graham Confirm the Narrative

On Tuesday, General Jim Mattis, outgoing head of U.S. Central Command, went to deliver testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The occasion was ripe for controversy—the committee is home to some of Obama’s most hawkish critics, while rumors have been swirling that the famously laconic Mattis had been pushed out over disagreements with the White House. The hearing did see some of these disputes aired—Mattis said that he’d hoped to leave more troops in Afghanistan after 2014 than the administration.

But a moment of agreement was far more noteworthy. Mattis had the following exchanges with South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, regarding the sanctions on Iran. Mattis had said that the sanctions were not working, but could:

MATTIS: I believe this regime, knowing it can’t win the affections of its own people, I think they are very concerned that the economic sanctions could turn the people against them, in which case I think on a cost-benefit basis they could be willing to give up even the nuclear effort to stay in power.

. . .

GRAHAM: We’ve got two choices: bring ‘em to their senses so they stop developing a nuclear-weapon capability, or bring them to their knees so they can’t develop a nuclear-weapon capability. Aren’t those our two options?

MATTIS: Yes sir.

GRAHAM: As to the second option, do we have the capability to bring them to their knees?

MATTIS: Absolutely, senator. I would still say on “bring to their senses,” between economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and encouragement of behavior that does not cost them such a degree of political support that they end up losing power, there may yet be a way to bring them to their senses on a purely cost-benefit ratio.

GRAHAM: And if that doesn’t work, the only option is to bring them to their knees, do you agree?

MATTIS: Yes, sir.

There are two issues here. The first is the question of whether it is possible to “bring [Iran] to their knees so they can’t develop a nuclear weapon capability,” even if they try to develop that capability. Nuclear weapons, we must remember, have existed for nearly seventy years. They are still difficult to make, but they are not some ultramodern technology that only the most highly developed nations can produce. It’s reasonable to say that any state with a well-rounded domestic industrial capacity, a source of nuclear raw materials and sovereignty over at least some of its territory is capable of developing nuclear weapons.

Outside powers can delay the consummation of the capability or impose steep costs on its development, but there are really only two ways to prevent nuclear weaponization with certainty. One is to provoke a political decision not to weaponize. The other is to destroy the ingredients of capability—to destroy the country’s industry, to deny it access to raw materials, or to deny it its own territory. The raw materials already exist in Iran—it has significant stockpiles of uranium, and mines where it can get more. Deindustrializing Iran would require a major campaign against nonmilitary targets, which would make most modern decision makers squeamish and which would likely destabilize the broader international system. Occupying Iran would be extraordinarily costly, and other means of reducing its sovereignty over its own territory (such as support for insurgencies) risk blowback.

So the only practical option is to get Iran to choose not to make nuclear weapons. The sanctions are one way of trying to provoke that choice. And that’s where the second issue comes up. Mattis appears to believe (as many in Washington do) that the logic of the sanctions regime is to make the Islamic Republic fear for its political survival—to make the Iranian public hate the government for bringing on economic ruin.

It’s not clear that the sanctions actually create this risk. Iran’s economy is clearly struggling, which has forced the government to make efforts—some good, some evil—to alleviate international pressure. But polls suggest the sanctions haven’t created widespread public anger. Worse, they might actually be increasing the power of the regime’s more dangerous elements. The Revolutionary Guards have expanded their role in the economy, swallowing up sanction-afflicted businesses, taking advantage of efforts to stabilize the rial and engaging in widespread smuggling.

The true problem of thinking of the sanctions as an instrument of instability is that this makes Iran less likely to see a non-nuclear future as in its own interests. The hardline camp tends to view accommodation with the United States as largely impossible, as the United States simply cannot accept an Islamic Republic in the heart of the Middle East. They believe the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions and some of Iran’s domestic problems were fueled by an American desire to undermine and overthrow the regime. They further believe that Iranian concessions have been met with redoubled Western pressure. Accordingly, they feel, Iran must make itself strong and pesky enough to force Washington to accept it as it is.