The Taming of the Hawks

November 15, 2007 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East

The Taming of the Hawks

Is war with Iran in America’s best interests? On Thursday, four panelists at an event sponsored by the Nixon Center and the American Conservative Defense Alliance argued for a different stance toward Tehran.

As tensions between the United States and Iran heat up, many view war with Iran as inevitable and desirable-particularly those of a Republican persuasion. On November 14, 2007, the American Conservative Defense Alliance (ACDA) and The Nixon Center co-hosted a frank discussion on what to do about Iran-a contemporary instance of the textbook conflict between principles and politics. The four panelists in attendance criticized this hawkish tendency and offered evidence to support conservative alternatives to military action.

In introducing the event, moderator Doug Bandow, former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and fellow with the ACDA, stated: "The Republicans in this case are unanimous-and unanimously wrong in my view. [They have] not just a wary view that perhaps military action [against Iran] might be necessary, but an almost joyous enthusiasm at the thought of initiating yet another war."

Following up on Bandow's observation, panelist Trita Parsi, president of the National American Iranian Council, explained that the core of theory of conservative foreign policy is to "recognize the importance of adjusting our policies to the realities and not necessarily to the ideological views that we may hold." Parsi explained that America's problems with Iran stem from its misguided Middle East policies. "We have to recognize that the current policy that we're pursuing-not just in Iran, but in the Middle East as a whole-is undermining America's position regionally, which has consequences for America's position globally", he stated.

He proposed a policy move toward collective security that would reduce the burden on the American military, while maintaining a significant presence in the region.

Parsi also noted that supporting Iran and Iraq is essential to regional success and legitimizing the American presence and leadership in the Middle East. The panelist disagreed with the common viewpoint that Iran should not be included in regional decision-making and negotiations. Parsi maintains that including Iran is more likely to result in compromise. Although Iran wants a "seat at the table", it cannot obtain it without American support. But it does have the power to make its exclusion a costly headache for the United States. Furthermore, Parsi explained, "we're not making it clear that it is behavioral change rather than regime change [that we want]." Doing this will ease the tensions the Iranian people feel over the hawkish chatter emanating from the United States, as well as create a more receptive President Ahmadinejad.

The second panelist, Ken Ballen of Terror Free Tomorrow, reminded the audience of a piece of advice from former President Reagan regarding the Cold War: "The best ally we have is the average Soviet citizen." This observation parallels the current situation with Iran. It is to our advantage to know that our best ally is the collective populace. Ballen supported this position with the results of a nationwide public opinion survey conducted in Iran. The participants were blind to the origin of the survey-many could have faced serious consequences had the Iranian government been behind it. With this in mind, it is significant that the results showed only 11 percent of Iranians support the current system of unelected religious rule, 79 percent desired free elections and normal relations with the rest of the world, and 68 percent favored normal relations and trade with the United States. Ballen contrasted this result with similar survey in Syria, where 75 percent of Syrians desired better relations with the West, but almost no Syrians directly criticized their government or leader.

Four out of five Iranians surveyed would prefer free elections and economic opportunity with international engagement, to building nuclear weapons. The same percentage of Iranians favored allowing full international inspections and a guarantee not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid. The problem, Ballen said, is that we are not listening to the Iranian people; we are listening only to their government. He emphasized the necessity of a change in strategy and the need to adopt a positive agenda that reaches out to the Iranian people, whose opinions sharply contrast with their decision-makers.

Panelist Phil Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism expert, had a dismal outlook on where U.S. relations with Iran were headed: "There will likely be a war by next spring. I believe the war is inevitable because the U.S. refuses to negotiate with Iran." In emphasizing the urgency surrounding a change of strategy, Giraldi implored U.S. officials to make a more careful assessment of which tactics will result in the best-case scenario for the United States. "U.S. national interest alone should be considered," he said.

A realistic assessment of the situation would show that it would take Iran many years to perfect its enrichment program to the point where it has enough weapons-grade uranium to fabricate a bomb. Furthermore, it is important to note the reality of the quantity of technological know-how that Iran must also develop to get to this stage. "[The Iran nuclear] program is underdeveloped", Giraldi explained. Furthermore, the status of Iran's nuclear program is irresponsibly exaggerated-allowing for dangerous and dire consequences. "I do not believe Tehran poses a real threat to the United States," he declared.

While behavioral changes must ultimately be made by the Iranian government, it is up to the United States to handle the situation pragmatically and dispassionately. Giraldi called on policymakers to "stop the demonization process" that has taken the possibility of diplomacy off the table. It is up to the United States to put a stop to this tailspin. Only then will U.S. interests and national security be best served.

The final panelist, Geoffrey Kemp, the Nixon Center's director of Regional Strategic Programs, agreed with the previous three speakers and outlined the realities that must be adequately acknowledged in order to understand the subsequent policy recommendations. "It is not 1938; Iran is not Germany; and Ahmadinejad is not Hitler. We must get this analogy out of our heads and back to reality," Kemp explained. He later elaborated that although the Iranian threat is exaggerated, the nuclear threat is "deadly serious." Not for fear of their use, but because mere possession could destabilize the region. Kemp recommended taking steps to limit the Iranian enrichment program. If that proves impossible, then contain Iran.

Furthermore, Kemp noted, "We may not like it, but [the Iranian regime] is legitimate," he stated. Following this acknowledgement, Kemp emphasized that the U.S. must deal with the state "as it is." He advised against a strategy of regime change and instead recommended using "carrots and sticks." In order to institute behavioral change in Iran, Kemp declared that it is necessary to have a "united front." Ideally, we should broker a deal with the UN Security Council members. Bringing China and Russia onboard may be a challenge, but it would give our strategy global legitimacy and support. Should the United States not be able to gain the support of the UNSC, we should move on to a U.S.-EU accord that would also entice Japan and Australia to join.

In event that the UN and EU approaches fail, there remains the question of unilateral U.S. military action. Kemp warned that this is most likely to happen in the context of an escalation of U.S.-Iranian violence in Iraq. If Iranians are seen to be complicit in the deaths of American soldiers, President Bush will have bipartisan support for retaliation against Iran. He will find it more difficult to get such support for a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities if it appears unrelated to events in Iraq. One can interpret from Kemp's observations that by steering clear of conflict in Iraq, Iranians can prevent provocation and keep the American war hawks in the minority.

From the panelists' observations, one sees a rift between the theory behind policymaking and the politicking that goes into the practice of policymaking. As we enter into a democratic "regime change" of our own, time will reveal if real policy considerations will win over special interests.


Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.