Brandish the Stick, But Don't Use It

Is U.S. brinkmanship on Iran such a bad idea?


In March 2004, as I began interviewing a top Pentagon official, the conversation somehow turned to Germany's then-foreign minister, Joschka Fischer . The official paused, then spit out: "Joschka Fischer, what an asshole." I was later sent a transcript. The passages on Fischer were still in, but not the scatological aside. Something about Fischer always annoyed the Bush administration, and in reading his latest column , written from his perch at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, I can see what it was.

Fischer seems forever torn between his own clashing approaches to foreign affairs–a blend of 1960s radicalism and pacifism alongside late 20th-century enthusiasm for humanitarian interventionism. Those paradoxes are found in the title of his column, "The Rebel Realist," written for Project Syndicate . Fischer is a man who can validate great ambition in foreign policy, yet who is terrified of what that ambition might lead to in terms of unmanageable change or violence. When it comes to American behavior toward Iran, the subject of his commentary, Fischer's lapses are apparent. What makes them so significant, however, is that they are shared by many Bush administration critics in the United States and Europe.

In his article, Fischer warns of the dangers of an American attack against Iran. With the U.S. Navy building up its offensive capability in and around the Persian Gulf, and President George W. Bush ratcheting up the pressure on Iranians inside Iraq, Fischer draws this conclusion: "Basically, there are two possibilities, one positive and one negative. Unfortunately, the positive outcome appears to be the less likely one. If the threat of force … aims at preparing the ground for serious negotiations with Iran, there can and should be no objection. If, on the other hand, it represents an attempt to prepare the American public for a war against Iran … the outcome would be an unmitigated disaster."

The onetime foreign minister is adamant that a war against Iran will plunge the Middle East into an "abyss." It would strengthen the Iranian clergy, put Iranian democrats on the defensive, and ensure that the "the dream of 'regime change' in Tehran would not come true." Fischer insists that there is still time to secure "a long-term freeze of Iran's nuclear program", mainly because the country's level of nuclear development does not call for immediate military action. The U.S. must pursue diplomacy, but this requires an American willingness to talk to Tehran, which "is afraid of regional and international isolation." Iran can be changed from within, Fischer believes, "So why the current threats against Iran?"

Much of what Fischer writes is convincing. The chances that an American military attack would be successful in totally destroying Iran's nuclear capability are not high. The Iranian backlash in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East could end up causing much greater headaches for the United States than the already trying situation existing today. Regional sectarian polarization between Sunnis and Shiites would rise if Iran were to strike back against America's Arab allies; Islamists might seize the initiative on both sides of the divide, which would only damage U.S. effectiveness in the region further. Domestically, Bush would have to convince a deeply skeptical Congress and public that bombing Iran is worthwhile. Given the present mood in Washington, this is unlikely.

But there are two problems in Fischer's analysis and that of other administration critics. First, Iran is plainly intending to build a nuclear device, and in the face of this the international community has repeatedly vacillated. Fischer's anxieties, which he wears on his sleeve, create a sense that he would prefer to let Iran have an atomic weapon than allow the U.S. to prevent this from happening. Part of the problem is that his argument is all carrots and no sticks. Fischer accepts that brinkmanship can produce good results, by paving the way toward serious negotiations; but he so undermines the argument in favor of using force, that that psychological merits of employing brinkmanship come to nothing.

Yet sticks can work. There was an exception to international dithering on Iran last December, when the United Nations Security Council passed a sanctions resolution against Tehran. Later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency will review whether Iran has complied. Though it was watered down, the resolution supposedly took the Iranian leadership by surprise. In a report highlighted by the French daily Le Monde, the foreign affairs committee of the Iranian Parliament warned of the dangers of sanctions, which could force Iran "to modify its national priorities and devote a major part of its resources to preventing an important social upheaval, which may cause a deterioration of the standard of living for a significant portion of the population." Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been severely criticized by other members of Iran's leadership for having so polarized relations with the international community, that Security Council members were able to find common ground. His authority has reportedly been weakened, and last week he and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, disagreed publicly over the president's prerogatives on nuclear matters.

Ahmadinejad could end up a victim of his overconfidence. His line has been that the U.S. is a paper tiger. It talks tough on Iran, but otherwise is too bogged down in Iraq to pose a danger to Tehran. That rationale has encouraged the president to raise the stakes with Washington, probably tacked on to a calculation that if there were a standoff with the Americans, Ahmadinejad would gain at home. Yet this has divided Iran's leaders over what policy to pursue. That's why displaying too much apprehension, like Fischer does, is precisely the wrong stratagem to adopt with the Iranians at this moment. If you're playing a game of chicken, don't blink.

A second problem that Fischer and Bush administration detractors need to sort out is what negotiations with Iran should involve. The critics insist the administration should talk, but without explaining what it should talk about, whether the U.S. is in the best position to initiate such a dialogue today, or even whether Iran will take the exchange seriously.

Even a cursory reading of the situation suggests the U.S. may be better off waiting until several factors kick in before talking–particularly if the building of a nuclear weapon is not imminent : Iran will soon face more economic hardship from the steady lowering of oil prices due to Saudi excess production. The Bush administration's surge option in Baghdad and in Anbar province has the potential to strengthen its hand if it can improve security in Iraq. In Lebanon, Iran's ally Hezbollah has seen its margin of maneuver reduced by an angry Sunni counter-reaction to its efforts to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. And throughout the Arab world, Iran is perceived as more of an enemy than ever before. These developments, and others, suggest that the Bush administration might be better off waiting for Iran to float a compromise package first, rather than panicking and doing so itself–handing Iranian hardliners proof that Washington cannot afford a confrontation.

A U.S. war against Iran is a bad idea. But the essence of brinkmanship is to create the impression that war is a good idea–in fact a smashing one. Bush is stubborn enough, and infuriated enough by the Iraqi conflict, that the Iranians can't be quite sure of what he will do next. The U.S. can turn this to its advantage. Yet, until now, it's also true that the administration has dealt with Iran within the context of an international consensus, through the U.N. and in accord with its Arab allies–everything it avoided doing before invading Iraq. So, when critics like Fischer cannot acknowledge this change, when they justify using force to open the door to bargaining, then virtually reject, without evidence, that the U.S. might be playing a subtle mind game, you do wonder what their point is: to resolve a crisis that Iran created, or just to knock Bush down a peg?

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.