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Should the U.S. Continue to Threaten Iran With War?

"President Barack Obama is not bluffing," Vice President Joseph Biden told AIPAC’s annual conference last March. "We are not looking for war. We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table.”  Biden was only repeating the military threat against Iran that Obama had made repeatedly over the prior two years, often in response to prodding from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But with Iran having elected a new president, Hassan Rowhani, who ran on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation, should the Obama administration continue its bellicose posture toward Iran, or should it attempt to draw the new government into constructive negotiations by offering significant concessions?

The usual suspects have come forward with arguments why the U.S. should continue to hang tough. Brookings Institution fellow Michael O’Hanlon, a prime backer of Iraq invasion in 2003, and former correspondent Marvin Kalb propose giving Rowhani a month or two after he takes office in August to move forward on negotiations. If he does not, they call for Congress when it returns in September to pass a resolution “authorizing the president to use force under certain conditions” against Iran. Dennis Ross, who works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, takes a somewhat less warlike tack, but counsels “wariness” toward the new Iraqi president. Ross argues that since America’s approach toward Iran led to Rowhani’s victory, there is no reason to change it, and he warns that there is “not a lot” of time for diplomacy. I’ll leave it to better minds than my own to parse out this reasoning.

Not everyone in Washington seems to agree with these hardline proposals. Matthew Duss and Lawrence Korb respond directly to O’Hanlon and Kalb’s argument for reliving those hoary days of October 2002 when Congress passed a resolution authorizing George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. Duss and Korb offer a needed corrective to O’Hanlon and Kalb’s framing the issue as whether the U.S. should conduct “pre-emptive aerial attacks against Iran” as it earlier had conduct “pre-emption” against Iraq. Duss and Korb point out—and it’s worth putting in capital letters—that the invasion of Iraq was not a PRE-EMPTIVE but a PREVENTIVE war, as would be aerial attacks against Iran. Iraq was not threatening to go to war against the U.S., nor is Iran threatening to go war against the United States. And preventive wars have never been sanctioned under any international agreement. Anyone but the perpetrator calls them international acts of aggression.

Duss and Korb also suggest that O’Hanlon and Kalb’s argument—that Iran would be most likely to respond favorably if the threat of “pre-emptive aerial attacks” were issued—is dubious at best. And they have a good deal of history behind this point.Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, and for whom Rowhani served as the nuclear negotiator, made repeated offers to the United States. Iran also cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan during the fall of 2001, but for its efforts, it got denounced as part of the “Axis of Evil” and threatened with regime change. American intransigence contributed to hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005 and to the ouster of Rowhani as nuclear negotiator. In other words, the prior instances of the O’Hanlon-Kalb and Ross strategies have netted the United States nothing but grief.

Vali Nasr, a former State Department advisor from 2009 to 2011 and now the dean of John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, calls for the United States to take the first step in bringing the new Iranian government to the negotiating table. Nasr writes,“For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure—threats of war and international economic sanctionsrather than incentives to change Iran's calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.”

Nasr does not believe that Rowhani can pull off a deal by himself, and he reminds readers that Rowhani was undercut before by American intransigence and is unlikely to come to the table without the United States taking the first step, and he urges the Obama administration to take that step. “Rowhani's victory is not regime change in Iran—but it is a game-changer,” he writes. “The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards continue to control all the levers of power. However, the election result has altered the face of Iran, enough to put to question the continued viability of American policy.”

I don’t know enough about Iran to pronounce on these subjects, but for the time being, I am casting my vote for Duss and Korb and Nasr. I am not in favor of new preventive wars that are promoted by people who don’t know the difference between a preventive war and a pre-emptive war.