Toward a More Subtle US Foreign Policy

Largely because Israel’s right-wing government now considers Iran the great enemy and has a fonder view of Saudi Arabia, U.S. politicians and media have followed that lead, decrying Iranians and tolerating Saudis, but such simplistic thinking does not serve American interests well, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The dramatic and fast-moving events in U.S.-Iranian relations over the past few days underscore, among other lessons, the following two. One is that results matter. No matter how hard the naysayers have striven to say nay, they have offered no alternative to actual U.S. policy that could have yielded results as favorable.

And it’s not as if there hasn’t been ample experience to test what alternatives might have done. With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, years of nothing but pressure and sanctions brought only years of an expanding program with ever more centrifuges spinning. It was only through engagement, negotiation and compromise that the most strenuous restrictions on, and monitoring of, a national nuclear program that have ever been negotiated were achieved.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office on March 19, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As for Iranian-Americans who were unjustly imprisoned, they and perhaps others as well would have been imprisoned whether or not U.S.-Iranian relations were in a deep freeze. (A couple of the men just released by Iran had been arrested before the nuclear negotiations even began.) They were freed only because the relationship thawed.

As for the naval encounter in the Persian Gulf, despite the erroneous attempts by critics of the administration to depict as an Iranian provocation an incident that instead consisted of U.S. Navy craft making a still not fully explained incursion into Iranian territorial waters, it is hard to imagine an outcome as favorable as the one that ensued if there were not the diplomatic channel, established in the course of the nuclear negotiations, to achieve that outcome. Again, past experience strongly suggests that with a frozen relationship the outcome would have been worse.

A second major lesson concerns the mistake of treating relations with any country customarily labeled as an adversary as if the entire relationship were zero-sum, leading to policies that try to oppose the other country at every turn, no matter what that country is doing and no matter how what it is doing actually does or does not relate to U.S. interests.

This mistake has arisen regarding U.S. policies toward some other countries besides Iran. Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a thoughtful argument in a recent article that the Obama administration has committed this mistake in its policy toward China, in which the administration’s “Asia strategy has been to fear and combat nearly every move by China to flex its muscles.”

The ill-advised nature of such a strategy is illustrated by the feckless U.S. attempt to dissuade other states from participating in the new China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. A better strategy, says Kurlantzick, would be to save opposition to China for those issues on which Beijing’s behavior really does run up against important U.S. interests, such as the unjustified Chinese attempt to stake vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.

On Iran, the corresponding mistake has been made not by the Obama administration but instead by its critics who believe that Iran ought to be opposed everywhere, all the time, no matter what it is doing, thus treating anything in Iran’s interests as if it were by definition against U.S. interests.

Some of the chief underpinnings of this posture have to do with idiosyncrasies of current American politics: the influence of the right-wing Israeli government, which wants to keep Iran forever ostracized for reasons that do not correspond to U.S. interests; and the impulse in the Republican Party to oppose anything Obama proposes.

Also underlying the posture, however, is a more general American tendency to view the outside world in black-and-white terms with a rigid division between foes and friends. The Obama administration has pushed back against these tendencies with its nuclear diplomacy on Iran, but the tendencies are so strong that the administration still has had to bow to some of the Iran-is-always-bad mindset as a way of husbanding its political capital and protecting its most important achievements.

The oppose-an-adversary-everywhere approach is harmful to U.S. interests in several respects, starting with the fostering of a mistaken view of exactly what those interests are. They are not really zero-sum vis-a-vis China, Iran or any other country. The first step in upholding U.S. interests is to have a clear and undistorted view of the interests themselves.

The zero-sum approach impedes fruitful cooperation with the other country in question. This means not only the big initiatives (such as the Shanghai Communiqué with China and the nuclear agreement with Iran) but much else besides. The Obama administration, despite being overeager to counterpunch Beijing in Asia, has gotten some useful cooperation from China on climate change and the negotiation of the Iran agreement.

But there is plenty more such cooperation that is needed; the handling of North Korea probably tops the list. With Iran, beyond nuclear matters the most prominent current area of shared interest where cooperation is important is opposition to ISIS and similar violent Sunni extremism.

The inclination to oppose the other state across the map gets the United States into costly and disadvantageous commitments. Kurlantzick mentions, for example, some questionable U.S. policies in Southeast Asia that stem from the inclination to oppose Chinese influence everywhere.

In the Middle East, the often-asserted and very incorrect theme that Iran is “destabilizing the region” and that its influence must be countered everywhere has led to such mistakes as U.S. support for the ineffective and destructive (and deplorable on humanitarian grounds) Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Economic sanctions, as a favorite tool of those who want to take a uniformly negative approach to a country labeled as an adversary, have come to be treated as if they were a positive thing in their own right. It is as if schadenfreude were a U.S. national interest. It isn’t.

The United States gains no benefit from economic weakness in Iran, China or elsewhere. (For a reminder, check what your stock portfolio has done since the start of the year.) In important respects the United States has an interest in healthy economies in those and other places. And U.S.-imposed sanctions inflict direct harm on the United States itself.

Lost sight of long ago in many discussions in the United States about sanctions against Iran is that they are of no good to the United States at all except insofar as they shape Iranian motivations to do something such as agree to major restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

The prisoner exchange needs to be seen in this light. The men released by the United States were charged with no offense other than violation of U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against Iran, and in particular the nuclear-related sanctions, which have served their purpose with implementation of the nuclear agreement and are no longer of use. In this respect what the United States gave up in the swap was minimal indeed.

The zero-sum approach of opposing everything the other country does fails to take account of internal political competition in that country. Such disregard of the other side’s domestic politics tends to work to the disadvantage of U.S. objectives.

In this respect, the prisoner release is an important statement about the state of play of political contests inside the Iranian regime. Strong forces that for their own reasons resist a thawing of the relationship with the United States are still part of that regime.

Those hardline elements, which have largely had control of the Iranian judiciary, were responsible for the original incarceration of the prisoners who were freed. Release of those prisoners indicates that the more moderate and progressive elements in the regime, including President Rouhani, have gained enough influence and won enough internal arguments to bring about the release. Rouhani and his allies will be able to retain such influence only as long as they can demonstrate that cooperation with the United States rather than confrontation pays off for Iran.

If U.S. policy were to change in a direction that made it harder for the moderates to win such arguments, then we would see Iran taking more dual-national prisoners and releasing fewer of them.

Currently there does not appear to be a comparable internal political dynamic in China. Control and stifling of dissent seem to be watchwords of the regime under Xi Jinping. But perhaps someday, if political pressures in China catch up with economic change, the issue may be germane there, too. U.S. policy can matter, not in stoking counterrevolution but in helping to shape political evolution.

The black-and-white approach to foes and friends makes it seem easy to think about relationships that actually are complicated. And some primal urge gets satisfied by sticking it to someone we’ve decided we don’t like. But that’s a poor way to advance our own nation’s interests.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Toward a More Subtle US Foreign Policy

  1. Abe
    January 20, 2016 at 22:05

    Israel has deployed a nuclear armed ICBM, the Jericho III, capable of carrying a 1,000-kg (2,204-lb.) warhead more than 5,000 km.

    Entering service in 2011, the Jericho III has a three-stage solid propellant and a payload of 1,000 to 1,300 kg.

    The Jehricho III can carry a single 750 kg nuclear warhead or two or three low yield MIRV warheads.

    The estimated range of the Jericho III is 4,800 to 6,500 km (2,982 to 4,038 miles), though a 2004 missile proliferation survey by the Congressional Research Service put its possible maximum range at 11,500 km.

    With a payload of 1,000 kg, the Jericho III gives Israel nuclear strike capabilities within the entire Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and almost all parts of North America, as well as large parts of South America and North Oceania.

    On 2 November 2011, Israel successfully test fired a missile believed to be an upgraded version of the Jericho III at Palmachim; the long trail of smoke was seen throughout central Israel.

    Israel’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers are buried underground.

    • walfishj
      January 31, 2016 at 09:00

      Israel did not sign the related agreement, and in fact objected to the Iran Agreement, so how is this information relevant, If you want to negotiate with Israel over this, say so, but don’t bring it up as relevant. It isn’t.

  2. Abe
    January 20, 2016 at 21:51

    The question of whether the Iranian Emad missile launch violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010) is a matter of debate.

    Resolution 1929, Paragraph 9 states that the Security Council decides that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.”

    Iran launched a new long-range, precision-guided ballistic missile on 11 October 2015. Council members’ responses to the launch largely followed traditional dividing lines between the US and likeminded countries on one side, and China, Russia and Venezuela on the other side, with the latter group advocating a cautious approach.

    Following a briefing by the US under “any other business” during consultations on 21 October, France, Germany, the US and the UK sent a letter to the Committee describing the missile as “inherently capable of delivering a nuclear weapon” and reporting the launch as a violation of resolution 1929, while calling for appropriate action to be taken.

    The Committee discussed the missile launch at a 24 November meeting, the only one held since the chair last briefed the Council in September, where it also considered the midterm report of its Panel of Experts. The mid-term report referred to the missile launch as a likely violation of resolution 1929, but did not reach a firm conclusion.

    Following further investigations, the Panel of Experts submitted a report to the Committee on 11 December concluding that the missile launch was a violation of Resolution 1929, Paragraph 9. The US has pushed for the Committee chair to mention this conclusion in his briefing. However, Russia was reluctant to refer to the incident as a violation.

    Resolution 1929 banned Iran from launching a payload of over 500 kg over a distance in excess of 300 km, using a high-arc ballistic trajectory, all factors considered sufficient for the delivery of an effective nuclear strike. The Emad missile easily outperformed those minimum requirements, as had other missiles tested in 2012 and 2013.

    However, Resolution 1929 is superseded by the UN-backed nuclear deal, concluded last July, between Tehran and six leading world powers, which calls upon Iran to “refrain” from launching ballistic missiles “designed” to carry nuclear weapons for at least eight years.

    Iran has argued that the Emad and other missiles are not specifically “designed” to deliver nuclear warheads, and are, in essence, conventional weapons, to which it is entitled like any other nation in the region.

    Israel, a nuclear-armed state possessing chemical warfare capabilities and an offensive biological warfare program, has been threatening to attack Iran for close to two decades.

    The Israel Lobby in the United States, infamous for its simplistic thinking and frantically belligerent clamor, exerts enormous influence over US Foreign Policy with regard to Iran.

  3. Abbybwood
    January 20, 2016 at 18:22

    The world business community is flooding into Iran to make deals and this is good for world peace but bad for the Neocons and their Israeli masters:

    The sooner business starts booming in Iran the better! If major companies from all over the world, especially European and U.S. companies, the harder will be the sell to start any kind of military action against Iran.


  4. Bart
    January 20, 2016 at 15:42

    Obama placed new sanctions on Iran right after the prisoner exchange was made. Don’t these particular sanctions come from the U.N. regarding missile tests? Why do we have to be the ones implementing them?

    • Dave Huntsman
      January 20, 2016 at 19:42

      Good question. It doesn’t seem too debatable that the Iranians violated Security Council resolutions. But I think enforcement requires yet another Security Council resolution; and I’m assuming the Administration felt that, with the nuclear agreement just now being implemented, and with British/French/Russian/Chinese business folks rushing to Tehran for new business, they were unlikely to get that.

  5. rosemerry
    January 20, 2016 at 14:45

    The USA has long claimed “enemies”, varying from time to time, but indispensable for US foreign policy. There is NO attempt at understanding other points of view, of using genuine unbiased experts as advisers, at negotiations in good faith, at realizing that different countries and times have differing needs.
    The USA assumes its needs are the only criterion for discussion or action.

    Treating Russia as a permanent enemy despite its takeover and ruination by the “West” when the USSR collapsed and Putin’s repeated attempts at cooperation has NO justification. China is vilified for its economic success and hassled for its desire for islands close to its territory. Iran is slapped with the ludicrous lies about “State sponsor of terror” while it is the main fighter against the Sunni extremists who are friends of the Saudis and “our” other democratic pals. Israel, one of the worst offenders in every way, is coddled by the USA.

  6. J'hon Doe II
    January 20, 2016 at 10:46

    Largely because Israel’s right-wing government now considers Iran the great enemy

    and has a fonder view of Saudi Arabia,

    U.S. politicians and media have followed that lead, decrying Iranians and tolerating Saudis, but such simplistic thinking does not serve American interests well, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

    Koch Brothers’ Father Linked to Nazi Oil Refinery
    January 13, 2016
    Newly released information has revealed that the father of the billionaire Koch brothers helped to construct a major Nazi oil refinery in a business transaction personally approved by Adolf Hitler.

    Conservative Koch Brothers Financiers Built Secret Surveillance Ops to Spy on Liberals Groups and Activists

    In a new book titled Dark Money, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker dives into the history of several well-known conservative and highly political families. A large portion of the book focuses on the Koch family, and the fortune that Charles G. and David H. Koch inherited from their father, Fred C. Koch.The book details a business venture in which the elder Koch was hired by the Nazi regime to build critical infrastructure.

    “One venture was a partnership with the American Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis, who, according to Ms. Mayer, hired Mr. Koch to help build the third-largest oil refinery in the Third Reich, a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine,” the New York Times reported.

    The father’s investment in and profit from the fascist regime is not mentioned in an online history approved by Koch Industries.

    Why is it that loving Hitler and loving Zionism are so often the same thing, at least to the American “right?” Is America safe with the GOP run by these monsters and gambling boss Sheldon Adelson?

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