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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Today the Weekend Reader brings you Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat by Abraham D. Sofaer. Sofaer served as legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. In 1994, Sofaer became a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he also currently teaches. 

Iran’s nuclear threat has long been a foreign policy challenge for the U.S. Historically, U.S. presidents have erred on the side of diplomacy and resisted force. Sofaer’s suggestion in Taking On Iran is that diplomacy alone cannot stop Iran’s nuclear program, and that the U.S. must also embrace a policy of defensive strength. Do you agree with Sofaer’s recommendations? 

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Whether or not the current strategy of coupling economic sanctions with multilateral negotiations convinces Iran to modify its nuclear program adequately to alleviate security concerns, the United States should adopt as an alternative to preventive attack or containment a strategy based on defending against the IRGC’s support of surrogate and terrorist attacks on the United States, its interests, and its allies.

Defending against IRGC aggression is directly related to the ultimate objective of convincing Iran to accept necessary limits on its nuclear program. To begin with, why would Iran take seriously U.S. threats regarding a nuclear program that has not yet led to the development of a nuclear weapon, when the U.S. has taken no action to curb the IRGC from conducting its fully developed, thirty-year, ongoing, and damaging programs of arming surrogates to actually attack the United States and even engaging in terrorist actions within the U.S. capital? Failing to act against IRGC aggression has led Iran to conclude that, as with North Korea, the option of using force to prevent the development of nuclear weapons will be left “on the table,” where it has ritualistically been placed by every recent U.S. president.

In addition to serving its essential deterrent purpose, defending against Iranian aggression would lead Iran to seek meaningful negotiations with the United States rather than to escalate illegal IRGC activities. Iran reacted to the American navy’s Gulf operations in the late 1980s, and to the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, by seeking broader diplomatic engagement with the United States.

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The need for strength in conducting diplomacy with a belligerent, revolutionary power, like the Islamic Republic or the Soviet Union, stems from the nature of the result being sought. It is futile to seek agreement with such powers in the ordinary sense of the word, that is, with the two sides acting in good faith making compromises to resolve a disagreement. What negotiators must seek instead in such cases, as Henry Kissinger has explained, is the creation of an “‘objective’ situation [that] is ratified by the settlement.” The purpose of responding to the limited war the IRGC has waged against the United States and the West is to make clear that the war may no longer be pursued safely, and indeed that its pursuit would be costly beyond any value it could confer. Iran, like the Soviet Union, sees no value in granting concessions; agreements are made by such regimes only when circumstances demand.

Strength alone, while indispensable, will be insufficient to create a diplomatic process that succeeds in convincing Iran to abandon the use of force, terror, and ultimately the military dimension of its nuclear program. To succeed diplomatically, the United States will have to make substantial modifications to the practices it has applied in U.S./Iranian negotiations. In the present political and diplomatic environment, no administration could convince Congress to support negotiations with Iran on the basis of the principles applied by the Reagan Administration in dealing with the Soviet Union. But defending against IRGC aggression could provide the credibility needed to secure congressional support for negotiating with Iran under the same principles.

Would a two-track approach of strength and diplomacy be effective in dealing with Iran? One cannot know in advance. But, despite the significant differences between the Soviet and Islamic regimes, the principles on which sound defense and effective diplomacy are based should be equally applicable to Iran as it was to the Soviet Union. Both Russia and Iran have deep historical roots and diplomatic experience. Iran has been no more aggressive than the Soviets were in attempting to achieve its objectives and spread its ideology. Iranian leaders are no less likely to be affected by a strong response to their misconduct than the Soviets were, and also no less likely than the Soviets to react negatively to demands that threaten their international legitimacy and domestic standing.