Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Cleaner Break

By Le Moineau
First Draft
18 August 2006
Updated 19 August 2006
Article 54

US efforts to engage Iran will reap better results

Following the war in Lebanon, there has been much talk about a war with Iran next. Claims of a grand conspiracy between American neocons and right wing Israelis in much hyped tracts like ‘A Clean Break’ are circulating on the internet as proof of a blueprint for a new Middle East splattered with blood, and fractious ethno-states subservient to an all powerful Israel.[1] The theorists fear that Israel’s ‘Operation Change of Direction’ was a mere dress rehearsal for the real war with the Mullahs, citing vitriolic brinksmanship coming mostly from the Israeli right as proof of the coming Armageddon.

Despite this hubris—that’s all it is, really[2]—in actuality the US’s next move is most probably to engage Iran in dialogue. Washington, in the next few months, is gearing up for serious negotiations with Tehran that would address Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, a resolution on Iran’s role in pacifying Iraq, and the disarming of Hizballah. Making progress on all these fronts serves larger American strategic goals, which includes the security of the marketing and transportation of energy and possibly the initiation of comprehensive peace talks à la Madrid—making the Israeli right rather nervous.

Don’t take my word for it. The Europeans have been ‘jumping up and down’ telling the Americans to do so to maintain cross-Atlantic harmony.[3] Many policy experts have recently called for negotiations, including twenty-one former generals and high ranking officers[4]. Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urges the Bush administration to engage Iran, comparing it, perhaps a bit too dramatically, to the Nixon trip to China. While he states it might be premature, he urges the Bush administration to make strides towards that goal as a ‘turning point’ following the war in Lebanon, promoting the idea that a ‘modern, strong, peaceful [read: nuclear] Iran could become a pillar of stability and progress in the region’.[5] Others have expressed a similar diplomatic overture[6], and Vali Nasr of the Council of Foreign Relations believes this is the right time precisely because Iran is strong—meaning that it’ll be easier to gain concessions from Tehran through recognizing it as a regional, or even equal, power rather than through bullying.[7]

As a way forward, and regarding the nuclear option, The James Baker Institute has just released policy recommendations—endorsed by Kissinger—to develop an international system of nuclear enrichment distributed globally in authorized facilities, with international controls and measures, that could then provide Iran and other states with the needed materiel for development of civilian nuclear energy. The purpose of the paper, according to its authors, is to ‘examine ways to engage the Iranians in a discussion of the future of nuclear power’.[8] While it is premature to assess Tehran’s reaction, this certainly presents a wiser approach that might work, given the right climate and incentives.

I have argued for several years that it serves the larger US interest for Iran to become ambiguously close to having the Bomb. If Iran is deemed a credible threat, the US can pressure Israel to cooperate in joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Creating a nuclear-free Middle East serves the larger US goal of regional stability for a viable land bridge from Europe to Asia. On another front, Washington is interested in neutralizing Israel’s nuclear option in order to bring it to the negotiating table with Syria. Discreetly encouraging, or abstaining from actively preventing, Iran’s nuclear program serves that goal. In any event, expect that Iran will link its own de-nuclearization with a US promise of creating a WMD-free Middle East, which includes Israel.

The sooner the US engages Iran, the sooner the US will stabilize Iraq. In a current Foreign Affairs article on this topic, Nasr provides this sobering advice. The main beneficiary of the ouster of Saddam Hussein is Iran, providing Tehran with inroads into the heart of Iraqi politics at the social, military, and religious levels. Today’s Iran policy is to tolerate ‘controlled chaos’ as long as the US appears to favor regime change in Iran. While this goal has been dispelled by many pundits, including Brzezinski, Pollack and Takeyh,[9] current rhetoric from the Bush administration—mostly from Cheney’s hawks—does not help. In the end, however, US and Iranian interest converge on the desire for ‘lasting stability there: Washington, because it wants a reason to bail out; Tehran, because stability in its backyard would secure its position at home and its influence throughout the region.’[10]

Lastly, the US is in favor of a diplomatic solution to the disastrous war in Lebanon, expressed in the seriousness of their efforts at the UN, albeit belated, but for other reasons. While disarming Hizballah is an important stabilizing goal, the US seeks to create a wedge between Iran and Syria[11]. While many experts recommend engaging Syria—and Bush did send Powell, Armitage, and Burns to Damascus last month[12]—Bashar Asad’s triumphalist and accusatory speech put a damper in that direction.[13] The fact that Hizballah was equally repelled by Asad’s obsolete ranting and probably secretly resents Syria’s military stand-down during the conflict suggests that the Lebanese militia is closer to Tehran now than to Syria. Providing the right climate, with incentives and guarantees to implement Siniora’s 7 points and UNSCR 1701, making concrete efforts to prevent future Israeli aggression in Lebanon, and resolving all disputes, would be enough for Hizballah to even possibly ‘voluntarily’ give up their weapons, as Rice surprisingly suggests.[14]

If so far you are not convinced that it is clearly in the best interest of the US—and why so many experts are urging—to make a ‘clean break’ with the hawks calling for a war with Iran, let us then consider important strategic reasons why the United States would not attack Iran.[15]
  1. On the Caspian Sea there are only two powers, Iran and Russia. In this context, the US needs Iran to counter Russia, Washington’s major rival on the world stage of energy marketing and transportation. The US is interested in the Caspian because, combined with the British, they are the largest producers of oil and gas there—think Baku and Tengiz, or ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. Both the host countries, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have to remain politically friendly to Iran and Russia respectively as they have large constituencies within each. If the US attacks Iran, for instance, it will lose any leverage against Russia in the Caspian. Also, Iran can easily foment trouble inside Azerbaijan, which is three-quarters Shiite, simply by exploiting a simmering ethno-territorial dispute with Baku to weaken Aliyev’s government, and destabilize US operations there.
  2. In the Persian Gulf there are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Here, the US cannot afford to hurt Iran, as Iran can cause havoc in the Persian Gulf with a few missiles, sunken ships, blocked seaways, damaged infrastructure, and, more long term, Shiite uprisings. In eastern Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, the Shiites form the overwhelming majority. In Qatar and the Emirates, they constitute a sizeable minority. Besides, any attack might damage stabilizing relations that the US has carefully nurtured over the past several years, such as the important security and trade cooperation agreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  3. China gets about 15% of its energy from Iran, with which it has had ‘exemplary friendly ties’.[16] China has invested billions of dollars in upgrading Iran’s energy infrastructure including the construction of a key pipeline connecting the Caspian to the Persian Gulf.Targeting Iran will only increase China’s desire to protect a vital source. If China deems it necessary, it might decide to send troops and its navy to protect its assets and Iranian oil ports, and might seek to establish a more permanent presence in the Persian Gulf. Bringing in China into the heart of the US energy compound will eventually lead to a confrontation with the US. The last thing the US needs is to provide China the perfect pretext to encroach on its traditional domain.
  4. The shortest route from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf is through Iran. Besides the BTC, which was inaugurated July 13, the US has no other outlet for its massive production. This is particularly problematic for US Caspian production slated for Japan and Asia: The US has only the Iranian artery to the Persian Gulf in order to reach those markets. Today, they barter with Iran, using subsidiaries to avoid the sanctions regime. They sell their output in the north to Iran and buy it back downstream in the Gulf. It’s a cozy relationship that is in the interest of the US to legalize and improve. Attacking Iran will not help.
  5. The US needs to work with the Shiites in Iraq, who represent the overwhelming majority. Iran holds the key to that success. Targeting Iran is unproductive to say the least.

Finally, the reason the Bush administration uses harsh rhetoric and threats with Iran:

  1. To gain the Jewish rightist votes in the US, especially before midterm elections. It is this same voice that has been disseminating papers like ‘A Clean Break’ and is rooting for war with Iran, and, I maintain, have long been marginalized.

Chances are, the US recognizes and will fully pursue its larger strategic interests, and so far, all indications suggest the Bush administration seems to be heeding saner voices this time.[17]


[1] ‘A Clean Break’ was written primarily by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, with other neoconservatives, who later joined the Bush Pentagon staff. It was intended for Netanyahu on the eve of his election in 1996 following Rabin’s assassination. ‘A Clean Break’ literally means breaking with the main tenets of long standing US policy in the Middle East, namely land for peace and a comprehensive and just solution. Instead, the authors urge for perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors, starting with Iraq, Syria, and then Iran.
[2] Larisa Alexandrovna, ‘Intelligence officials doubt Iran uranium claims, say Cheney receiving suspect briefings’, The Raw Story, August 18, 2006,
[3] Charles Kupchan, director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, as quoted by Jim Lobe, ‘Pressure Grows on Bush to Engage Iran Directly’, Interpress News Agency, May 25, 2006
[4] Aaron Glantz, ‘Former Generals: Bush Must Negotiate to Make America Safer’,, August 19, 2006,
[5] Henry A Kissinger, ‘The Next Steps With Iran, Negotiations Must Go Beyond the Nuclear Threat to Broader Issues’, The Washington Post, July 31, 2006, Page A15,
[6] Cengiz Candar, ‘Engage Syria or Engage Iran?’, The New Anatolian, August 6, 2006,
[7] Vali Nasr ‘Iran Sees Lebanon Strife as Way to Pressure Washington’, Council on Foreign Relations, August 3, 2006,
[8] Rose Gottemoeller, ‘On the Role of Commercial Projects in US-RF Non-Proliferation Cooperation: Summary of March 10 Workshop’, Baker Institute, May 2006
[9] See for example, Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh ‘Taking on Tehran’ Foreign Affairs, March/April 2005,
[10] Vali Nasr,‘When the Shiites Rise’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006
[11] David Kimche, ‘Pry Syria away from Iran’, The Jerusalem Post, August 6, 2006,
[12] Secretary Rice: Interview With Israel Radio One, August 12, 2006,
[13] Speech of President Bashar al-Assad at Journalists Union 4th Conference, August 15, 2006,
[14] Rice: ‘You have to have a plan, first of all, for the disarmament of the militia, and then the hope is that some people lay down their arms voluntarily.’ As quoted in Haaretz, ‘UN official warns of renewed bloodshed in Lebanon’, August 18, 2006
[15] See for instance the Congressional Report on the subject by Guy Caruso, Director, Strategic Energy Initiative: ‘Testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on The Geopolitics of Energy Into the 21st Century’, Center for Strategic International Studies, March 21, 2001,,com_csis_congress/task,view/id,65/
[16] Sharif Shuja, ‘Warming Sino-Iranian relations: Will China trade nuclear technology for oil?’, Association for Asian Research,
[17] Robert Dreyfuss, ‘A Higher Power: James Baker puts Bush’s Iraq policy into rehab’, Washington Monthly, September 2006,

Copyright © 2006 Le Moineau


Blogger Mary said...

I was just saying to myself I needed someone who could actually analyze events against the broadest possible context; separating out those with meaningless reactions to world events from those few thoughtful folks who are not "context challenged".

Blogger Billmon said...

The problem, once again, is that Le Moineau is thinking like a smart, rational person. But smart rational people are not currently running the U.S. government. Diplomacy is hard, ordering up a bombing campaign is easy. What basis (other than wishful thinking) is there for thinking Bush and company will choose the former over the latter?

Blogger Eric said...

What Billmon said--the big lesson of the past 5 years is that expecting the current U.S. administration to do the sane, intelligent, and rational thing is not a particularly good bet.

Blogger donna_z said...

My first thoughts echo Billmon's but then again, I think that the pressure is becoming so great, that the neocons will have to do something. It remains to be seen if they have anyone capable of carrying this off. There is also the problem of credibility...who can believe.

BTW, this is the path that has been advocated by General Clark for a long, long time: direct talks with Iran.

Blogger Huib Riethof said...

Your comments are refreshing and well constructed. My problem is, that you do not take sufficiently into account several important new developments that altered the rules of the "Great Game".
Another weakness is, that you take your analysis so much for granted, that you start to imagine that it were secretly shared by Mr. Bush and his advisors.
See my comments on "Legal Alien @ NY" (
But, mr. Sparrow, please go on to construct your nest here!

Blogger Le Moineau said...

Dear Mr Riethof. I have learned much from your comments and am grateful. I certainly don't wish to be an eagle, and happy to remain where I am. However, I don't recall using the word 'immediately' in this post--hence your sudden conclusion that I am a 'reductionist believer'--as I fully understand that diplomatic time is fraught with surprises and obstacles that cause unexpected delays. I also don't 'like' Kissinger. I merely listen when he speaks. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog.

Blogger Le Moineau said...

To answer billmon, simply success and more power. Losing the Persian Gulf to Iran, Russia and China doesn't require the Bush administration to think much about it. Many experts share your skepticism about Bush making the right choices, and I disagree (hence Juan Cole's comment). I happen to believe that they will make the wiser choice this time, for the same (unwise) reason they invaded Iraq--to stabilize the Persian Gulf.

Blogger Elizabeth Rebeiz said...

Thank you for an insightful analysis. A few months ago I had read an article about the future of the Iran-USA relations and I had reached the same conclusions... I had argued that The USA would favor a clash between Israel and Hezbollah in which Israel would somehow be downsized... but I have been labelled as a dreamer and a wishful thinker. Unfortunately I don't master the skills of writing but will be reading you regularly.

Blogger Sami LIPKIN said...

You wrote "In eastern Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, the Shiites form the overwhelming majority"
You need to correct "In eastern Saudi Arabia and in bahrain, the shiites.." Shiites are no more a majority in Kuwait - and Kuwait is so small for one to say 'eastern of kuwait' while in saudia - there is a regional area called eastern.

Except this - your approaches are good.


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