osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

The Speech, The Dress, And Why the Iran Negotiation Creates a Real Rift Btwn Israel and the U.S.

I shall now get a bit long winded, knowing that discussion on Israel is always triggery. But whateves.

Some will have seen a picture of a dress floating around the Internet which, depending on who looks at it and againast what set of color cues, is usually described as either gold and white or brown and blue. I have suggested that Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Iran is much the same. Depending on how you perceive U.S./Israel relations, it is either blue and white (the colors of the Isrtaeli flag, i.e., you perceive the speech as being all about Israel and whether Israel is dictating to the United States, exploiting the U.S. for domestic Israeli politics and we should stop giving them $3 billion in aid, etc. or Israel needs our support and boycotting the speech means you hate Israel, want a nuclear Iran, etc.) or red and blue (this is just another extension of U.S. partisan politics and either Boehner or Obama or Pelosi ought to be ashamed of him/herself for making our critical foreign policy subject to domestic squabbles).

i have actually mastered the neat trick of being able to flip in my brain whether the dress is white and gold or brown and blue (if it helps, I tend to generally see it as goldish-brown and a kind of really light blue that I, being a guy, would call either white or blue depending on the day but which Becky would tell me has some weird name and could pick exactly that shade of white/blue (and no other) from a color chart). So I will try to apply that here. The problem is: this really is an actual hard problem where allies have divergent interests and considerations.  What is right for the U.S. is not necessarily right for Israel (or other countries in the region). This assumes a rational Iran, because any rational country capable of developing a nuclear weapon rationally wants to do so based on the advantages it confers.

It also raises significant problems of practicality. Iran is not like other countries in the region where Israel has acted militarily to thwart the country's nuclear ambition (Iraq, Syria). Iran is large, has a large, eductaed population, significant resouces to invest, and signifcant trade relations with lots of other developed countries. None of which is comforting to those in the region who worry about expanding Iranian hegemony.

Lots more boring stuff below, mostly to get it off my chest . . .

So here are a list of factors to consider, as grouped by country, which make this a very hard problem.

Why a rational Iran rationally really, really wants a nuke.

Lets assume that Iran is not filled with doomsday Shia cultists desiring to trigger the day of judgment. It's always possible. And it is always possible that the U.S. will elect an evangelical Chrisitian fanatic who thinks a nuclear war will bring the End of Days -- a scenario folks have worried about under both Reagan and W, for those progressives inclined to dismiss the possibility of religious fanatics getting a bomb in Iran but ready to contemplate it here in the U.S. (or vice versa on the conservative side). But, as with the U.S., I assign it a low probablity for Iran. As a religious fanatic myself, I recognize most religious fanatics are not that interested in rushing to the after-life.

So why does a rational Iran iwant a nuclear bomb so badly, if not to blow up the world?

Ans: being part of the nuclear club changes your options -- as Israel has long recognized itself. No one has invaded a nuclear power, and everybody treats you with respect even if they think you're crazy. Just look at N. Korea. Look at Pakistan and India. Having a nuke is the ultimate insurance policy, as demonstrated by 65 years of MAD (mutually assured destruction).

By contrast, consider the cases of Iraq, Libya and the Ukraine. Iraq and Libya both gave up their nuclear ambitions (Iraq by force after Gulf I, Libya in 2004 or thereabouts when they made a brief effort to reestablish trade with the U.S. and EU). Both ended up subject to "regime change."

But the case of Ukraine is even more disheartening. Ukraine has a nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We persuaded them to give it up in exchange for a huge bribe and a treaty with NATO to preserve its territorial integrity in the event another country (read: Russia) would ever invade them. You will notice how well that has worked out for Ukraine.

Which brings us to the next set of issues:

Why Is Israel So Completely Freaked Out?

First of all, unlike the U.S., Israel is actually in missle range of Iran or one of its surrogates (such as Syria). Also, it is the object of special ire in the region. Iran may not want to bring about armegeddon, but they might well be willing to go for a surprise nuke strike on Israel under several circumstances, including the possibility of just random miscalculation. So they take a much dimmer view of Iran getting a nuke.

Further, as the only power in the region possessed of a nuclear weapon (never officially acknowledged but widely believed), Israel enjoys a necessary stalemate against other countries in the region. Israel may be outnumbered, but its nuke monopoly gives it a capacity for destruction that would hurt regional powers commensurate with an overwhelming military attack against Israel. This is Israel's version of MAD, and it has worked since the 1970s. Destabiize that be ending the nuclear monopoly and Israel needs to consider that the destruction is no longer mutual but tilted against it (and therefore tempting to enemes in the region on a rational cost/benefit analysis).

Second, as noted above, Israel has had some recent examples of how utterly unreliable reassurances from allies can be. If the U.S. will throw Ukraine under the bus despite a direct treaty promising to defend it, why wouldn't it do that with Israel? you know that line about "if he cheated on his ex with you, he'll cheat on you with his next?" That applies in nternational relations as well.

Additionally, Turkey, a rock solid ally for 50 years -- so much so that Israel shared intelligence and conducted significant joint operations on a regular basis -- flipped dramatically and rapidly to enemy. This compromised ongoing Israeli intellgience ops in Iran (as well as degrading Israel's overall security).

As if that weren't bad enough, while the U.S. is unreliable (from Israel's stand point), the other members of th 5+1 negotiating team are even worse. China and Russia are active partners of Israel's enemies in the region. The EU is highly questionable from Israel's perspective. As for the U.N., HAH!

So when it is pretty clear the U.S. (for rational reasons I will get to below) is perfectly willing to settle for something less than total eradication of Iran's nuclear capability, it is major freak out time -- and rationally so.

Why Does It Make Sense For the U.S. To Settle For Less?

So now we come to the U.S., the country that supposedly runs the world and can take out Iran's nuclear capability if it just tries hard enough. Except, it turns out, not so much. It's complicated when you're a hegemon.

The U.S. Can't Hold It's Alliance together forever.  First, the U.S. cannot hold out alone against the willingness of its other negotiating partners to end the sanctions. Eventually, Russia, China or somebody will start violating the sanctions and the U.S. will lose leverage. From the U.S. perspective, it is better to go for something less than a total eradication of Iran's nuclear capability if it preserves a significant strategic advantage in the region, rather than hold out and be isolated when other countries cave.

Getting Rid of Iran's Nuclear Capability Is Pretty Difficult From A Practical Perspective -- Even With 'Regime Change.' Did I mention Iran is a pretty big country with lots of educated nuclear physicists and stuff? We did a non-proliferation deal with North Korea, which is a tiny country with pitiful resources compared to Iran. This did not stop N. Korea from building a bomb anyway when it decided to go for it. Even if we somehow managed to change Iran's ruling regime (which is impractical for waaaay too many reasons, even if it were a plausible foreign policy), you can't change the fact that Iran is a big country with lots of resources and is not dependent on a single nuclear physicist for a scientific breakthrough.

So, from the U.S. perspective, the rational thing to do (again) is have a system in place where you can try to control things and slow things down and have lots of warning when Iran is going to actually develop nuclear weapons capability. Yes, Netanyahu is correct when he characterizes the agreement as being a map to Iran getting a weapon rather than stopng Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But from the U.S. persepctive it is better to have some control over the development path rather than cede that control entirely and wait for its current allies to break ranks on sanctions.

The U.S. and U.S. Business stand to gain from re-establishing trade and diplomatic relations with Iran. Finally, there is the fact that the U.S. has lots of good old fashioned incentive to make up with Iran the same way the U.S. eventually made up with Vietnam, China and other former enemies. It's good business. Israel can never (realistically) hope to have diplomatic relations with Iran or benefit from trade. But the U.S. can. Again, the alternative is relenquishing all that trade and diplomatic advantage to our rivals like Russia and China. So, from a rational perspective, excluding concerns for our allies, the U.S. would rather have a deal.

Any Other Factors?

Finally, it is important to realize that Israel is not alone in wanting the U.S. to actually end Iran's nuclear program, rather than just delay the inevitable. Just about every Sunni Arab power in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, dont want Iran to have a nuke. This is particularly true after the Shia uprising in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shia minority in its easern province. Given events in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, it is rational for Saudi Arabia to fear a similar uprising in its country -- and that Iran would support the Shia rebels.

Likewise, the Arab emirates on the Persian Gulf are less than thrilled with the thought of Iran gaining even more power and influence. On a purely economic basis, they lose if Iran and the U.S. (and other western powers) start diverting shipping and trade to Iranian ports. But setting aside the crass commercial concerns, the Emirates depend on the Pax Americana to keep shiping in that region open and free and prevent the kinds of tensions that are occuring in the Pacific around China.

If Iran gets a nuke, the U.S. and EU will be much less likely to respond militarily to Iranian aggression in the region. See above for why and why current alliances and treaties are not very reassuring. Or, in other words, while the local Sunni regimes may not share the fear that Iran will nuke them for the heck of it, they share the same general concern about a shift in the balance of power and rising Iranian hegemony in the region.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Absolutely nowhere good. Life is like that sometimes. It would be nice if this were just about intransigent and/or paranoid leaders and common sense could prevail if only that awful Netanyahu or that awful Obama were replaced with someone better. The issues here are genuinely hard, and the options genuinely suck. Which is why it is much more comforting to believe in a personality driven narrative and ignore any contrary evidence that the other side in the debate is actually behaving rationally -- as measured by their own self-interest and operating under a theory of rational actors. Iran would be crazy to give up its nuclear ambitions, but could be persuaded to limit and delay them in light of the ongoing damage to their economy. Israel and the other countries in the region would be crazy to settle for anything less than forcing Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions entirely. As for the U.S., even if it reasonable could hold out for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions permanently, it's not clear that it would serve its best interests to try in light of the potential cost for failure and advantages of finding an acceptable (to the U.S.) compromise.

Whether the dress is blue and white or red and blue, it still sucks.


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