Danielle Pletka is the vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). She is the co-editor of Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats.
Is it clear that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons capability?
One of the biggest challenges about understanding what Iran is doing in its nuclear program is understanding motivation. That’s the kind of insight that foreign policy analysts and intelligence analysts really can’t get. But luckily, in the case of Iran, we have an enormous amount of information. And, that information isn’t based on satellites or guys who walk into embassies in the dead of night; it’s based on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has had quite regular access to Iran over the last 20+ years, and with which Iran has flirted with giving greater and lesser access. Nonetheless, I think we have a very clear picture about the Iranian nuclear program and what their unanswered questions are. And, the problem really is that the unanswered questions are ones that would probably give us the definitive understanding that Iran is engaged in nuclear weapons, and not a peaceful nuclear program. So, I don’t think there’s very much doubt.
The real debate in national capitals has come down to the question of whether Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons or whether it merely wishes to have the capability. It’s sort of a Japan vs. North Korea. Japan knows how to make nuclear weapons, but we trust the Japanese, they could probably fashion one within weeks or less, but they’ve chosen never to do so for a variety of reasons. The North Koreans went into the exactly opposite direction. No surprise, North Korea is a rogue state and Japan is a member of the civilized community of democratic nations. Those are really the challenges and those are really the things that American leaders, but also Israelis and Europeans, and to a certain extent Russians and Chinese, grapple with in trying to understand what the nature of the Iranian program is.
Why does Israel view Iran as an existential threat?
I think that the Israeli government, successive Israeli governments, have viewed an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat for a pretty simple reason. Let’s say it’s two reasons. One: Iran is clearly pursuing a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapons capability. Two: successive Iranians leaders have suggested that Israel needs to be wiped off the map. There have been little arguments about whether that was exactly what President Ahmadinejad may have said, but Israel has been labeled a cancer that must be eradicated from the region, an unnatural state. There are plenty of indications that Iran doesn’t have positive intentions towards Israel. And, the lesson of history – especially for the Jewish people – is that when someone says that they want to annihilate you, it’s safe to believe them, rather than to hope for the best.
What are Iran’s regional ambitions?
Iranian regional ambitions have changed over the years. I think right after the revolution in ’79, Iran’s view was that its version of Islamic revolution could be exported to the entire Middle East, and even further to Central Asia, to Southeast Asia, to a whole variety of Muslim states. I think they’ve very, very much drawn back on the ambitions that they had to export the revolution. And to just jump forward for one second to illustrate that, at the time of the Arab awakening or the Arab Spring, there was a huge Iranian propaganda effort to label the Arab Spring the Islamic Awakening and to invite many of the heroes of the Arab Spring from a variety of countries, and they were completely rejected and rebuffed. Nobody would sign up to the notion that, in fact, any of these so-called revolutions had been inspired by Iran. So, we’ve come a long way.
But, I think Iran still aspires to a role in which it is dominant in the region, and we see that in a whole variety of ways. Not just by Iran’s behavior in the Persian Gulf, the occupation of three islands that belong to the United Arab Emirates, presence on those islands with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps figures, efforts in Syria on the ground to support the Assad regime as an ally to Bashar al-Assad, their efforts in Lebanon, and their efforts to destabilize Gulf countries – interfering in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and now even in Yemen, and of course in Iraq. I think Iran has at once a historical view of itself as Persia – a great, great nation, that held sway over much of this region at one time, and should do so again – and at the same time, a much more parochial desire for power and dominance in an important part of the world.
How does the internal dissent in Iran play any part in Iran’s policies, whether they be domestic or foreign, and how they impact us?
It’s difficult to say how Iranian domestic and political troubles impact their larger decision-making and impact, particularly, the United States. On the one hand, the easy answer to any Iranian export of terrorism, support for Hezbollah, interference in the peace process, and of course, the nuclear weapons program, is to say, “let’s not deal with all of those problems, let’s deal with the guys who are causing the problem.” So, ideally, you’d have a situation in which the Islamic republic would cease to exist and it would go back to being a secular state, or some variant of the state that exists now. I think there’s enormous support inside Iran for that, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps over the last ten years has been almost single-mindedly tasked with regime preservation. Because there’s an understanding as a result of numerous internal uprisings in Iran, as well as the green movement, that the regime is not very popular, and in fact, there is a desire to overthrow. So they have brought all their tools of oppression so familiar to us – whether it’s listening devices, imprisoning dissidents, cracking down on labor unions, stopping gatherings, rigging elections, disqualifying political candidates – they have brought every one of those tools to bear to ensure that the revolution in Iran is something that is going to be very, very difficult to achieve. Yes, it’s potentially the easy answer for the West, and theoretically we’re we able to support the opposition in an effective manner inside Iran, that would be the fastest way to address one of the biggest threats we face in the world today, but we haven’t been able to do that. We’ve talked about it, we’ve stopped talking about it, we’ve talked about it again, and at the end of the day, the results are there on the ground. The Islamic republic, the Supreme leader, the president, is all in one place.
Further to that then, what policy options does the U.S. have to bear? We’ve had restrictions on Iran for many, many years. What other things can or should we do?
In any challenging foreign policy situation, the U.S. has an enormous number of tools to bring to bear to the challenge – political, economic, and military. And, we’ve used all three in the case of Iran. We’ve also used unilateral tools, we’ve used multilateral tools, we’ve worked through the United Nations, we’ve worked with coalitions of the willing, we’ve offered to sit down, we’ve threatened, we’ve cajoled. It sounds a bit like one is a parent, putting pretty much every carrot and every stick out there. The problem is that over the last 20+ years, in which we’ve been trying to find the right tools to persuade Iran to step away from its illegal weapons program, each time the effectiveness of the tool has been a lagging indicator of the severity of the problem. We’ve had lackadaisical sanctions in place until 3-4 years ago. Now we have serious sanctions in place, but the problem is there are two clocks ticking – our effectiveness with the sanctions, and the regime’s closeness to achieving nuclear weapons capability. How much longer are they willing to withstand the pain? It’s only a matter of months, when they feel they can talk everybody out and break the sanctions, and then they’re going to go for it. I think that’s the situation that we find ourselves in now.
I think there’s another problem as well. And that is that so much of the conversation surrounding the tools available to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons efforts end up being about the tools. Look we’ve brought an international coalition together. So what? Look the harshest sanctions of the U.S.-Iran relationship have been put in place. So what? Our goal is not to build coalitions and our goal is not sanctions. Our goal is to use those tools to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that has, at least as of 2012, failed.
U.S. policy – having an ally as Israel in terms of they are? Real action? Impact our decision?
One of the nicest things about Americans is that they believe that there is a solution or an answer to every question. And one of the biggest problems about the situation with the Islamic Republic of Iran is that there is no good answer. Even an Israeli strike on Iranian facilities will not end an Iranian nuclear weapons program. It could delay it, it could damage it, but you can’t take away the know-how or the capacity to make these centrifuges and to fashion this program once you have it. So, we’re really in a very difficult spot.
We look at the challenge of Iran, and the U.S. recognizes that this is not just a threat to one of our important allies in the region, but also a threat to Europe and to ourselves ultimately. We have red lines which are moderately clear and the Israelis have red lines which are clearer – the problem is they’re not in the same place. So the Israelis have spent a lot of time suggesting that an attack on Iran may be imminent, that it’s going to happen, that they’re going to do it, that they’ve got the capacity to do it. I think they’ve built up a certain bubble of credibility. Many people, myself included, believe that the Israelis are more likely than not to strike Iran.
What does the U.S. do? Do we support them? There are many ways we can support them – with weaponry, with intelligence, with protection. My understanding is that the Obama administration has suggested to the Israelis that they will not be helpful in this instance. That’s a change in the relationship between the two countries. It’s something that’s very troubling to many supporters of Israel and the U.S., and it’s something very troubling to Israel, which views the U.S. as its most important champion in the world in a very hostile neighborhood. So, what happens? I think the answer is what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, which is that at a certain moment, we’re going to be faced with a decision that rests on the question of Israel’s survival. And we will not be persuaded at that point by any ally that we cannot move ahead. The option for the U.S. is to present a credible enough alternative to dissuade the Israelis from acting and thus far we’ve been unable to do so. A whole series of rejuvenated talks in which the Iranians appear serious in 2012 have really fizzled into absolutely nothing. A massive game of switch and bait, in which all of the players have conspired to agree that no one will call them a failure. Because the instance they’re called a failure the Israelis will once again rear their heads as a military threat to Iran. But the reality is that everybody recognizes there is not going to be a diplomatic solution. What the fallout is going to be weighs very heavily on everyone’s mind in Washington, in Jerusalem, etc.
There’s never a good reason to go to war for any country. War is a conquest, perhaps, for dictators and authoritarians, but for others, militaries never want to go to war. Politicians tend to not want to go to war either. In Israel, wars have been very costly to them. A country of seven million people each loss is magnified is much more. No one wants to go to war. It should be evident that the Israelis have tried to find almost any excuse not to do that and I think the same is true of the U.S. We don’t like to go to war, but we like to have a strong military so we don’t have to go to war. And we like to have an effective and diplomatic core and effective economy to be able to persuade people not to do the things that will cause us. But there come times in history when you’re faced with two bad options. One is doing nothing and the other is doing something. And the only answer to that question is leadership. In democracies what you see is that that leader will either be rewarded or punished. But that’s the nice thing about democracies – either they’ll be rewarded or punished. But sometimes a decision has to be made and I think that that’s a juncture that we have approached these many years with Iran.
Is it part of U.S. history to act as the world’s security guarantor? Why?
America has a special role to play in the world. And, we are the richest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, have the greatest and most resilient of democracies in the world, and it never has been the view of the American people – since before the founding of the country – it was not even the view of the colonials who came from Britain – that our role was to come to this slab of land and sit here and make it awesome for ourselves and do nothing with the fruits of that awesomeness. America has always been a country that has sought to, even if it hasn’t, play a role on the world stage. Thomas Jefferson wrote about America as an empire for liberty. Not an empire of liberty, and not an empire, it is such as modern construct and it is one that has sustained poll, after poll, after poll. You see it in basic things, you see it in charity. Don’t think about it is as a military question, think about it as a question, “What does an earthquake in Iran have to do with American people?” and yet you’ll discover that it is the American people who give more to charitable relief than anyone more in the world whether tsunami or earthquake, and the same goes for politics and for human life. The U.S. has sought to influence countries and leaders who have taken less seriously the morals that we hold dear – not always, not perfectly. Sometimes we do it with diplomacy, sometimes with economic measures, and sometimes militarily. Ideally we do it militarily only when we have and only when we have an interest in the outcome. That’s the challenge for us.
What are our defining characteristics with respect to intervention? Whether it was during the Cold War, Africa, or Vietnam?
There’s been a really interesting evolution in American principles of interventionism. Not so much because we’ve started to intervene more – because history shows we intervene a lot in every decade – but because we’ve started to think about it in different ways. Just start with a period fresher in some peoples’ minds, the Reagan era. The Reagan doctrine was the notion that we would support those who sought to oppose Soviet domination. We weren’t intervening in Nicaragua, El Salvador or Angola, we were supporting national groups in those countries that sought to repel Soviet proxies. We’ve turned back to that a little in the post George W. Bush era, in which we are supporting groups that seek to bring democracy to their countries, seek to overthrow tyranny. But we don’t do it everywhere and we don’t do it consistently, and so even though George W. Bush talked about freedom agenda and President Barack Obama suggested that the U.S. could not tolerate any country create genocide against its own people, nonetheless we don’t apply those rules very evenly or very clearly. We’ll do a Libya, but we won’t do a Syria. If you ask someone like me why, and the answer is politics.
If you could extend that; what about Haiti, Somalia, and Kuwait?
What dictates where a country like the U.S. chooses to intervene? Less why Libya, why not Syria? Pick something else. Why not Yemen? Here’s a country that’s starting to look a lot like Afghanistan; al-Queda dominates the southern portion of the country, Iran is interfering on the northern border, you have a dictator in place who is mismanaging the country and oppressing people, and the U.S. has really not gotten involved. And I think one of the reasons the U.S. hasn’t gotten involved is because we don’t see what we could bring. Yes, we could put 500,000 troops on the ground and we could probably straighten Yemen out at least for a while. But we’d need to stay a long time. And I am not quite sure the payoff would be commensurate with the investment – that’s always a balance America makes, and it’s a balancing of moral imperative and strategic imperative. Unfortunately, places like Darfur, moral imperative – slam dunk, strategic imperative – very unclear. For me on Libya – moral imperative – slam-dunk, strategic I wasn’t too sure and a lot depends on where you sit.
So to that then the factors that impact why the U.S. considers intervention is a myriad?
There’s no defining doctrine that threads its way from administration to administration in American history that makes clear where we will act and where we won’t act. And I think that that’s really challenging for a lot of foreign countries that look to us as their foreign champion. Do we rise up and will America be there, or what will we do? Of course, we’ve supported dictators over the years too, so our moral character is not always as one would wish it to be.
Is there any emerging consensus as to if we have this responsibility to protect?
Part of what troubles many people about the notion of responsibility to protect – or what’s known in the foreign policy world as R2P – is that many of its proponents believe that the purity of R2P has to be unsullied by American interests. We have a responsibility to protect, but only if we don’t have strategic interests there. That’s one of the reasons you see arguments about this inside the wonky world of American foreign policymaking in terms of our responsibility to protect and in terms of the colloquial expression of America’s responsibility to the world’s oppressed. American people can’t be responsible for everyone oppressor or oppressee, but we should at least be the champion. Our rhetoric is almost written – we should at least stand with those who seek the values and the privileges that we have at home, even if we can’t intervene for whatever reason – political, economic, diplomatic – that should be our role in the world. We should be that champion. That’s what the Statue of Liberty is meant to stand for in both directions – it’s about bring us your oppressed, but it’s also a beacon. When we don’t do that, it gets noticed around the world.
Is NATO our best tool to use in intervention, for instance following Libya?
NATO is one of the greatest alliances the world has ever seen. A great peacetime alliance, inclusive, broadened the countries of the former east block, the former Warsaw pact. Offered them that hope and then brought them in after the end of the Cold War; it’s an amazing alliance. The problem is that it’s an alliance largely sustained by American defense spending. There was an agreement inside NATO that countries would not go beneath a floor of 2% of their GDP spending on defense. We are now – in the coming year, going to have only two countries that had to drop beneath that floor other than the U.S. When we got together with NATO in Libya, countries in Europe ran out of ammunition. We are not talking about WWII here, we’re not talking about the Nazi threat, not the Soviets. We’re talking about the Falklands scale threat and yet our allies in NATO didn’t have enough ammunition to actually pursue hostilities against Gaddafi.
This is staggering and one of the biggest problems is that no alliance can continue to be robust and to play the role that its intended to play, unless it resources its rhetoric. You can’t gather together as a threat to the bad guys in the world and as an assurance to the good guys of your alliance, if you don’t have the tools to back it up and that is unfortunately where NATO is headed.
With respect to threat assessment, where are our current defense dollars going?
It’s always a great question that people ask. What do we spend defense dollars on? We spend less and less of our defense dollars on things that actually defend us. 50% of our defense budget goes to personnel, and much of that personnel is not uniform personnel, on the front lines or alliance-related personnel, like our folks in Germany or South Korea, but much of it is bureaucratic personnel manning various defense department sites. A huge chunk of our defense budget goes to entitlements – insurance premiums that are extraordinarily low – the real challenges about the structure of the defense budget is, of course, we’ve also been at war for ten years and so we have been resourcing that war and paying for the logistics related to it, but as a result we haven’t spent anything on renewing our Air Force. In fiscal 2013, fewer aircraft were requested for the Air Force than in 1916. Most of our pilots are flying planes that are older than they are and many of them are flying bombers that are older than the President of the U.S. What are our defense dollars going to? They’re going to a lot of things, but they’re not as efficient as we need them to be. It’s only because of the incredible fighting quality of America’s men and women that we are able to do so much while mismanaging a big portion of this budget.
So where are we cutting back? In troops? Hardware?
As of the end of 2012, we will have cut $450+ billion out of the defense budget. If a sequester goes into place in January, as part of Budget Control Act and the result of the Super Committee to agree on cuts to our budget, another $800+ million will be taken out of the defense budget. We’ll be looking at more than a trillion dollars in cuts to our defense budget in the next 10 years. Where will those cuts be? The much shorter answer is, “Where won’t those cuts be?” We have already taken men and women out of Europe, we will start closing bases, we are limiting strength, we have stopped acquiring new material, fewer aircraft carriers at sea…we are “pivoting” our focus to Asia and we are doing so with understaffed, under-resourced carrier battle groups that will not be able to actually be in the Middle East and Asia at the same time. We’re going to be a different country very soon if we keep disinvesting in the military.
The problem with the fixed costs in the defense budget is that they’re fixed costs – and they’re not going to shrink, only going to grow. Defense entitlements, personnel, those are going to be a larger and larger chunk of what we spend – or think were spending on national security. How it will impact the future is that we stop doing it. We cancel next generation fighters, we don’t acquire a new helicopter fleet for the White House for example, we don’t invest in missile defense, we don’t stand by our allies who we’ve promised investments in missile defense, we don’t invest in cyber, we don’t invest as the Chinese have done in anti-satellite technology, we don’t protect ourselves in the way that we might in the cybersphere. Here at the American Enterprise Institute, the head of cyber command, John Keith Alexander, referred to cyber attacks on this county as the single largest transfer of wealth in the country. And yet, we’re basically walking around with our hands tied behind our back. New technology comes from the private sector for sure, but the private sector has very different incentives. There’s always a role for the government in the national defense. It is the role of government to protect the American people. So the answer is we will have less of everything, we’ll be able to do less in fewer places, we’ve already changed our national security doctrine. We’ve been a country that has been able to fight two wars since the end of the WWII. We are no longer that country and that changed in the 2012 national security doctrine released by President Obama.
How does a country like China’s rise to power impact the U.S.’s future military spending?
The question of China is probably one of the biggest questions of the 21st century. Iran is the current threat where needled by Russia, but China is such an enormous opportunity and a potential threat. Trying to figure out which China is in the forefront – who is in charge? The good China or the bad China? – is an enormous challenge to every part of the U.S. government and to U.S. business and to U.S. consumers. We buy so much from China, we trade so much with China, we manufacture so much in China. China owns so many of our treasuries. The notion of a world in which China didn’t play this role would be hard to envision at this point. At the same time, China has used its economic growth to fuel an unprecedented military expansion into the Pacific – a successful effort to push the U.S. out of the South China Sea, a successful effort to curtail the operating space of a number of our allies, including Vietnam, Philippines, and others.
China has a very concerted deepwater, blue water policy. They believe they need to dominate the seas, they are extraordinarily worrying to India, to our other Asian allies, and we have understood the imperative of resourcing a pushback in the Pacific…the problem that we haven’t understood that we need spend to do it and we haven’t figured how to spend to do it, because we don’t have unlimited sums of money. But there are more than a few problems here. It’s not just that China represents a military threat – also in the straits of Taiwan – the issue is not always one of direct military menace. A declining China represents a threat to us as well. Chinese growth has decelerated sharply in 2012 – Chinese manufacturing is declining, this is not a country that can sustain itself at growth rates lower than 9%. What internal unrest means for the behavior of the new government in Beijing is a complete unknown to us. One of the things we’ve seen in the past is that in order to unify the nation behind the government they lash out at their neighbors – Japanese, etc. – to destabilize the region they intimidate their neighbors even more, because they’re feeling insecure. We face a whole world of potential trouble with China that is, I believe, a total mystery, not just to the average guy in the street, but also to many inside the Pentagon, Department of State and the CIA.
It seems like so much of what’s happening in the world has to do with mistrust or being unsure about what other people are doing – whether it’s in China, Iran, in the U.S., or from others. How does all of this fit into the stewpot in terms of misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of adversaries or potential partners in the world?
It’s funny when you look back a 100 years at what people felt the world would look like. Whether it’d be hovering cars and there’s a lot of mythology about what technology could do for you. You could have a more perfect understanding of how other countries think or plan and what they’re up to, and even if they’re not telling you, but your enemies are revealed to you through their vulnerabilities, because you can see with technology. Spying, listening, intercepting…and the answer is, you can’t know. It’s like the question of motivations – you can’t know what countries are going to act, you can’t know when things are going to happen. I was told a story by somebody who had reason to know about the President’s daily brief on the day that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt broke out and I was told that the headline on his brief was “unrest in Tunisia unlikely to spread to Egypt.” That encapsulates very nicely the challenge that any country faces in the world, which is that it’s very hard to know how human beings are going to behave, because they’re human beings. You know what your vacuum cleaner is going to do when you turn it on, but for as long as nations are run by human beings, there will never be a perfect technological answer or a perfect diplomatic answer to understanding each other. The real solution in the world is to understand that democracies behave much better than dictatorships. Democratic countries don’t invade other countries. Democratic countries are more or less accountable to their own people. Democratic countries like to maximize prosperity, because that’s how democrats get re-elected. And that’s the real solution to moving forward with a more peace world – not simply figuring out a better way to know what everybody’s thinking.