Last Sunday, to the fanfare of national celebrations, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again rejected any suspension in uranium enrichment, in open defiance of a U.N. Security Council commandment that Iran is treaty-bound to obey. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, a coalition of humanitarian organizations, think tanks, and peace groups are the latest to warn of the disastrous consequences of a military confrontation with Iran.
This steady “pacifist” drumbeat is meant to keep U.S. policy peaceful. But its chief effect is to make Iran increasingly belligerent. By behaving as if we are the only ones with a risk calculation to make, we are unwittingly shaping Iran’s risk calculation in the worst possible way — by making it risk-free. The result is predictably perverse–in the name of dialogue, pacifism, and international law, we are ruining the prospects for all three.
If military conflict would be a disaster for everyone, then it is Iran that should worry first and worry most. Iran could easily satisfy its stated nuclear energy goals and the West’s security concerns at the same time. But it is not interested in a negotiated settlement satisfactory to all. It has rejected Europe’s offer of all the carrots in the world, and on the contrary promises at every turn to “defeat” and even “destroy” the United States and Israel. Iran is propelling us towards a confrontation — against our will. By aggressively challenging the status quo without addressing the legitimate security concerns of other nations, Iran is engaging in strategic aggression.
Encouraged by the West’s pseudo-pacifists, Iran is starting to think that further progress in its nuclear program carries no military risk. And that is not all. The pacifists peddle the magical panacea of “direct talks,” even though existing backchannels would more than suffice to end the crisis if Iran were really interested in negotiating. This is shameful as well as illogical: to ask for direct talks after you have laid down your sticks, and all your carrots have been rejected, is simply begging. And allowing the world’s most prolific state-sponsor of terror to have nukes is begging for calamity.
The United States must return to a strong balance-of-power foreign policy. The recent move to place a second aircraft carrier task force in the Gulf is a step in the right direction. From now on, every step forward in Iran’s nuclear program must be met with a reaction calculated to be opposite and at least equal to the increase in strategic threat occasioned by the Iranian move. For example, in response to Iran’s imminent launch of commercial-scale enrichment facilities, it would be both appropriate and prudent to begin cruising destroyers three miles off the coast, using the same tongue-in-cheek proclamations of “peaceful intent” that Iran uses to justify all of its aggressive moves. Preserving the peace in a situation as volatile as this requires energetic management of a dynamic equilibrium. The most reckless thing we could do now would be to back down and do nothing.
Unfortunately, those who point out that the necessary U.S. actions would be a violation of international law are entirely correct. As Kennedy realized with the Cuban Quarantine; as Begin realized with Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak; and as Clinton realized with Kosovo, the U.N. Charter makes it illegal to use force in many situations where the use of force is both necessary and ethical.
The Charter is riddled with profound conceptual errors that cannot be fixed. Its regulation of the use of force does not recognize dangerous challenges to the status quo, and thereby facilities them. The sooner we start to face up to the fact that the Charter is unworkable as a scheme for preserving international peace, the better.
In the meantime, lucky for us, international law is nothing more than a series of agreements among sovereigns. Iran has announced that it will not be bound by its obligation to obey the Security Council. Fine. Then as to Iran, the U.S. will not be bound by the Charter’s prohibition on the use of force. We cannot permit states to claim rights and protections under treaties they willfully and openly flout.
Whatever the risks for us, the regime in Tehran cannot afford a military conflict with the United States, especially after we demonstrated in Iraq that we can make a whole regime disappear overnight. They are bluffing, just as North Korea was in 1994.
All we need to do is keep our nerve and stop working so hard to convince Iran that we are the only ones who have anything to be afraid of. Rather than seeking to reduce the risks of belligerence for Iran, we must do everything possible to increase those risks. This means that we must give Iran a choice between good-faith negotiations, and steadily increasing tension. This is what will serve diplomacy, peace, and international law.
We are not the aggressor here, so we cannot choose an honorable peace. What Iran is offering us is a choice between war and a much more dangerous world. And the worst part is that we may choose the latter and still get war.
By rejecting a peaceful settlement, Iran has elected to monopolize the choice between war and peace. In so doing, they have created a dilemma for themselves. Let’s not take that dilemma away from them by adopting it as our own. If we really want peace, let’s hold firm to our position and brace for war.
– Mario Loyola, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.