One of Mitt Romney’s top campaign advisors (and potential Secretary of State if Obama loses) has such inadequate understanding of the Iranian issue, and is so belligerently wrong on the fundamentals, that it should frighten any observer of the 2012 race. In his latest piece at the Weekly Standard, John Bolton says that negotiations are “delusional” and that our only option at this point is to launch a war against Iran. And he’s not kidding.
Bolton claims the mix of sanctions and negotiations rests “on the erroneous premise that Iran could be talked out of its decades-long effort to build deliverable nuclear weapons.” He quotes “Obama’s director of national intelligence, Lt. General James Clapper, [who] testified in January, ‘the sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behavior or their policy.’
If Bolton had bothered to listen to Clapper, he would have also mentioned that Clapper explicitly said “we don’t believe [the Iranians] have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.” Bolton’s claim that Iran has a “decades-long effort to build deliverable nuclear weapons” directly contradicts the estimates of the entire US military and intelligence community. But facts are powerless for people like Bolton, who are preconditioned to disregard any information that marginalizes their war aims.
Bolton then asks “what would a negotiated deal look like? Our goal is to deny Iran nuclear weapons; Tehran manifestly wants the opposite. What is the compromise? Iran gets to keep a small nuclear weapons program?” Again, Iran does not have a weapons program, so clearly it wouldn’t be part of any negotiated deal for Iran to “keep a small nuclear weapons program.” As far as what a deal would look like, Bolton must not be paying attention. In Moscow last month, the Iranians offered a proposal that included agreeing to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent and to more fully cooperate with international inspections (that is, beyond the 24-hour video surveillance and frequent international inspections to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities).
Bolton is careful on one point, though. He doesn’t come right out and say that he believes Iran would use its nuclear weapons on Israel or the US. He simply implies it. He talks about a “dangerous misperception that a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred.” What this really means is that Bolton thinks there is no way Iran would be deterred by the threat of retaliatory attack when (not if) they use their imaginary nuclear weapons. Incidentally, not a single expert, official, or academic on this issue believes that. Across the spectrum, it is well understood that Iran’s leaders are rational, respond to incentives, and value self-preservation. As renowned academic Kenneth Waltz recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by ‘mad mullahs’ but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders.” Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency General Ron Burgess told Congress, “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.”
Bolton’s most revealing quip in this tabloid-quality column is when he makes clear that US policy towards Iran should be nothing less than regime change. The current road, he says, fails to “effectively advance the goal of replacing the mullahs with a regime that would truly forswear nuclear weapons.” Both the Bush and Obama administrations have “erred by conceding that Iran has any right even to ‘peaceful’ nuclear activities without fundamental regime change.” The rational John Bolton pokes his head out here. Indeed, any policy other than declaring war on Iran will fail to deprive Iran of its legal right to a peaceful nuclear program and will fail to force a regime more to Bolton’s liking on the Iranian people.
But such belligerence could never pacify the situation. Just as a posture, this approach fails immediately. As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar explains, a “nothing-but-pressure” approach would leave the Iranians “to believe that heavy pressure, including sanctions, will continue no matter what they do at the negotiating table, and that means no incentive to make more concessions.” More importantly, and as is widely recognized even in officialdom, nothing is surer to facilitate an Iranian bomb than to attack Iran.
There is a rather persistent question that has permeated the Romney-Obama 2012 campaign. In weighing their options, many voters and commentators wonder aloud whether Romney has only been as hawkish as he has so that he can get elected. He is sure to get more rational once he gets into office, they claim. Bolton’s Weekly Standard piece should really put that question to rest.