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Monday, February 08, 2010

That "Cost-Benefit" Thing: How U.S. Intelligence Assessments Misunderstand Iran and Lots More in the Middle East


By Barry Rubin*

February 8, 2010





"We continue to judge that Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Iran." Dennis Blair, chief of U.S. intelligence in his annual threat assessment report for 2010.

Forget about  Nazi analogies or even Stalinist ones. Let's just use some Middle East parallels, formulated fictionally as if they'd come from the Dennis Blair school of thought:

We continue to judge that the Arab world's pursuit of its conflict with Israel is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to bring it to an end in the near future."  Annual threat assessment report for 1950.

We continue to judge that Egypt's foreign policy-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the United States a chane to turn it into an ally." Annual threat assessment report for 1952.

We continue to judge that Syrian and Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means these countries will see that friendship with the West has more to offer them than alliance with the USSR, especially given the fact that Communism is in conflict with their religion and way of life." Annual threat assessment report for 1960.

We continue to judge that Egyptian and Syrian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to war with Israel." Annual threat assessment report for 1967.

We continue to judge that Egyptian and Syrian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to war with Israel." Annual threat assessment report for 1973.

We continue to judge that Arab states' decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will quickly join in to the Camp David process and support the Egypt-Israel peace agreement." Annual threat assessment report for 1979.

We continue to judge that Iranian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not create a crisis leading to a long-term conflict with the United States. Annual threat assessment report for 1979.

We continue to judge that Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which means they will not go to war with Iran, a country that has a much larger population, and suffer huge damage as a result. Annual threat assessment report for 1980.

We continue to judge that Iraqi decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Iraq into not escalating the conflict by offering it concessions over Kuwait. Annual threat assessment for 1990.

"We continue to judge that Iraq's decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which suggests that Saddam Hussein will cooperate fully with the international order to get the sanctions removed from his country. Annual threat assessment report for 1995.

We continue to judge that Palestinian decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence the PLO into making coprehensive peace with Israel. Annual threat assessment report for 1999."

We continue to judge that the decision-making of Iraq's elite and people is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to turn Iraq into a stable democracy once Saddam Hussein is overthrown. Annual threat assessment report for 2003.

We continue to judge that the decision-making of Iran's regime is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which ensures that Iran will become more moderate and not take on the risks and high expenditure of resources required by a drive to get nuclear weapons. Annual threat assessment report for 2006.


Ok, enough examples. Some--actually many--of these kinds of statements were made at the time by mainstream experts including many of those in government. Today, we have lots of equivalents, not only concerning Iran's nuclear program but also including: Syria in maintaining its close alliance with Iran; radical Islamist groups remaining moderate; the Palestinians seeking the quickest deal possible to get a state.

The mistake here is not in thinking that Middle Eastern decisionmakers are rational--that is, use a cost-benefit approach--but in not understanding how they define costs and benefits. Example. Hamas attacks Israel and loses miserably. Did they make a mistake about costs and benefits? No, because they are still in power and--with considerable help from the West--have turned a military disaster into a political success by persuading the world that Israel is the bad guy. Moreover, for them the greatest benefit is to be able to continue the struggle for decades more. From a U.S. standpoint their calculation was irrational and wrong, with the cost seeming to outweigh any conceivable benefit. From their own standpoint the benefits did exceed the cost.

Regarding Iran, Western leaders simply fail to understand that Iran's sole reason for seeking nuclear weapons is not just to fire them at Israel and that if the United States prevents them from doing so that will be a great American victory. On the contrary, the Iranian regime's assessment of costs and benefits is totally different and involves lots of factors that would benefit the country even if it never shoots off any nuclear weapons. Once Iran has nuclear weapons, the rulers know they will:

--Increase domestic support through demagogic appeals to Iran's greatness and Islam's triumph.

--Intimidate Arab states and Europe into giving them lots of things they want, including reducing cooperation with the United States, running away even faster from peace with Israel, accepting Tehran's desires on oil prices, and lots more.

--Shifting the strategic power balance greatly against the United States and its allies, also by exposing them as weak and in retreat.

--Mobilize massive support among Muslims elsewhere both for Iran as leader of the Muslims and for radical Islamism as an ideology that is winning.

So let's consider what Iran's annual threat assessment report for 2010 should look like:

"We continue to judge that the U.S. decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach in which confrontation is feared, the process of decadence continues, and almost anything is preferable to taking leadership and working hard to block our getting nuclear weapons. This offers us tremendous opportunities to seize leadership of the Muslims and of the Middle East. Since the world will do nothing that will materially hurt us the prospects are good for our obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus influencing everyone to retreat as we advance."
 

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Analysis: Iranian Quickstep: 1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back

By Jonathan Spyer *
February 5, 2010


Latest Ahmadinejad statement suggests that Teheran still believes it can find a few partners for the dance it has been performing since 2003.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week told Iranian state television that "we have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad."

In so doing, Ahmadinejad appeared to agree to the long-standing plan for the export of the greater part of Iran's enriched uranium stocks.

Recent experience with the diplomatic methods of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggests that this statement is the latest instance of Teheran's favored approach to diplomacy.  The Iranian tendency is to seek to offset confrontation at the 11th hour by appearing to show flexibility. Once crisis is averted, the regime relies on differences over the details to make sure that nothing actually happens. It is the diplomacy of one step forward, two steps back. Thus is further time bought for the Iranian nuclear program.

The hitherto seemingly inexhaustible international patience at Iranian maneuvering, meanwhile, has recently been showing signs of at last wearing thin. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the latest convert to the cause of renewed sanctions. Brown said on Tuesday that "What we now, I think, have to do is accept that if Iran will not make some indication that it will take action - we have got to proceed with sanctions."  

It remains to be seen if the latest Iranian move will revive the spirits of the advocates of "engagement." Ahmadinejad's statement relates to the IAEA proposal that Iran should ship its low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be converted into fuel rods for an Iranian research reactor producing medical isotopes.

The purpose of the IAEA proposal was to call Iran's bluff. Iran has long claimed that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. Very well, then, said the IAEA - let other countries take charge of converting Iranian low-grade uranium into material fit only for domestic use. Of course, this proposal depends on the assumption that the Iranians have been entirely honest in revealing all their supplies of enriched uranium. If they have not, and if a substantial amount remains outside of the purview of international observers, then the exercise becomes meaningless. Still, let us assume in this regard that the Islamic Republic of Iran's well-known tendency toward honesty and transparency has prevailed, and that as such the proposal to export a large percentage of Iran's known supplies of low enriched uranium is not entirely devoid of content.

In considering the seriousness or otherwise of Ahmadinejad's statement, it is worth looking back to October last year, when the export proposal was first tabled. The apparent Iranian flexibility at that time came two weeks after the revelation of a secret uranium enrichment plant in the town of Qom on September 21. At the time, there was international excitement as Iranian representatives in Geneva agreed "in principle" with the proposal for the export of uranium. It was agreed that the details would be worked out at a subsequent meeting in Vienna.

That was on October 2. At the meeting in Vienna on October 19, the proposal was further clarified. A draft proposal was formulated. At the end of that month, Iran began to retreat from its apparent acceptance of the proposal.  On November 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki unambiguously rejected it in the following terms: "Definitely, Iran will not send its 3.5 percent-enriched fuel out."

The tentative December "deadline" came and went. On January 20, Iran confirmed that it rejected the export proposal as formulated in Vienna.

In other words, a skeptic might conclude, the international anger resulting from the Qom revelation made a bit of momentary cooperation from Iran advisable. Once the moment had passed, normal service could be resumed. The Iranian parliament and Guardian Council a week ago approved an Ahmadinejad endorsed bill to cut food and energy subsidies. The move, while significantly reducing government spending, stands to sharply increase prices and possibly lead to rising inflation. Political unrest is ongoing in Iran, and the regime is reported to be unnerved by the failure of its initial attempts at repression to douse the flame.

At such a moment, the last thing the regime needs is renewed sanctions. It is therefore an opportune moment for the reappearance of the reasonable Teheran of last October - to kick the ball down the road again for another few months.

Will the "international community" play ball?   There are currently indications of a hardening US stance. A bill to target Iranian fuel imports is working its way through Congress. New sanctions may be discussed at the Security Council later this month. In the absence of renewed UNSC sanctions, the administration may set about trying to build a "coalition of the willing" for further moves against Iran.

But it is deeply questionable if any of this will prove sufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear drive.
 *Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel

Irv Rubin and Earl Krugel

Never Again!


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