In 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote “In the world of ideas, to name something is to own it.” On June 20, 2012, Robert Litwak investigated a similar idea regarding the relationship between terminology and United States policy.
The event, called the National Conversation, was the first of a series produced by the Wilson Center and National Public Radio. Litwak, the Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center, presented his new book Outlier States about the United States’ policy dealing with states like Iran and North Korea, though the discussion focused on Iran. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, discussed points with Litwak, while Steve Inskeep, the host of Morning Edition on NPR, moderated.
Litwak’s book investigates the terms “rogue states” and “outlier states,” and how policy has differed around those terms. First termed in 1991, the original rogue states, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, were a new category brought about by the end of the Cold War: countries with whom negotiations and diplomacy were nearly impossible.
Near the end of the Clinton administration, the term had disappeared from official usage because of its hardline connotation; however, it was revived during the early part of the Bush presidency. Litwak explained that at this time, the biggest fear involved rogue states obtaining nuclear weapons and passing them on to terrorist organizations that the United States would be unable to stop. And when the problem was the regime, the only solution was to incite regime change in that country.
Litwak argued Libya’s disarmament of its WMD program in 2004, shortly after the Iraq War, was due to the threat of regime change. However, the U.S. was unable to find a suitable arrangement with Iran or North Korea: abandon WMD programs or face regime change.
When Obama took office in 2009, these states were renamed as “outliers” and were offered another path: those who began complying with international standards and regulations would be allowed to rejoin and reintegrate with the international community. The outlier states, however, rebuffed that path, and have since pointed to the 2011 revolution in Libya as proof that Libya’s disarmament was a mistake and a plot by the U.S. to disarm and then overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
Iran’s Nuclear Program
Unlike North Korea, which seems to view nuclear weapons as necessary to defend their existence, Iran doesn’t see itself in an existential crisis, despite the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nuclear issue in Iran, Litwak said, is actually a proxy for Iran’s attempt to negotiate its relationship with the international community.
Part of the problem for any negotiations lies in the fact that hostility toward the U.S. is a fundamental part of Iranian policy, and has been for years. Even if the Obama administration presented Iran with exceptionally favorable terms, it’s unclear that Iran would be able to accept them.
The Obama administration has taken action to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, including cyber attacks, in order to reduce the likelihood that a military strike would be necessary. Obama has also explained that the nuclear enrichment alone is not a sufficient catalyst for military action. Rather, only Iran’s attempt to actually weaponize its program would be sufficient for a military strike, a line which U.S. intelligence services say has not yet been crossed.
Both Litwak and Friedman repeatedly stated that Iran wants to be as close to building a nuclear weapons as possible without actually building one.
“I think they want to be one screwdriver away from having a nuclear weapon,” Friedman said.
Litwak explained three problems with potential military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. First, the strikes would only slow or setback Iran’s program, but not end it. Second, a strike could result in strengthening the Iranian regime and cementing their power. Third, military action could easily escalate into a greater regional conflict.
“Not every problem has a solution, and I think this is one of them” Friedman said.
The current Iranian administration has been particularly adept at reading the global situation, Friedman argued, and, because of Europe’s turmoil and the U.S. economy’s fragility, the U.S. will not likely risk global instability, which military action might cause, for the potential that Iran is weaponizing its nuclear program.
A self-described non-hardliner, Litwak explained his belief that military intervention was probably unnecessary even if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. The U.S. successfully contained both the Soviet Union and China in their respective pursuits for nuclear arsenals, and he saw little reason why the U.S. would be unable to do so with Iran.
Friedman also explained that he didn’t believe a unilateral strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities was likely either, because with Hosni Mubarak out of Egypt, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians will be transmitted directly to the Arab world, where previously, Mubarak was able to absorb much of that tension.
In the question and answer session, Litwak turned the conversation toward Pakistan, the “nexus of proliferation and terrorism,” where the “leakage of weapons is more likely,” and how little attention Pakistan attracts.
Regarding the unofficial plans for a nuclear free Middle East, neither Litwak nor Friedman found them likely to be implemented anytime soon. Particularly, as long as Israel perceives a threat to its existence from its neighbors, it will not be relinquishing its arsenal.