As the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering how Al Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein?
These were not silly questions. For one thing, the election results were so close that it was a Supreme Court decision that decided who won the election. But the questions really went to the different political philosophies of the two politicians. Bush, a conservative Republican and former governor of Texas, was a kind of idealist realist on foreign policy who, it turned out, leaned strongly on neoconservatism immediately after 9/11 and for the rest of his first term. Gore, a liberal Democrat and Bill Clinton’s vice-president, was a fan of liberal internationalism and multilateralism. So it could reasonably be expected that President Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack with at least some markedly dissimilar policies to those of President Bush.
Of course it’s impossible to know how things would have been different, if much at all, in Afghanistan and Iraq between, say, 2001-2004 had Al Gore been the president. Nevertheless, it was good to see a thought experiment from foreign policy community trickling down into the street to get people thinking and talking about this. In foreign policy circles it’s know as counterfactual analysis, in which policy makers and advisors imagine alternative pathways into the future.
Since history, so to speak, is path-dependent, and since paths are choice-dependent, the present was not historically determined. So if the present seems bad due to foolish choices in the past, policymakers may seek to understand how things would have been different by imagining a counterfactual: What if Gore had been president?
Foreign policy counterfactual reasoning is a tool for relating to history in a way that helps us not only to see things differently but, hopefully, to be able to make wiser judgments in decision making. There is much more that could be said about this, particularly concerning the criteria used to keep counterfactual analysis from running away with itself. But hopefully I have now said enough about it, here, to consider the following example.
What if President Bush had not snubbed Iran in May 2003 but had taken the Iranians up on their formal diplomatic reachout? More specifically, how much is the snub implicated in the direction that the political hardliners in Tehran Iran took their nations diplomatically and internationally after the snub? It’s a critical question for two significant reasons. One, it bears upon the direction of Iran’s nuclear program since 2003. Two, entering negotiations about its nuclear program was a salient point in Iran’s proposal for talks with the U.S. in May 2003 – when Iran was much more open to negotiations about its nuclear program. Relevant to this is what took place in Iran after May 2003:
Inside Iran after the Bush snub:
- Ultrafundamentalists politicians and religious leaders had the political propaganda they had been hoping for to successfully undermine President Khatami’s reformist domestic policies and his “dialogue of civilizations” foreign policy with the United States.
- Iran’s rigidly ideological Council of Guardians, which vets all political candidates seeking elected office, increasingly disqualified moderates and reform-minded candidates for the presidency and for parliament (they number in the hundreds every election cycle).
- Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), a large branch of the military tasked with defending the Islamic republic from external and internal threats, expanded areas of its control, including tightening its grip over many of the country’s economic sectors through multi-million dollar take-overs of key industries in Iran’s telecommunications and energy sectors. Today, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the IRGC “presides over a vast power structure with influence over almost every aspect of Iranian life.”
- In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultrafundamentalist mayor of Tehran and former member of the IRGC’s infamous Basij militia, became president of Iran and, in controversial speeches, makes his radical religious-political views known to the world.
- In the summer of 2006, Iran is implicated in supplying military support, and in green-lighting, Hezbollah in the Israel – Hezbollah war fought in southern Lebanon.
- With the Council of Guardians disqualifying candidates en masse for political office, the ballots are stacked with fundamentalists and ultrafundamentlists, who win a huge majority of seats over reformists and moderates in the March 2008 parliamentary election.
- Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all things political in Iran, sides with the hardliners in June 2009 and authorizes the Basji militia to use extreme measures against hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran, who are protesting the suspected widespread vote rigging that saw Amadinejad reelected as president.
- As organized protests continue to disrupt Ahmadinejad’s plans for a smoothly running government, the regime spends the second half of 2009 taking revenge on high-level moderates and reformist politicians and their supporters through bogus arrests and trials.
Iran’s nuclear program after the Bush snub:
- The Iranian government intensified its cat and mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shrouding the secrecy of its nuclear program with ever more riddles, while international appeals for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment go unheeded.
- Iran significantly reduced the IAEA’s inspection rights in 2006, opening paths to conduct nuclear activities in secret; it enriches uranium.
- International tensions mount in 2006-2008, as both the United States and Israel think out loud about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
- News surfaces in 2009 about a secret uranium enrichment site being built underground near the holy city of Qom.
- Despite four rounds of economic sanctions passed by the UN Security Council between 2006 and 2010, Iran continues to stonewall IAEA inspectors and double down on its nuclear program.
I’ll stop there.
Conclusion. Iran’s thickly veiled nuclear program since the Bush snub is central to why I have been arguing that the May 2003 snub of Iran may yet go down as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.
Since 2003, more than a dozen serious diplomatic initiatives, proposals, and negotiations from Western nations, China, Russia, and others, including from Iran itself, have taken place, with varying results but with no comprehensive agreement as yet having been reached. (Here is a detailed history of the official negotiations.)
Success on the issue became more promising after President Obama removed the Bush administration’s precondition that Iran first suspend certain nuclear work before the U.S. would enter talks about Iran’s nuclear program. At the time of this writing, detailed and very technical negotiations to reach a comprehensive solution are taking place in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), as yet another deadline for reaching an agreement, November 24, approaches. The deadline may be extended. Who knows?
What is known is that the United States, the EU, Russia, China, and many other nations are not willing to take Ayatollah Khamenei at his word when, in February 2012, he said in a major foreign policy speech: “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons … because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” What is also known is that no one really knows if the United States or Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations collapse.
In the spring of 2003, the George W. Bush White House was flying high. It had ridden the crest of its swift victory in Afghanistan into Iraq, and on May 1, after less than a month of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, a large red, white, and blue banner that read “Mission Accomplished” hung unashamedly on the USS Abraham Lincoln as President Bush landed on the flight deck. It signaled to all the world America’s precise, speedy, and bold defeat of the largest military in the Middle East, while President Bush gave a nationally televised speech under the banner.
Also in the spring of 2003, as a net result of Bush’s year and a half of wars in the Middle East, Washington found itself breathing the air most envied by many world capitals: extraordinary diplomatic negotiating power with capitals of the Muslim Middle East. In that atmosphere of diplomatic advantage, it was foolish for the Bush White House not to ride those winds into negotiations with Iran.
Today, after eight years of Ahmadinejad, Iran has another moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, whose cabinet includes a number of people from the reform-minded Khatami administration of 1997-2005. And the United States is deeply engaged in the nuclear talks with Iran. We do not want to see another decision, like the Bush snub, that can be used by the hardliners in Iranian regime as another “told you so” moment that provides political ammunition to destroy the Rouhani presidency and bring the ultrafundamentalist to power again.
If you can do nothing else, pray that the talks succeed. It may indeed take the wisdom of Solomon for them to succeed. If they fail, the United States or Israel may bomb Iran. If that occurs, it is likely to result in the Iranian government’s immediate marginalization of Rouhani and a protracted retaliation from Iran to the bombing that includes increased terrorism; greater instability in Iraq and Syria; disruption in oil distribution; military conflict between Shiite Persian Iran and some Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia; and many other terrible consequences, not to mention an Iran more determined than ever to become a nuclear weapons power.
Iranian retaliation and Western response might even lead to an escalation that draws in China and Russia, who are allies of Iran, on the side of Iran into a fullblown U.S. – Iran war. In short, a bombing campaign and Iran’s retaliation may result conditions that will make everyone rue the day.
Equally disturbing is the fact that even if the nuclear negotiations succeed in keeping Iran from going for the bomb, Iran will nevertheless have reached the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons power. And that may be incentive enough for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, if other Muslim countries set in motion their own threshold programs as a balance of power strategy to Iran. Iran then might decide to cross the threshold first, because it can do so in a short space of time. Then chances for a nuclear war increase.
This counterfactual analysis does not place the blame for the current Iranian nuclear dilemma on the Bush snub alone, for a host of national interests, regional strategies, and international maneuvers are also in play. It does, however, cry out for us to learn in an exceptional way from history why diplomacy is better than adversarial relations and war. And that can help us imagine a wiser way ahead today.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Dominoes image by Great Beyond, palm tree image by cariberri (permissions via Creative Commons)