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In Iran, It’s the Guys With the Guns Who Call the Shots

Talking to Michael Rubin about his new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging with Rogue Regimes.

9:31 AM, Feb 22, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, has just published a very timely book— especially for anyone interested in the likely success of the Obama administration’s diplomatic engagement with Iran. Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes is a historical survey of American engagement that makes a powerful counterargument to the State Department’s mantra that “it never hurts to talk to enemies.” As often as not, as Rubin shows, this piece of conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Recently I spoke with the former Pentagon official about his new book.

Michael Rubin

Are there any hopes for engaging the rogue regime in Tehran?

Yes. Twice, Ayatollah Khomeini did an about-face on policy: First, with regard to what it would take to release American hostages, and the second was with regard to ending the Iran-Iraq War. While former Carter aides said it was the triumph of diplomacy that led to the hostages’ release, this is nonsense. It was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran that raised the cost of Iranian isolation to be too great to bear.

Second, Iran had largely pushed back the invading Iraqi army by 1982. Khomeini swore, however, that he would continue the war until he “liberated Jerusalem.” Six years and a half million dead later, the stalemate continued. Khomeini got on the radio and said it was like “drinking a chalice of poison,” but he had no choice but to accept a ceasefire with Iraq, The question the White House must ask is what it will take to force Supreme Leader to drink from that same chalice. What is certain is that $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment is not the answer.

Can you ever actually negotiate with a rogue regime?

Yes. But diplomacy should be the end of the process rather than the beginning. Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev only after deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe and convincing the Kremlin he might use them. In 2003, Muammar Qaddafi abandoned his nuclear program because the build-up to war in Iraq convinced him that U.S. red lines were not illusionary and because the seizure of a ship carrying North Korean contraband to Libya made him realize that U.S. intelligence was pervasive enough that he could not simply lie. The problem is that the State Department seldom does the preparatory work and too often treats those across the table as equals. Make no mistake: we are not the equals of Iran, North Korea, or the Taliban. And any diplomat who acts as if we are should never work again.

If you can't negotiate, what are the good options?

First of all, we shouldn’t become so invested in the process that we lose sight of national security. We shouldn’t be afraid to walk away from the table. Rogues aren’t simply adversaries, they are—according to the Clinton administration—states that eschew the rules of diplomacy. Why would you negotiate with a state that doesn’t abide by anything it says in negotiations or simply uses diplomacy to run down the clock?  Military options and sanctions have very high costs, but it’s time to recognize that contrary to what Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns have said, so too does diplomacy misapplied. As to the good options—it depends on what it takes on a case-by-case basis to neuter rogues like North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan.

Which is the nastiest rogue regime the U.S. has ever engaged? And why did Washington do so?

Hands down, it’s North Korea. Initially we had to because of the armistice suspending the Korean War and because of the practicalities of returning bodies washed down by floods or coordinating VIP crossings of the demilitarized zone. The problem has been the limelight-seeking behavior of men like Jimmy Carter or Dennis Rodman—twins in all but appearance—or Bill Richardson seem willing to sacrifice national security for personal limelight.

How do rogue regimes differ from another? In particular, what makes Iran's regime different from any other?

Rogues can differ in ideology and structure: Qaddafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, Khamenei’s Iran, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea are obviously different. What makes Iran so dangerous is both its messianic ideology and the effective autonomy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Most Iranians are wonderful and care little for their regime. But it’s not ordinary Iranians who matter when it comes to the issues of greatest concern to the international community: It’s the guys with the guns who call the shots. And the sad thing is that despite tens of billions of dollars the intelligence community has spent, we still have no idea about who believes what among the IRGC. This is even more dangerous because if Iran develops nuclear weapons, not only the IRGC but its most ideologically pure members would have command and control over the nuclear arsenal.

Were sanctions ever really capable of stopping Iran from getting the bomb?

The Iranian Statistics Agency reported that the Iranian economy shrank 5.4 percent in the year before the latest diplomatic love affair began. No, sanctions alone would not have stopped Iran from getting the bomb, but they must be part of a comprehensive strategy. The basic problem we now have is that—for the last couple decades—we’ve gotten into the habit of sequencing strategies rather than employing them all at once. We try to talk first. If that doesn’t work, maybe we’ll impose sanctions. Every president will pay lip service to military action as a last resort. What we need to do is employ a comprehensive strategy that combines economic coercion and military pressure with diplomacy. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Alas, rather than seek to maximize leverage, the State Department too often treats it as a dirty word.

(You can follow Michael Rubin @mrubin1971.)

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