Neoconservative Sings the Blues on Iran

01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Name that tune.

"All the debates about the use of military force are over," asserted a veteran statesman during a recent discussion of the Iranian nuclear program. Is he an advocate of direct official engagement with Tehran? "I think the debates...about regime change are over." So is the speaker a proponent of additional sanctions?

The answer is none of the above. These are the words of John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and faithful supporter of preventive military action and regime change in Iran. He delivered the remarks to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, concluding that the United States is "going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran." And while it certainly is a new refrain for him, Bolton's speech does not represent a shift in the neoconservative chorus on Iran. It is just the same old song, albeit with some different lyrics.

On the surface these comments appear to be a significant departure from a deeply bellicose stance on Tehran. This summer Bolton still bluntly expressed the view that a military strike in Iran would be "really the most prudent thing to do." In an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama, he advises only three months of intense negotiations with Tehran, prompt suspension upon their ultimate failure, and subsequent regime change or targeted use of military force. "Dealing" with the situation was never a possible alternative then, reflecting an underlying assumption that in its current state, Iran can be neither contained nor deterred à la Cold War policies toward the Soviet Union.

But these types of ideas are no longer at the forefront of the agenda. Last week the French parliament's Foreign Affairs Commission issued a report cautioning that because Iran could acquire a nuclear weapons in as little as one year, there remains no other alternative but the swift initiation of open talks between Tehran and the international community. Germany, a country often criticized for its trade with Iran, is considering an expansion of its current sanctions regime. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will remain in his position in the next administration, recently reiterated that, "Nobody is after a regime change in Iran."

In fact the transition team has received a deluge of recommendations on how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Reflecting the stated values of the new administration, these policy proposals tend broadly to favor engagement over isolation, diplomacy over force, and pragmatism over ideology. Their authors include a bi-partisan array of veterans of the National Security Council, respected academics, and former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, Israel, and the United Nations. To the extent that these proposals include military response, it is reserved as an undesirable "last-ditch" option for avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Trita Parsi
, the author of an award-winning book on Israeli-Iranian relations, agrees that the debate in Washington is no longer whether to negotiate with Iran, but "how, when, and in what sequence such negotiations should take place." As regime change becomes increasingly improbable--Bolton predicts its chances under an Obama administration are "essentially zero"--and the foreign policy consensus crystallizes around diplomatic engagement, it appears the time has come for neoconservatives to adapt or risk irrelevance. Parsi believes that they will eventually turn to Cold War approaches of containment and deterrence to frustrate U.S. engagement with Tehran, in "clear contradiction" of the current hard-line assumption that these policies are not applicable to Iran. But for now, the insistence that no options remain belies ideological rigidity and a fixation on means at the potential expense of ends. Interspersed between Bolton's ominous conclusions about an Iranian nuclear weapon was a predictable disparagement of sanctions, Europeans, the IAEA, and the UN. In short, all have failed, all will continue to fail, and nothing can be done but wait for the inevitable.

It is an understatement to say that such a stance comes up short in terms of timely policy prescriptions, which is what the United States most needs. However this kind of entrenchment is nothing new for hardliners adrift from the inner circles of power. The example of Paul Nitze comes to mind. In the 1950s, he painted the vision of an "inescapably militant" Soviet Union in NSC-68 and a nonexistent "missile gap" in the Gaither Report, but was eventually judged too hawkish by members of his own party. As the foreign policy agenda shifted to arms control and détente with Moscow and engagement with Beijing, Nitze's views lost favor. His influence waned, reaching a low point under President Carter.

Bolton's recent speech at AEI is a barely perceptible variation on an old theme. Even if the Obama administration uses engagement and multilateral institutions to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, it seems unlikely that the neoconservative song and dance on Tehran will change. But you never know. Even those known to tow a hard line can face the music and change their tune. Remember that Nitze eventually adopted a noticeably new repertoire as one of President Reagan's principal arms control negotiators and, in 1994, became an early proponent of a world free of nuclear weapons.