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Opinion | Operation Odyssey Dawn and a Nuclear Instruction Undone


03 Apr 2011 15:04Comments

Iran draws lesson from Libyan operation far different from what the West intended.

QaddafiSarkozy.jpg[ opinion ] I remember my professor at Florida International University referring to the Qaddafi regime's scuttling of its nuclear program following the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an example par excellence of international education through overwhelming U.S. power. A pressing question at this juncture is whether Operation Odyssey Dawn has undone that teaching and, if so, what the unintended but foreseeable consequences of this will be for Iran's future nuclear behavior.

If recent remarks by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are any indication, the primary lesson the Iranians have derived from the Libyan operation is to make an inextricable, mutually reinforcing link between nuclear defiance and national sovereignty. On March 21, in his annual Iranian New Year speech in Mashhad, Khamenei said that in Libya,

people saw that their leader issued an order to gather up all their nuclear facilities and give them up in face of the Western threats. Alternatively, as they say, he [Qaddafi] was encouraged by the West and handed over the facilities like a child who is glad to be given a chocolate. Well, the nation [Libya] sees all of this and the heart of the nation bleeds because of that.

This publicly articulated judgment by the Supreme Leader is a far cry from the bygone era when Tehran was testing the waters for a "grand bargain" with Washington, a rapprochement along the lines of Nixon's China strategy. The main objective of the "grand bargain" paradigm was to deescalate Iran-U.S. relations from one of ideologically driven, wholesale animosity to a realistic negotiation compartmentalized into manageable wish and woe lists. Just seven and a half years ago, Iranians believed that such a problem-solving approach would pave the way for a breakthrough in the vicious circle of mutual exclusivity in defining national interests and contribute to an atmospheric change where cooler heads on both sides could prevail. The resulting Iranian offer, however, was spurned by the Bush administration, apparently due to the premature triumphalism unleashed by the "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq.

Even if it was no more than obliquely expressed, buried in Tehran's unofficial offer was an unprecedented readiness to disengage Iran's national security interests from its nuclear program and forge a nuclear-free modus vivendi with the United States in the Middle East. The way the military intervention against Libya has been received in Tehran so far marks a drastic departure from those conciliatory sentiments. Operation Odyssey Dawn, as far as Iran's conservative old guard are concerned, vindicates a time-honored and deeply seated perception among the Islamic Republic's political elite that the international system does not enjoy a credible, institutionalized mechanism to reward good behavior on the part of non-status quo regimes. Moreover, it demonstrates to the Iranian regime that whereas appeasement yields temporary breathing space, as it did for Qaddafi's regime, a policy of nuclear contumacy, à la North Korea, or -- even better -- nuclear ambivalence, as with Israel, accrues more tangible and longer-term security dividends.

If this is genuinely the way the Libyan case is being internalized in Iran's power corridors, as the Supreme Leader's remarks indicate, it will probably further reinforce the deeply ingrained feeling in Tehran that the United States' bedrock disagreement with Tehran is not behavioral and issue oriented, but categorical, driven by the essential nature of the Iranian regime, and hence not amenable to change via diplomatic bravura. This framework dovetails rather well with the Supreme Leader's much-quoted argument that the Iranian nuclear issue is a tool of convenience opportunistically utilized by the West to encroach on Iran's national sovereignty.

Perhaps the most consequential, albeit counterfactual, internal debate in Iran right now -- with massive implications for the future trajectory of its nuclear program -- is whether Operation Odyssey Dawn would have been unleashed on Qaddafi had he not dismantled Libya's nuclear program. If the answer is no, and the Supreme Leader seems to be gravitating toward this position, then one should expect Iran to further calcify its nuclear posture and inch even closer toward a credible deterrent capability. If the "grand bargain" was an embryonic sign of Iran's educability into a novel reward-and-punishment atmosphere set in motion by Operation Iraqi Freedom, the ongoing Operation Odyssey Dawn marks the abolishment of that framework, undermining the new factors the West tried so dearly to interject into Iran's nuclear cost-benefit calculus.

Along the same lines, the operation against Libya also points to a more fundamental pathology international relations realists associate with moralistically driven humanitarian interventions: creating dilemmas in prioritizing foreign policy objectives and compromising more strategic security interests. From that perspective, one would be hard put not to recognize the detrimental impact of the United States' humanitarian interventionism in Libya on its more pressing non-proliferation interests in Iran and possibly beyond.

Has Obama blurred the contrast the Bush administration worked so hard to draw between Iraq's WMD intransigence and Libya's nuclear complaisance and the consequences thereof? I believe he has and the unintended consequences will, retrospectively and panoramically viewed, loom even larger than they appear to now.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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