GUEST BLOGGER: Phil Olsson on attacking Iran. Is the USA Being Played the Fool?

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of Tehran. AP

 In their recent Opinion piece in the February 27, 2012 Wall Street Journal, Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zariif postulate that “Americans are being played for fools by Iran-and fooling themselves,” asserting “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.” While expressly not recommending a military strike on the Iranian nuclear program, the authors challenge “those who oppose military action against Iran under any circumstances [to] say so, and [to] accept the consequences of that statement.”  (See Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Osirak 1981. A model for Iran 2012?  February 9, 2012.)

Whether or not Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is a strong case that Iran is pursuing Osama bin Laden’s game of solidifying political support by provoking US military threats, economic sanctions and bluster.  Where Americans are actually being played the fool is by not realizing that this kind of provoked polarization creates much larger risks than an Iranian nuclear weapon.  The difficult challenge is to reorient American foreign policy to address this polarization trap

There are a number of reasons not to take military action against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

First, nuclear weapons are relatively useless to Iran except to the extent they provoke an American reaction which enhances Iran’s prestige.

Second, Islamic nuclear weapons from Iran (or Pakistan) are highly unlikely to be targeted against the holy places of Jerusalem or the parts of Israel with significant Arab and Palestinian populations.

Third, an American strike against Iran’s nuclear capabilities is likely to further the alienation of Pakistan and make Pakistan’s weapons available to Iran.

Huge crowd in Teheran protests allleged election fraud in August 2009.

Fourth, Iran is unlikely to achieve a first strike capability which would provide the confidence to attack another nuclear power .

Fifth, during the past half-century American military action, military threats and economic sanctions have only increased the power and prestige of incumbents in targeted nations such as Cuba, Iraq and North Korea.

Sixth, during the past five years, support among the Iranian people for development of a nuclear weapon has increased at the same time that the United States has increased military and economic pressure against that development. (Click here for the actual poll numbers.)   There are serious domestic political issues within Iran, but support for development of a nuclear weapon does not appear to be one of them.  A strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is likely to increase President Ahmadinejad’s support.

In order to oppose military action, there must be some constructive alternative.  That alternative should address the pattern of provocation and polarization which have made the United States more rather than less vulnerable to terrorism.  Provocateurs, such as Osama bin Laden on September 11,2001 and now President Ahmadinejad, seek to elicit hostile American military and economic actions in order to provoke political hostility against the United States.  These provocateurs take advantage of the Information Age, where power is dependent upon broadly dispersed public opinion in a sort of rolling, global daily plebiscite.  Just as mainframe computers have given way to the dispersed computing power of the Internet, so the mainframe foreign policies of sovereign states are diluted by the People Nets of CNN, Al Jazeera, Facebook and twitter.  National power and prestige is increasingly driven by the respect a nation enjoys in this people-wired world.  The United States needs foreign policies which will “friend” these People Nets.

Key American foreign policy successes during the late 20th century were based on people-to-people, civilian engagement.  China and Russia are examples.

In 1972 at the conclusion of President Nixon’s visit to China the two nations signed the “Shanghai Communiqué,” and agreed to immediately facilitate a wide variety of “people to people” business and cultural contacts.    It said: 

“The two sides agreed that it is desirable to broaden the understanding between the two peoples. To this end, they discussed specific areas in such fields as science, technology, culture, sports and journalism, in which people to people contacts and exchanges would be mutually beneficial. Each side undertakes to facilitate the further development of such contacts and exchanges.
 Both sides view bilateral trade as another area from which mutual benefit can be derived, and agreed that economic relations based on equality and mutual benefit are in the interest of the peoples of the two countries. They agreed to facilitate the progressive development of trade between the two countries.[1]

President Richard M. Nixon with China’s Zhow Enlai in Peking, 1972.

The agreements reached in the Shanghai Communiqué have provided the basis for four decades of peace and economic growth in both China and the United States.

Trade, cultural exchanges, and educational exchanges flourished between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, not because East Germans were intimidated by NATO weaponry, but because they could see and respect a lifestyle which they wished to share.

Proponents of military intervention and economic sanctions will argue that only “strong” government actions can minimize the risk of terrorism.  Absent the threat and use of military and economic force, America will be seen as weak.  But the use of interventions and sanctions during the past decade has only increased the risk of terrorism. In countries where United States and foreign citizens enjoy open relationships of mutual respect, the risk of terrorism has been much better controlled.

A military strike against Iranian nuclear capability would provoke and polarize civilians in Iran and elsewhere against the United States and eliminate the opportunity for the kind of civilian, people-to-people relationships which six decades of U.S. diplomatic history have shown will deter terrorism and protect the United States.

The United States will continue to need military capability to contain military threats. But this containment should be consistent with Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “walk softly, but carry a big stick.”  We live in a PeopleNet world and we should not allow Iran or any other nation to provoke us into playing the fool.

[1] Joint Communiqué of the United States Of America and the People’s Republic of China, February 28, 1972, 5/8/04
Phil Olsson is a founding principal of the Washington law firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC.  Visit him at the firm website,