Thomas R. Pickering is the former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, and considered by many the ultimate American career diplomat. He was U.S. ambassador to Russia, the U.N. and Israel. He is still called upon by the administration to lead important investigations, including one into the killing last fall of the American ambassador to Libya.
Now, Pickering is back at the head of a panel of former senior U.S. officials and outside experts called "The Iran Project," urging U.S. President Barack Obama to drop sanctions and covert action against Iran, and instead negotiate more intensively with Tehran.
"I fundamentally believe that the balance between sanctions and diplomacy has been misaligned," says Pickering. He and his colleagues (who at the time included Chuck Hagel, now defense secretary) write that the sanctions policy seems to be backfiring and has "contributed to an increase in repression and corruption within Iran." They worry that sanctions "may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States."
In an interview with The New York Times, Pickering also contends that Obama should review the covert program against Iran -- which reportedly has included computer sabotage of its nuclear facilities -- to "stop anything that is peripheral, that is not buying us much time" in slowing Iran's progress.
You could see this coming. Last November, Pickering showed up in Israel and asked to meet experts at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He forwarded several chapters of the draft report (without its final recommendations) and suggested that he wanted feedback. Six BESA Center associates (including me) read the document and held a spirited debate with Pickering. Pickering then gave a public lecture at the center, detailing his views.
At the time, Pickering was coy about his policy recommendations, but his reservations about the Western efforts to confront Iran were already clear. There was little evidence, he said, that sanctions were curbing progress of the Iran's nuclear program, although sanctions were seriously impinging on the Iranian economy.
On this point, there was little disagreement. In fact, as far back as 2005, BESA Center director Professor Efraim Inbar argued that economic sanctions alone would not deter the mullahs from building a bomb.
Nevertheless, Pickering wanted our understanding for a nuanced, "sophisticated," soft view of Iran. Iran is emerging as a significant regional and global actor, he said, that must be engaged. It is strategically located in central Asia, with trade ties to Europe and Asia, is rich with energy resources, and in control of global shipping lanes, he told us.
While a "grand bargain" between the U.S. and Iran was very unlikely, Pickering admitted, he was hopeful that over time the two countries could reach a modus vivendi through diplomatic talks. After all, he pointed out, "relations between countries in conflict often unfold slowly. It took seven years for the U.S. and China to move from first contact to full diplomatic relations."
What about the use of military force to crush the Iranian nuclear bomb program? Well, Pickering was basically not prepared to countenance the use of American military force against Iran under any circumstances. Military force should be the very last resort taken by the U.S., Pickering told us, "and probably not at all."
The costs of a military operation against Iran, he said, would be too onerous. In the short term, he said, a strike on Iran would cost more than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. A successful U.S. attack would take weeks and would involve an extensive ground mission. Another short-term cost, he warned, would be the Iranian response, which could take the form of attacks launched by the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, or small terror cells operating against American citizens across the globe. In addition, Israel would be expected to bear the brunt of an Iranian response.
Pickering also warned of "numerous, negative long-term ramifications" of an American military strike on Iran: the skyrocketing of oil prices, an "increase" in Iranian determination to get the bomb, the strengthening of the Iranian people's loyalty to their government, and damage to America's reputation in Islamic countries around the world.
Pickering had nothing to say about the long-term strategic costs to the West of not confronting Iran.
The upshot was clear: American should work towards a new "understanding" with Iran; and failing that, work to contain, but not confront, a nuclear Iran.
It's important to understand that Pickering faithfully represents the views of large segments of the academic, diplomatic and defense establishments in Washington and New York, who don't see Iran as an oversized threat to America -- for example, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former U.S. National Security Council staffers, in a new book, "Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran." Iran is a powerful, rational actor in the Middle East, they write. Consequently, the U.S. needs a "Nixonian moment," in which Washington would seek strategic accommodation with Tehran, as it did with Beijing.
Professor Kenneth N. Waltz of Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies even argues that Iran should get the bomb. It would create "a more durable balance of military power in the Middle East," he writes in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs.
Needless to say, Pickering got a cold shower from his Israeli interlocutors. We understood what he was doing: paving the way in Washington for a climb-down from Obama's declared policy of "preventing" (and not merely containing) Iran's obtaining a nuclear weapon.
For the moment, and at least on record, the administration is sticking by its "dual track approach of rigorous sanctions and serious negotiations," as a State Department spokesman said in response to the Pickering report. "All options," including military force, are theoretically still "on the table," we have been reassured by Chuck Hagel (who, as I mention, was a member of Pickering's task force). And Obama himself reassured the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March that "I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."
But last week, a top journalist from Washington with inside knowledge of the Obama administration told Israeli colleagues that he deeply doubted that Obama would give a strike order against Iran -- even if the CIA director came to the president with incontrovertible evidence that the Tehran was days away from actually assembling its first deliverable bomb.
A top former Israeli intelligence official who heard this assessment agreed. Instead, he predicted, Obama would tell the American people that he had painfully considered all the difficult options, and reached the conclusion that sending American troops to war against Iran would be "counterproductive." Obama would claim to have made best efforts at stopping Iran, but with the Iranian bomb now a fait accompli, he would argue for a realistic policy of defending American interests and allies in the region.
The American people, predicted this Israeli official, would then laud Obama for his "brave and appropriately cautious leadership."