Ashton Carter, Iran, Neo-Realism, and “Incident at Sea”

U.S. President Obama puts his arm around former Pentagon official Carter after nominating Carter to be his next defense secretary, at the White House in WashingtonIran Review – Kaveh L. Afrasiabi*

US President Barack Obama’s pick of hawkish Ashton Carter as the next secretary of defense in place of the relatively dovish Chuck Hagel has been widely interpreted as the administration’s intention to increase its reliance on America’s ‘hard-power’ in light of the growing global instabilities and the dawn of a ‘new cold war’ between US and Russia.

A skillful technocrat with scholarly background, Ashton will have his work cut out for him. Instead of a transition “from the era of Iraq and Afghanistan,” as predicted by Carter just last year, the US now finds itself of getting re-drawn in the “Middle East quagmire.” And instead of a US-Russia “re-set,” the spiral toward greater and greater mutual hostilities triggered since last year’s onset of the Ukraine crisis continues unabated, this at a time when the Department of Defense is grappling with long-term budget cuts on the one hand and “military overstretch” on the other; the latter is putting a dent on Carter’s other prediction of a “rebalance,” namely, that higher proportion of US military assets “would be shifted” to Asia-Pacific as the “era of Iraq and Afghanistan comes to an end.” Nearly all of Carter’s macro-predictions have been frustrated by the changing dynamic of global affairs and he brings little expertise on the Middle East affairs to the office with him, given his technocratic background as a former deputy defense secretary for acquisitions, etc.

With respect to the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Carter is likely to follow the prescriptions of “smart power” by avoiding as much as possible the prohibitive costs of full-scale US military involvement, signifying continuity rather than discontinuity with his predecessor’s agenda. The problem with US’s Syrian policy is that it is hit with the reality of entrenched Islamist extremists confronting an equally entrenched Syrian regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, with the “moderate opposition” sliding into oblivion. Thus, the much-touted “no-fly zone” in Syria is not an immediate option since the only force benefiting from it would be the Sunni extremists, who are on US’ terrorist list.

In Iraq, Carter will find a highly dynamic and fractious situation that requires steady support for the Iraqi regime and continuing with the air campaign against the ISIS strongholds while using the token US military presence to beef up support for the embattled Kurds and the central government. Given the tenacity of the ISIS threat, this will likely not be a short-term campaign and might require greater US military presence on the ground. US is also in the process of forming a third force, the Sunni tribal militias, which it might use in the future as a counterweight against the Shiite militias and not just the ISIS. Whether or not Iran and US can continue their co-habitation in the Iraqi theater depends on multiple factors including the gravity of the ISIS threat and the outcome of the present nuclear negotiations; a successful deal a few months from now will open up the possibilities for greater US-Iran coordination, if not formal cooperation, vis-à-vis the Sunni insurgents.

With respect to Iran, it is noteworthy that while Carter has been portrayed as one who will bring a more ‘muscular’ US policy to bear on the regional issues including Iran, his writings on the subject reflect a highly nuanced approach that is fully cognizant of the futility of military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, since Iran “could be back to where it is now” in a few years, as well as the “high costs of strike,” the negative effect on multilateral diplomacy, and potential damages to US’s interests in the region as a result of “Iran’s retaliation capability.” In the past, Carter has called for a combination of “turbocharged carrots and turbocharged sticks” to deal with Iran’s nuclear issue, but while the former is relatively straightforward it is unclear what the latter entails when he himself admits to the ultimate futility of the military option, albeit with the understanding that this option forms a component of any “containment strategy.”

A conceptual flaw in Carter’s understanding of Iran is that he has yet to work out the notion of a post-conflict US-Iran relation based on shared or parallel interests. Carter’s writings and speeches on the subject reflect a limited arsenal of knowledge from the (neo) realist school in international affairs and his cognitive unpreparedness to fully understand the dynamic of changing alignment of forces in the region, requiring a conceptual house cleaning.

To open a caveat here, this author once interacted with Carter in 2008 on the subject of a proposed “incident at sea” agreement between US and Iran, following the publication of a letter on this subject by this author in New York Times. The letter read as follows:”The near confrontation between the United States Navy and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards highlights the need for reliable mechanisms to alleviate tensions and prevent unwanted clashes in the volatile region. We should learn from the cold war’s incidents-at-sea agreement between the two superpowers. A similar agreement between the United States and Iran is called for, stipulating advanced notice on military maneuvers; assistance in disaster management at sea; and possibly new communication links and improvements in the present interactions between the two navies. In light of their shared interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against Wahhabi terrorism, the United States and Iran should explore confidence-building measures and a more comprehensive security dialogue beyond Iraq’s security. Unfortunately, the White House’s demonization of Iran, overlooking Iran’s stability role in the region, is a recipe for disaster.”

Since Carter was co-chair of a program on ‘preventive defense’ and this author had met him at a couple of seminars before, I brought the letter to his attention and asked his opinion. To my surprise, Carter was in favor of such an agreement and wondered if the Iranian government would go for it because he was sure there was interest in Pentagon. I inquired about the issue from my Iranian sources and found a residual interest and, more than that, curiosity about what Pentagon’s reaction might be if Iran nodded to it? I asked Carter and he and I then drafted a proposal to be simultaneously submitted to both Iran and Pentagon, basically asking both sides to sign onto an “incident at sea agreement.”  A week or so later, Carter’s assistant informed me that he has received a feedback from Pentagon and it is negative, end of story.

In retrospect, what that episode reveals about Carter is that despite his hawkish background he is a political neo-realist, much like his fellow Harvardites such as Joseph Nye, who can be persuaded to see the important values of a new cooperative chapter in US-Iran.

Who knows, at the helms of Pentagon, Carter might be inclined to re-visit the issue of ‘incident at sea’ in Persian Gulf, which serves the purpose of preventing accidental warfare. But, as stated above, Carter’s biggest challenge will be how to deal with the Russian power that poses the greatest military challenge to US. Clearly, if the US does not introduce some creative elements of crisis-prevention, this challenge will grow and overshadow any other threat to US national security.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

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