Dealing with a Nuclear Iran: Focusing on 'Known Unknowns' (Still) Makes for Poor Policy
As the U.S. and Iran entered into a new round of negotiations on trade sanctions and Iran's nuclear program, Western voters and policy elites would do well to admit that they might simply not be adequately informed to articulate well-founded political preferences on the subject. A basic policy recommendation is obvious: Do not demand or enact policies on the basis of what is not known but focus on first establishing what could be and what actually is known.
For everyone who has been paying attention to U.S. and E.U. foreign policy challenges in recent years, the term "nuclear Iran," ranks right up there with "the rise of China," "Global Warming," or "international terrorism." This begs the question, if this is such an important topic, why do we – the public and academia – know so little about it? The convenient answer would be: because Iran refuses to better inform the international community. That, however, is only one side of the story.
We are all familiar with the threat scenarios: A nuclear-armed Iranian regime, an outspoken antagonist to the United States and Israel, could wreak mayhem on an already unstable part of the world. The scale of ominous possibilities ranges from a nuclear arms race with neighboring states to the actual use of nuclear weaponry by a supposedly irrational and unstable regime.
Given these grim scenarios, it is hardly surprising that policy reactions have been severe; ranging from some of the strictest sanctions ever imposed by Western states, to repeated and unprecedented acts of cyber-sabotage (by unknown actors), to the assassination – aka murder – of nuclear scientists (also by unknown actors).
It was Donald Rumsfeld who once coined the term "known unknowns." In the case of Iran and its nuclear program, these amount to quite a remarkable number. This goes for the level of actual threat assessment, as well as the policies being pursued: Is or isn't Iran developing a nuclear weapon? If not, will they decide to do so in the future? Are Western intelligence agencies disrupting this process? The list of unknowns is long. However, the fact that we know so little about this issue does not seem to hinder consistent speculation and contentious policy debates.
This November marked the two-year anniversary of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a subsequent spike in public debate concerning the Iranian nuclear program and its possible militaristic purposes. Subsequent mass media coverage overwhelmingly presented the agency's findings as either constituting a ‘known unknown,' as in Iran may or may not be developing nuclear weapons, or outright speculation, as in Iran (probably) is developing a nuclear weapon. Many of these articles did not properly distinguish between Iran's nuclear program and a nuclear weapons program.
Discourse among political elites did not fare much better. An analysis of U.S. congressional hearings for the same timeframe produced similar results. In other words, the IAEA report's impact can be succinctly summarized as an invitation to open speculation. And while this might make for good role-playing scenarios in IR undergraduate classes, it also makes for profoundly sobering and frustrating policy debates.
A basic policy recommendation is obvious: Do not demand or enact policies on the basis of what is not known. Neoconservatives or traditional realists might be inclined to instinctively scoff at such brazen naiveté. However, they would do well to remember the democratic and normative foundations of Western institutions. Secondly, they may consider the catastrophic legacy of the Bush doctrine with its focus on preemption of suspected threats.
Instead of reflexively pushing for policies, political elites should focus on first establishing what could be and what actually is known. Rather than reading into ambiguous reports, they should work towards making more material available to democratic and academic institutions. While we may never know Iran's true intentions or predict how these may change in the future, we might very well be able to find out what our own governments have been up to these last few years in order to better evaluate how effective, or possibly counter-productive, these policies have been.
Clearly differentiating between what cannot be known and what should be known might be a first step. A second step is to work hard at making the latter accessible. It will provide new data points, which will improve academic and journalistic output. This will increase the level of expertise of policy elites and the legitimacy of whatever policies are subsequently enacted. The best policy the West can pursue, in other words, is open deliberation on what the best policies are.
After all, "known unknowns" are not a basis for sound advice; they are the starting points for further inquiry.
Curd Knüpfer is currently a visiting scholar at the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. He is also a PhD student at the Free University of Berlin's Graduate School of North American Studies. In 2010, he authored a book on the rise and importance of neoconservative ideology in the U.S. His current research focus is the role of news media in U.S. politics, with a particular focus on foreign policy.