Patrick Clawson is the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an inside-the-beltway Middle East policy institution that was originally spun off from the "pro-Israel" American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Clawson frequently appears in the press and in congressional hearings as a Mideast expert pressing a hawkish line on Iran.
An economist who has worked with the rightist Foreign Policy Research Institute, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Clawson often writes on Iranian nuclear issues for journals like the Middle East Quarterly, a quasi-academic journal published by hardline neoconservative activist Daniel Pipes and his organization, the Middle East Forum. He is also a frequent op-ed writer for a number of media outlets, including Foreign Policy magazine.
Clawson created a stir in the anti-war blogosphere in September 2012 when he appeared to suggest, during a WINEP presentation on U.S.-Israeli cooperation to prevent an "Iranian nuclear breakout," that the United States should provoke a conflict with Iran. At the event, which also included remarks from Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, Clawson responded to a question about what would happen if negotiations failed, saying: "I frankly think that crisis initiation is really tough. And it's very hard for me to see how the United States … uh … [the] president can get us to war with Iran." He then went on to recount a series of incidents in American history—like the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the attack on Pearl Harbor—that gave U.S. presidents the justification needed to go to war. He ended by saying, with a note of sarcasm in his voice, "So, if in fact the Iranians aren't going to compromise, it would be best if somebody else started the war."
Some observers noted that Clawson, instead of debating the merits of military intervention or its potential impact, narrowly focused on drumming up ways to force the United States to intervene. Quipped Patrick Lang: "Isn't this kind of thing somehow a violation of federal law?"
Earlier, in a January 2010 WINEP paper titled "Much Traction from Measured Steps: The Iranian Opposition, the Nuclear Issue, and the West," Clawson appeared to take a more cautious approach to Iran in a discussion of the political complications international negotiators face in trying to get Iran to compromise on its nuclear program. Clawson argued that domestic political calculations play a critical roll in determining the regime's behavior, especially when political opponents are willing to attack the government for making any agreements on the nuclear issue with outside forces. In order to make progress, argued Clawson, negotiators should "vigorously point out to the Iranian opposition that its best interests are served by not objecting to Iran's efforts to resolve the nuclear dispute, even if that resolution comes under the current government in Tehran." He added, "The Iranian opposition may take encouragement from the international support. Meanwhile, if the opposition succeeds in making the regime's nuclear stance a matter of controversy inside Iran, the hardliners may be more willing to compromise with international negotiators."
Typically, however, Clawson has pressed confrontational approaches to Iran. In a 2006 interview with New Yorker magazine, for instance, Clawson claimed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "sees the West as wimps and thinks we will eventually cave in." Arguing that the United States has "to be ready to deal with the crisis if it escalates," Clawson opined that sabotage efforts like "industrial accidents" might be an attractive method of intervention. In case these efforts fail to get the desired result, he added, the United States should be prepared for a wider war, especially "given the way the Iranians are acting. This is not like planning to invade Quebec."
Clawson has promoted regime change in Iran in congressional testimony. In a statement delivered during a 2006 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Clawson argued, "So long as Iran has an Islamic Republic, it will have a nuclear weapons program, at least clandestinely. The key issue therefore is: How long will the present Iranian regime last?"
Ignoring evidence that overt U.S. support for political change in Iran has tended to backfire, Clawson said that that United States has "an important interest—both strategic and moral—in supporting Iran's pro-democratic forces. It would be a grave setback to Washington's reform agenda in the region if the United States were perceived to have abandoned Iran's beleaguered pro-democratic forces by making a deal with hardline autocrats to secure U.S. geostrategic interests."
Clawson also argued that the United States should beef up defensive security measures around Iran, which "could increase the likelihood that Iran will back down, because they would show Iran that its security will be worse off due to its hardline stance on nuclear matters." He added that one option might be "to sell Arab states in the Persian Gulf more advanced anti-missile systems and air defense systems. Raising doubts in the minds of Iranian decision makers about the country's ability to reliably deliver its nuclear weapons could make their use prohibitively risky for Tehran in all but the direst of circumstances. Another step would be to assist Israel to deploy more Arrow counter-missile batteries and to develop more sophisticated follow-on versions of the Arrow."
In prepared testimony during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Iran, Clawson stressed deterrence and containment of Tehran. He wrote: "The United States will almost certainly have to deter and contain Iran for the foreseeable future—almost like the Cold War on a small scale. Perhaps a diplomatic breakthrough can be achieved, but if so deterrence and containment will almost certainly have played a role in making that possible. Perhaps the United States will decide that at the end of the day it must live with a nuclear-ready Iran, in which case deterrence and containment of the threat will be essential. Perhaps preemption of Iran's nuclear program will be necessary, but in that case, deterrence and containment will be needed to limit Iranian reactions after the preemption. Because almost any policy option will entail deterrence and containment as an element, the United States should increase its actions to deter and contain Iran without waiting for further diplomatic developments."
Unlike some neocons, who argue that the United States should refuse acknowledge the current Iranian regime, Clawson has called for offering a number of incentives to Tehran, including "confidence- and security-building measures and arms control measures that would provide gains for both Iran and the West, similar to the way such steps reduced tensions between the old Warsaw Pact and NATO during the Cold War."
Clawson is a prolific writer whose articles and op-eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs, among numerous other journals and press outlets. He has also teamed up with various other defense hawks and neoconservatives to produce monographs on Iranian policy. In 2005, he co-edited with Henry Sokolski (an advocate of hardline weapons and counterproliferation policies who was formerly based at the National Institute for Public Policy) the volume Getting Ready for a Nuclear Ready Iran, which was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Also in 2005, he coauthored Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos with Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and staff adviser for Iran and Iraq during the first George W. Bush administration.