We must now face an extremely unpleasant truth: Even giving the Obama administration every possible break regarding its Iran policy, it is now clear that the U.S. government isn’t going to take strong action on the nuclear weapons issue.
Note that I didn’t even say “effective” action, that is, measures that would force Iran to back down. I’m neither advocating nor do I think there was ever any possibility that the United States, even under Obama’s predecessor, might take military action.
I’m saying that they aren’t even going to make a good show of trying seriously to do anything at all.
Some say that the administration has secretly or implicitly accepted the idea that Iran will get nuclear weapons and is now seeking some longer-term containment policy. I doubt that has happened. They are just not even this close to reality.
From their behavior they still seem to expect, incredibly, that some kind of deal is possible with Tehran despite everything that has happened. Then, too, they may hope that the opposition–unaided by America–will overthrow the Iranian government and thus solve the problem for them. And they are too fixated on short-term games about seeking consensus among other powers, two of which–China and Russia–are clearly not going to agree to anything serious. This fact was clear many months ago but the administration still doesn’t recognize it.
Not only is the Obama administration failing the test, but it is doing so in a way that seems to maximize the loss of U.S. credibility in the region and the world. A lot of this comes from the administration’s philosophy–almost unprecedented concepts of guilt, apology, defeatism, and refusal to take leadership never seen before among past liberal Democratic governments from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton.
Yet the British, French, and Germans are ready to get tough on Iran, yearning for leadership, and not getting it.
All of this is watered down in media coverage, focused on day-to-day developments; swallowing many of the administration’s excuses plus its endlessly repeated rhetoric that action is on the way. When the history of this absurdly failed effort is written, the story will be a shocking one, the absurdity of policy obvious.
It was totally predictable that the Iranian government would not make a deal. It was totally predictable that Russia and China weren’t going to go along with higher sanctions. It was totally predictable that a failure by the United States to take leadership and instead depend on consensus would lead to paralysis. And it is totally predictable that a bungled diplomatic effort will produce an even more aggressive Iranian policy along with crisis and violence.
First, the administration set a September deadline for instituting higher sanctions and then, instead of following a two-track strategy of engagement plus pressure, postponed doing anything while engaged in talks with Iran.
Second, it refused to take advantage of the regime’s international unpopularity and growing opposition demonstrations due to the stolen election. On the contrary, it assured the Iranian regime it would not do so.
Third, the administration set a December deadline if engagement failed, then refused to recognize it had failed and did nothing. It is the failure even to try to meet this time limit by implementing some credible action that has crossed the line, triggered the point of no return.
Fourth, the U.S. government kept pretending that it was somehow convincing the Chinese and Russians to participate while there was never any chance of this happening. Indeed, this was clear from statements repeatedly made by leaders of both countries. Now, this duo has sabotaged the process without any cost inflicted by the United States while making clear they will continue doing so.
Here is something tremendously ironical: The British, French, and Germans want to act. Obama has the consensus among allies that he says is required. But he’s letting himself be held back by China and Russia. The three European allies now have the opposite problem they felt with Bush whom they wanted to hold back. Now they cannot drag this guy forward!
Fifth, high-ranking U.S. officials continually speak of their unending eagerness to engage Iran, begging it to fool them with more delays. But Tehran doesn’t have to do so since the same officials speak of at least six months more discussion before anything is done about sanctions.
Sixth, the administration now defines sanctions as overwhelmingly focused on the Revolutionary Guards, which it cannot hurt economically, thus signaling the Iranian regime it will do nothing effective to damage the country’s economy. This means that even if sanctions are increased they will be toothless. The White House ignored the face-saving way out given it by Congress, where the vast majority of Democrats supported an embargo on refined fuel supplies and other doable measures.
All of these steps tell Iran’s regime: full speed ahead on building nuclear weapons; repress your opponents brutally and the United States will do nothing. It isn’t a good thing when the world’s most dangerous dictator is laughing at you and your friends in the region are trembling because they have been let down.
After these six failures, the United States is now–in effect–resting. And that is the seventh failure. There are no signs that anything is changing in Washington. To believe that the administration has learned anything from experience, we would have to see the following:
An angry U.S. government that feels Iran’s regime made it seem a sucker; a calculating administration that believes the American people want it to get tough and thus it would gain politically from being seen as decisive; a great power strategy that it would make an example of Iran to show what happens to repressive dictators who defy the United States and spit on its friends and interests; and a diplomatically astute leadership that understands how threats and pressure must be used even by those who want to force an opponent into a compromise deal.
There is not the slightest indication that the Obama administration holds any of these views. On the contrary, without any apparent realization of the absurdity of the situation, high-ranking officials keep repeating in January 2010 as in January 2009 that some day the United States might do something to put pressure on Iran. Perhaps those in the administration who do understand what’s wrong don’t have the influence to affect the policy being set in the White House.
At a minimum, the administration should implement the tough sanctions envisioned by Congress and supported by its European allies, an attempt to cut off the maximum amount of fuel supplies, loans, and trade from Iran. If this hurts average Iranians, it also sends the signal that the current regime is unacceptable and aids the opposition. In diplomatic history, this is how sanctions have always been viewed.
Instead, while the United States does nothing, Russia is completing Iran’s Bushire nuclear reactor and China is finishing up a massive oil refinery in Iran. While Obama fiddles, the regime is getting stronger, not more isolated.
This sad debacle is going to be a case study of how failing to deal with a problem sooner, even if that requires some diplomatic confrontations, will lead to a much bigger and costlier conflict later involving military confrontations.
*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org