Are supposed negotiations with Iran the “October Surprise” intended to win the election for President Barack Obama, an Iranian trick for buying time, or both?
The answer is both. It’s an incredibly transparent ploy, though with the cooperation of the mass media such a gimmick might well have some effect.
Here’s the scenario we are supposed to believe: Obama’s sanctions (the tough Obama) have severely damaged Iran and so Tehran is looking for a way out. At the same time, Obama’s flexibility in dealing with possible enemies wins them over (the empathetic Obama). Thus, Obama’s greatness as a statesman might solve the problem of Iran’s nuclear drive short of war.
Let’s note some of the evidence that this ploy meets the needs of both sides in the conflict. For Obama, it is a potential electoral gain at the last minute in a hard-fought election in which his foreign policy has come under severe questioning. For the Iranian regime, the development buys even more time as it continues to go full-steam ahead with its nuclear drive.
If the Iranians are really sophisticated about American politics they understand the advantages for themselves:
— There will be pressure against new sanctions for the next six months or more since it could be said in the United States that these would damage a promising initiative.
— It might help reelect Obama, who is significantly softer on Iran. If the Iranians believe that a President Mitt Romney might launch a U.S. attack or support an Israeli one — I don’t believe this, but probably they do — that makes helping Obama win a top priority.
— Since the talks wouldn’t be until next year, Iran has to give up nothing to make the initiative. Note, too, that during the last five years Iran has repeatedly proposed different diplomatic formulae both in terms of meetings and potential compromises, only to retract them or make clear that Tehran’s terms are going to be unacceptable.
According to the Times, the agreement is: “ … a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term.” In other words, nothing has happened for four years and suddenly we have a deal.
All this involves then is an Iranian offer to start talks, talks which could break down in a few hours or go on for years without result. Of course, the first Iranian demand will be for easing the sanctions.
Note, too, that the Obama administration officially denied the report — hey, we’re not playing politics with foreign policy! — and then leaked that it was true to its friends in the media.
The new situation can also be used to paint Republican candidate Mitt Romney as a potential warmonger. In the words of the New York Times:
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
One key issue is the difference between the U.S. and Israeli positions. The Obama administration says that Iran can have all the fixings of a bomb as long as it doesn’t build one, or that Tehran must be stopped short of having everything in place. The problem with the first option, of course, is that Iran could secretly or quickly assemble bombs (including those that might be delivered by terrorists). The second option is tougher to enforce, less likely to be negotiated, and more likely to bring military action.
As the Times rightly points out:
[For Romney] [t]he danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.
The story continues:
“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
So in other words, the U.S. government is under pressure to talk as long as Iran wants, even if Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear program at every moment during the long, drawn-out, and inconclusive chatting.
There is, of course, no solution. Sanctions — as a new Congressional Research Service study points out — aren’t stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles able to deliver them onto targets. Diplomacy won’t work, except possibly for the fig leaf of having Iran own all the pieces for those weapons and simply promising not to assemble them. War is unattractive for the United States — and despite all you’ve heard, for Israel, too. Does a scenario of the next U.S. president launching a major, long-term military operation against Iran seem likely — whether or not you’d like to see that happen — especially immediately after the end of two controversial, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
What’s most likely is that Iran will get nuclear weapons.
And that makes it more important that whoever is conducting the containment and conflict strategy better be tough and credible to Tehran. The irony is that this Iranian ploy might well result in reelecting the man least likely to do that.