Obama: Which Way on Iran?
As much as President Obama would like to focus on domestic issues, he will be facing serious foreign policy problems in the near future. The most important, perhaps, is the threat of a nuclear Iran. The reasons why Iran obtaining a nuclear device is so dangerous are outlined in this thorough and important editorial by Mortimer Zuckerman, editor of U.S.News. "Nuclear Iran," he writes, "will be a threat to U.S. national security, worldwide energy security, the efficacy of multilateralism, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." If allowed to succeed, Zuckerman warns, Iran's mullahs might become overconfident enough to believe that it can operate through its proxy forces without any fear of reprisals from the United States and the European powers. It will thus be emboldened to use terrorism towards any power that wishes to pursue peace with Israel.
In addition, he suggests that if Iran moves ahead on its path to nuclear arms, "tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands would join radical Islamist groups in the belief that Islamism is on the march." Zuckerman raises all the issues so many ignore. The mullahs may not be rational,(despite the hopes of people like Roger Cohen) which means that the United States "just cannot take the risk of nuclear missiles in the hands of a clerical regime that preaches genocide."
The big question is simple. What will President Barack Obama's response be to this growing threat? Will he, as Zuckerman and others hope, increase sanctions, institute new tough economic measures to hurt the regime, make clear that a military option is not off the table, institute an arms embargo, ban exports to Iran of gas and refined products so transport can be crippled, boycott their banking system, and ban spare parts being sold to Iran's oil industry?
Or will he continue to tell Iran's leaders that we understand their needs and their goals, are not out to harm their regime, want peaceful relations with "The Islamic Republic of Iran," as Obama put it, and insist on a path of "aggressive personal diplomacy." We know that one thing Obama can do, is talk, and talk and talk. Will all his talking, waiting and persistence end up with Iran announcing they have a bomb, and Obama concluding that we'll simply have to live with it? As William Kristol put it, "President Obama seems to evince no sense of urgency about Iran's nuclear program." Kristol fears his comments seem to suggest that Obama has already accepted the inevitability of Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons, and is ready to adopt to it.
In the President's press conference, he expanded slightly on his letter to Iran with these few words: "When it comes to Iran, you know, we did a video sending a message to the Iranian people and the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And some people said, ‘Well, they did not immediately say they were eliminating nuclear weapons and stop funding terrorism.' Well, we didn't expect that. We expect that we're going to make steady progress on this front."
These words are somewhat disingenuous. "Some people" did not exactly claim what Obama said they did. Rather, they argued that talk and olive branches alone would be self-defeating, and would guarantee the negative response the US got from the mullahs.
Others, who are favorable to Obama, have a different read on what Obama is thinking. David Blair, diplomatic editor of the British Telegraph, believes that Obama is following a shrewd and thoughtful policy, one based on unsettling its mullahs by praising Iran's accomplishments, showing them respect by calling the regime "The Islamic Republic of Iran," rather than simply making hostile comments about the nature of the regime, therefore assuring hostility from its leaders. Moreover, Blair argues that Obama is appealing to Westernized Iranian youth and hence "seeking to widen the divide between the regime and its people." How Obama is doing that without mentioning the continuing repression of outspoken youth and supporting their cause, however, is hard to comprehend.
Blair also believes that Obama is seeking to exploit rifts within the Iranian leadership, since hard-liners will not be able to unite the government behind anti-Americanism, as Ahmadinejad did during the Bush years. Thus, Obama's kind words will serve to "help the president's opponents in the [Iranian] election by raising the possibility of a genuine rapprochement with America." Blair suspects that in private the Ayatollah is ready to move towards a deal, because of the severe economic crisis facing his country. If he wants to save his regime, so this argument goes, he will improve ties with America which would make survival that more likely.
As for Obama, he thinks the President is in a win-win situation. If it works and Iran backs down, he will achieve a major diplomatic coup. If it does not, and Obama has to act militarily, he can argue that he tried every other path, and it did not work.
The problem with the above, however, is that by that moment, it might be too late. Having allowed Iran to make clear that its aim is to become a nuclear power, and knowing that it may indeed be ready to act in a genocidal fashion with these arms against Israel and its other enemies, waiting for such an ominous development is just too dangerous. Will the peacemakers who already are saying we should accept a nuclear Iran really be willing to actually let the United States use military force against Iran once it has the bomb? Somehow, I think all kinds of arguments will be waged against it by the Europeans who are doing business with Iran and the Left at home that will see nothing wrong with a nuclear Iran.
What is taking place is a classic fight against the illusionists who believe that talk will work, and that the mullahs will see reason. Even if there is talk, there must be a set deadline that Iran's leaders cannot extend. Without that, President Obama is likely to face consequences that even his charisma and brilliance will be unable to prevent.