Obama and Iran: Will the President Act?

On Tuesday, President Obama’s long process of dithering about Afghanistan- a process which foreign policy expert Leslie Gelb referred to as the work of a  “gang of amateurs,”- will be over. The nation will see to what extent the president will personally show that he will stand behind the decision he has made- which according to leaks-will be to send around 30 to 35,000 troops to enact the surge recommended months ago by General Stanley A. McChrystal.


On Iran, an area of equal if not greater importance, President Obama has far to go.  Politico.com columnist Laura Rozen argued last week that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s decision to censure Iran for failing to disclose its Qom nuclear facility was a political victory for Obama, since the administration could now point to concrete results in its efforts to engage Iran. “Today’s vote,” Rozen wrote, “helps the Obama administration make the case that those efforts have helped demonstrate to key members of the international community, notably Russia and China, that the U.S. is doing everything it can to work the Iran issue diplomatically in consultation with them.”

The only problem is that as before, when different international bodies threatened sanctions to force Iran to comply with international and UN decisions, the censure has fallen on deaf ears. If Iran is isolating itself, as Obama’s defenders claim, the isolation shows that the mullahs are revealing they fear little from the Obama team’s and the IAEA’s censure. Indeed, their only response, as the Tehran Times reported, is to announce that Iran will no longer voluntarily comply with the Agency. Iran sees all of this condemnation as pressure, and rather than go along, its leaders vow to continue on their march to a successful nuclear device. Thus, some of its leaders are even vowing to depart entirely from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That would be, as has been  blogged by Harry Siegel and others, a green light for Israel and even perhaps the United States to move towards a plan to bomb Iran.


And yesterday, Iran announced that it would not only further enrich its stockpile of nuclear fuel, but would build ten new enrichment plants. Western experts were dubious. David Albright, head of a group that tracks nuclear proliferation, argues that Iran is not capable of building so many centrifugues, because it does not have the proper infrastructure. However, a new push for enrichment, he said, would end up producing  “one small plant somewhere that they’re not going to tell us about,” and it would be military in nature. What atomic agency officials fear, the New York Times report indicated, is “that the steady drumbeat of defiant declarations from Iran could lead to the one act that would truly touch off a crisis;” withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the limiting of Western atomic inspectors, thus leading to producing fuel for more nuclear weapons.

What all of these events highlights is the opposite of any success for the Obama administration’s clearly failed diplomatic track. In a particularly insightful and must-read column, Jerusalem Post columnist Barry Rubin notes what should be obvious, but to so many in our country, seems not to be:  “The great experiment of engaging Iran seems to be over.” Iran, he notes, has been given so-called final deadlines to act and cease production of nuclear material since September of 2007!

Instead of facing reality, however, Rubin argues that the Obama administration “doesn’t want to admit that the new Iranian counteroffer is unacceptable because it would have to give up its dreams of a deal and actually do something in response.” Iran, as he points out, has been negotiating for seven years, and all of this has produced nothing in return. In a reverse of the usual response, countries like Britain and France are now more willing to act, but are facing instead the reluctance of the United States to join them.


Rubin reaches a harsh conclusion, one with which I fully concur. He writes: “So America’s policy is being held hostage by a president with no experience and little understanding of international affairs, a set of ideas making failure inevitable, trying to please a country which is an ally of the adversary and misestimating a dictatorial regime with boundless ambitions and tremendous self-confidence.”

Many in our country argue that as in the Cold War of the past, the U.S. can and should adopt George F. Kennan’s famous strategy of containment. The only problem is that the mullahs are not the Soviet Politburo, who despite their Leninist ideology, did not wish to die in a nuclear holocaust.  We cannot bet on believing that Iran’s leaders are thoroughly rational. In the past week’s issue of Newsweek, the magazine runs a harrowing interview with recently freed Iranian prisoner, reporter Maziar Bahari. As editor Jon Meacham writes after asking readers to ponder the interrogation Bahari received, “read Maziar’s piece—and then imagine his captors with nuclear weapons.” Anyone who believes that people who think the way his interrogators do can understand world reality and the views of American leaders has a lot to learn.

We cannot afford, as Rubin says, to let the entire strategic balance “change against Western interests.” To fully understand what is at stake, however, it is necessary to read and ponder the analysis offered by our PJM colleague Michael A. Ledeen, whose important book Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West,  has just been published. His second chapter is appropriately titled “None So Blind As They Who Will Not See.”  After an extensive and brilliant discussion of the past and Europe’s blindness during the Holocaust, Ledeen shows that the misunderstanding of Iran goes far deeper and is more illusory than the world leaders’ view of Hitler’s agenda was in the 1930’s.


So Ledeen concludes his chapter with words of wisdom: “We are now threatened by an Islamic version of totalitarianism that we prefer not see, just as in the fascist era and again with regard to Soviet Communism. We’re going to have to see it, understand it, and then vanquish it.”

We will, and we must. The question remains, however. Will the Obama Administration heed the call, and respond as it should? Will anyone in Obama’s administration, indeed, even consider reading Ledeen’s analysis and policy prescriptions?  As he writes at the book’s end: “If we do not bring down the Iranian regime, we will inevitably face the terrible choice so well described by French president Nicolas Sarkozy: bomb Iran, or Iran with the bomb. If we do arrive at that Hobson’s choice, it will be a fitting testament to the great failure of the West to deal with this generation’s most dangerous and most evil enemies. It will truly be Hell to pay.”

There is sufficient evidence to allow our nation’s leaders to understand the nature of the Iranian regime, and enough precedent to provide them with a path to making sound policy. If they do not do so, it is not as if they have not been warned. President Obama, are you listening? We must certainly hope so.


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