Strange "Strategy" Toward Iran - Foreign Policy Mythology Part III
President Obama’s actions and words have often seemed inexplicable in light of supposed U.S. goals of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, convincing Iran to cease support for terrorists, and reaching out to the people of the Middle East. He has verbally legitimized the repressive Iranian regime and chosen a minimalist approach to sanctions.
As a new president, Obama defended Iran’s “right” to “peaceful” nuclear technology, thus handing Ahmadinejad just the words he needed for Hitler-like verbal deception. He rejected preconditions for direct, personal negotiations with Iranian leaders even though he presented Israel with preconditions for negotiations with the Palestinians. He offered Iran a “new beginning,” which promised an end to the policy of focusing on Iran’s regime type and human rights violations. To emphasize the point, he sent an unprecedented Persian New Year Message that stated, “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.” He sent a personal letter to "Supreme Leader" Ali Khameini, even though Khameini was one of the main obstacles to domestic reform.
Then it got worse. Millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest rigged elections, marking the largest anti-regime demonstration since the final days of the Shah. Sixteen Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officers publicly pledged to join the movement, signaling that support of the Corps for Ahmadinejad was crumbling. Protesters cried out, “Obama are you with us?” But not a word. After days of silence, when brave young Iranians were beaten, killed and sent to horrible places like Evin Prison, Obama finally made a passionless request that the “violence” stop. Even then, he stipulated that he would continue his policy of “dialogue” with the regime and said, “It’s not too late for the Iranian government to see there is a peaceful path that leads to legitimacy.” He said the difference in the disputed election between Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi “may not be as great as has been advertised” and called on other nations to “recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as a legitimate government.”
How has the policy of “engagement” with Iran fared? In the reckoning of everyone except Obama’s public relations staff, engagement has been a failure. As early as September 2009, there were signs that America’s outstretched hand meant nothing to the Iranian regime; Obama had to announce to the Group of 20 Summit that Iran was building a secret nuclear fuel plant underground near the city of Qom. After that, “talks” with Iranian leaders continually fell apart, and Iran accelerated its nuclear program. It also stepped up repression of dissidents and strengthened ties with Syria and Islamic extremists.
Facing the ineffectiveness of existing sanctions, in December 2011, Congress pushed sanctions that targeted financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank. Inexplicably, the administration worked behind the scenes to weaken the sanctions bill. Even more inexplicable, the White House suddenly announced its opposition to the bill, arguing, among other things, that sanctions against the bank would interfere with the “foreign relations” of the United States. The Senate passed a watered down bill in December 2011, with Obama - under the spotlight on the matter - ultimately signing off on it and taking credit for it. In May of 2012, the Senate approved more stringent sanctions. Again, Obama claimed credit once he had no choice but to go along. He pointed to “this administration’s unprecedented sanctions regime” in response to critics that accused him of procrastination and weakness.
Iran’s obstruction did not stop Obama officials and their U.N. cohorts from giving negotiation another try. They next offered to ease sanctions and offered aid for Iran’s development of “nonmilitary” nuclear power. In return, they proposed that Iran “freeze” (not halt or dismantle) production of nuclear fuel enriched to 20% purity and ship it to a third country. But Iran rejected the offer, revealing that it was using the diplomatic process to buy time and cover for its nuclear program. In the meantime, Iran funneled advanced weapons to anti-American terrorists and the Syrian regime and continued its diatribes against Israel and the West. But the administration, strangely, seemed to work harder to prevent Israel from acting militarily than it did to prevent the possibility of having to deal with a nuclear Iran. Some commentators noted a “shift” in administration goals. Had the White House given up, they asked, on stopping a nuclear Iran, and decided instead to try to “contain” it? Was there, perhaps, some willingness to accept a nuclear Iran all along?
Obama, Clinton and their team have adopted a wait and see policy. The administration suggests that recent harsher sanctions might work and that there is still “time” for negotiations. Let us hope the White House is right.