I have been surprised -- and disappointed -- by the extent to which the administration has been willing to extend a hand to rogue regimes and enemy states at the same time it seems to keep many of its friends at a distance.
The president's speeches in places like Moscow, Accra, and Cairo have, for the most part, hit the right tone and messages. His visit to Moscow in July was well done (though his policy toward Russia since then has raised some serious questions).
The president personally needs to make a strong and relentless push to address the challenge posed by Iran and tell Moscow that this issue more than any other will define whether the reset efforts with Russia succeed or fail. That Secretary Clinton did not push the Russians on sanctions during her recent visit was inexplicable. Hopefully, Gen. Jones last week raised this. One senior U.S. official recently admitted that the administration didn't know what it wanted/needed to do next. With an end-of-December deadline not far away and Iran up to its usual tricks, the administration better figure out a strategy fast before Israel takes matters into its own hands.
Iran, more than Afghanistan and Iraq, may well be the dominant foreign policy issue next year.
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Robert Kagan gets the Iranian issue exactly right and his question is also right: What kind of poker player is President Obama?
Negotiating with Iran is by definition an unavoidable part of pursuing the diplomatic option with Iran. President Obama should not be faulted for trying to negotiate a deal with Iran. But negotiations must remain a means to an end, and here the record with Iran stemming back many years is an unhappy one: the Iranian regime is a master at turning the means into the ends, where the goal increasingly becomes "preserve and prolong the negotiations" rather than "reach a deal." Unfortunately, that seems to be happening again now. All of the players, including Russia, are returning to form.
This is precisely why I argued that it was important to get the negotiating leverage that comes with ramped-up sanctions before negotiations started rather than after they had been shown to fail. If we had that leverage on Iran now, then every delay and every dither would gradually strengthen our hand and weaken Iran's. Our options would improve because theirs would get bleaker. Without that leverage, the opposite happens and is indeed happening right now: every delay and dither puts Iran in a slightly stronger position vis-à-vis the world community.
Perhaps the poker analogy could be improved slightly with one tweak: without the sanctions, we are playing poker with our seat on fire but with the sanctions we would be playing poker with Iran's seat on fire. Even a Nobel Prize winning poker player will have a tough time getting success in the first instance, but even a so-so poker player might have success in the second.
Sunday was another tragic day in Iraq, more than 150 people were killed and another 500 injured in attacks on the Ministries of Justice and Interior in Baghdad. The devastation was another sad reminder of how fragile are the gains bought so dearly by Iraqis and Americans -- military and civilian -- working every day in that country to consolidate progress toward a secure and representative Iraq.
Those who believe Iraq was "the wrong war," or that violence and authoritarianism are endemic in a country with such deep sectarian divisions, or those who practice the soft bigotry of low expectations (as President Bush so nicely phrased it in a different context), and believe Muslims incapable of democracy will likely see these attacks as justification for accelerating our disengagement from Iraq. Such a conclusion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the domestic politics of Iraq in the run up to their January provincial elections.
War is the extension of politics by other means, as Clausewitz teaches, and domestic politics is what these attacks were about. Iraqi security forces are struggling to prevent such attacks. Prime Minister Maliki's confidence in their ability has always run ahead of their actual performance (as early as 2005 he advocated a security hand over) and he has been party to politicizing their ranks.
But Maliki is running on a platform of providing security and negotiating the U.S. withdrawal. Anything that calls security into question or precipitates a return by American military forces into Iraq's cities (from which we had withdrawn on June 30 in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement) hurts Maliki's claim. And it doesn't just hurt Maliki, it hurts other incumbent politicians, like the Mayor of Baghdad, who also argued for removing blast walls to facilitate movement and commerce and a return to normalcy in the capital.
After the last spectacular attack, against the Foreign Ministry on Aug. 19, Prime Minister Maliki responded in a stridently partisan fashion, blaming Sunni and al Qaeda as one, conducting arrests and crackdowns that have a suspicious political tilt against his political opponents. While the U.S. military spokesman tried to put a good face on the Iraqi government's reaction, comparing it to the crasser political manipulation of the Aug. 19 bombings, Maliki's statement in the aftermath speaks for itself:
The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al-Qaeda."
This, before the government had any reasonable idea of who conducted the attacks. There are numerous political factions that could benefit from delegitimizing the Maliki government's record, not least rival Shi'ia who excluded him from being their standard bearer in the election.
But the good news is that political pluralism has taken root in Iraqi politics. Maliki couldn't win the support of a Shi'ia-only slate organizing for the January elections, so he opted to build a cross-sectarian slate. He's not trying very hard, mind you, as his statement blaming Sunni for Sunday's bombing shows. But his effort to appeal across sectarian lines was his Hail Mary (so to speak) and shows he believed voters would reward the choice. Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni, is likewise tacking beyond sectarianism to broaden his prospective political base.
This is a hugely important development, seldom seen in fragile societies. Usually, as with the Balkan elections of the early 1990s, politicians prey on voters' mistrust and trend toward extremes which is why elections in factional societies are so often polarizing and foster an upward spiral of violence.
In the last provincial elections, nearly all incumbents were voted out of office, a strong signal that average Iraqis believed they weren't doing their jobs. And voters weren't just "simplifying the map," moving to the sectarian extreme out of fear: Shi'ia voted out Shi'ia, Sunni voted out Sunni, Kurd voted out Kurd. What Iraqi political elites took from that election is the fundamental commandment of democracy everywhere: Thou Shalt Respect the Voters.
Talking to Iraqi politicians (as I did the past couple of weeks around their country), what is most striking is the extent to which they sound like small-city politicians in our own country. They worry about power outages and sewer systems and the quality of education for youngsters. They're mad at the central government for not funding activity they consider its responsibility. They rail against corruption -- even as many of them practice it -- and fear exposure by the free media that is burgeoning. Accountability has come to Iraqi politics, and the politicians know it.
A representative government is struggling to emerge in Iraq. It may not succeed in bridging the sectarian tensions, corruption, and long shadow of decades of authoritarianism that inhibits initiative. In Iraq, strong cultural undercurrents cut against the kinds of behavior that make successful democracies successful. But Iraqis want it, and political elites are responding. This is good news for Iraq and for the advancement of our values in the world.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Kudos to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for scheduling a joint subcommittee hearing Tuesday on Iran's activities in the Western Hemisphere. While the foreign-policy establishment has understandably been focused on myriad global crises elsewhere, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime has been steadily expanding its reach in what it undoubtedly sees as America's "soft underbelly." The House hearing follows a blockbuster (but, unfortunately, little noticed) speech last month at the Brookings Institution by legendary New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau detailing the growing ties between Iran and Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.
Morgenthau, whose base in New York makes him one of the country's premier experts on international financial transactions (especially those of the unsavory kind), charged that Iran and Venezuela are establishing "a cozy financial, political, and military partnership" that is "rooted in a shared anti-American rhetoric and policy." "The Iranians," he said, "calculating and clever in their diplomatic relations, have found the perfect ally in Venezuela. Venezuela has an established financial system that, with Chávez's help, can be exploited to avoid economic sanctions. As well, its geographic location is ideal for building and storing weapons of mass destruction far away from Middle Eastern states threatened by Iran's ambition and from the eyes of the international community." He said, "Now is the time for policies and actions in order to ensure that the partnership produces no poisonous fruit."
As if on cue, two days after Morgenthau's speech, the tiny principality of Andorra announced the freezing of bank accounts of several individuals said to have close ties to Chávez as part of an international investigation into terrorism financing. The move came amid a U.S. Treasury Department investigation of accounts and financial activity linked to Chávez family members and Venezuelan government officials, according to an Andorran newspaper. The paper said the bank accounts, in Miami, Panama, China and Andorra, could be used to transfer funds to terrorist groups including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ETA.
Another recent worrying development is Chávez's admission that Iran is helping Venezuela explore for uranium. According to a new paper from my colleague Ambassador Roger Noriega, a Canadian uranium exploration company, U308 Corp, recorded a substantial source of uranium in the border region between Guyana and Venezuela. It just so happens that Iranian companies and others with Middle Eastern backgrounds now operate mines, a "tractor factory," and a cement plant in the same area; at least two of these facilities have direct access to the navigable Orinoco River, which provides a ready route to the Atlantic Ocean.
Chávez's assurances that he would only use nuclear energy for peaceful means ring somewhat hollow when you consider yet another incident earlier this year where Turkish authorities seized cargo headed from Iran to Venezuela that contained lab equipment capable of producing explosives. The shipment was labeled "tractor parts" for the aforementioned "tractor factory."
Complicating matters further for U.S. interests in the region is the fact that Chávez has used his friendly relations with other like-minded radicals to gain further entrée for the Iranians in the Americas. Iran has signed trade, investment, and assistance deals -- and, in some cases, weapons deals -- with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Even the Big Boy of Latin America, Brazil, has gotten into the act, defending Iran's nuclear program and preparing to host Ahmadinejad on a state visit in late November 2009.
Fortunately, these issues and no doubt many more will be examined by House subcommittee members. It is long past time to bring greater scrutiny to Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere and develop appropriate responses. Continuing to investigate shady financial transactions and sanctioning perpetrators is a given, as well as working with our allies to monitor Iran's trading relationships with countries in the hemisphere. But more is needed. For starters, the Obama administration should strengthen our relationships with those countries who aren't interested in what Chávez and Ahmadinejad are selling, and that means seeking congressional approval for the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements that have lain dormant since January. It should also breathe new life into the Pathways for Prosperity in the Americas initiative, a group of 14 hemispheric countries working together to extend the benefits of free trade throughout their societies. The point is the vast majority of Latin Americans are loath to see their countries getting involved in contentious global controversies in which they have no stake, but they need to see the United States visibly and actively promoting an alternative way forward.
Granted, the administration's foreign-policy plate continues to be full with pressing matters. But when you recognize that the Iranian regime is playing for keeps, and that its Western Hemisphere strategy is an important part of its efforts to evade international scrutiny -- and sanctions -- regarding its nuclear program, then certainly its activities close to home merit more high-level attention and response.
Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Mike's piece from earlier today is balanced and thoughtful, but I don't agree with his view that completion of this deal will provide the United States with valuable insight on Iran, other than to remind us that the Iranians are shrewd negotiators. Iran is getting more out of the deal than it's giving. Although it has been described as a P5+1 breakthrough, ultimately the deal may undermine U.S. efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.
The argument in favor of the deal is that a decision by Iran to ship most of its enriched uranium stocks out of the country would give the United States and its allies assurance that, at least in the short-term, Iran could not deploy a nuclear weapon. Advocates of the deal say that for the time it would take Iran to restock its supply of low enriched uranium and then to further enrich the supplies to weapons grade fuel, the international community could rest easier knowing Iran would not be in a position to deploy a nuclear weapon.
It is not clear how much time Iran would need to restock its supply of low enriched uranium given the IAEA report that Iran has greatly enhanced its enrichment capabilities in recent months. Iran has now installed 8,300 centrifuges at Natanz, although they are using only 4,600, so may have the capability to speed up enrichment efforts when they decide to bring the additional centrifuges on line. Moreover, the disclosure of a hidden facility at Qom reminds us of the low likelihood that we have a complete picture of enrichment activities in Iran. At most, the deal will buy about a year in which the international community may be at decreased risk of an Iranian effort to move to breakout.
In exchange, the deal comes with an implicit (and perhaps explicit) understanding that the P5+1 will not impose additional sanctions. Once the fuel leaves Iran, it will much harder to convince the Europeans, let alone the Russians and Chinese, that continued pressure is appropriate. They will interpret and tout the deal as an example of Iran's willingness to negotiate in good faith and will drop talk of further sanctions. As Iran's Provisional Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said at Friday prayers in Tehran a week ago, "Prior to the talks, they used to speak of suspension and sanctions against Iran but after the talks, there has not been any word of suspension or sanctions."
As a practical matter, as Mike points out, Iran will have earned the international community's acceptance of its continued enrichment activities. In other words, the international community may think it can breathe easier for a year, but, in exchange, the Iranians will have taken themselves off the hook for further sanctions indefinitely.
The deal looks even worse if you credit the views of experts who believe the current Iranian supply of LEU may be defective. If that's true, Iran hasn't sacrificed anything to earn itself the right to continued enrichment.
And, of course, the deal, negotiated in direct talks between the U.S. and the Iranian regime, puts the United States in the position of legitimizing a government whose legitimacy has been courageously challenged by the Iranian people.
The real purpose and impact of the deal was the one Director General Elbaradei outlined in his press conference: "I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community." This agreement is designed to relieve tensions, not to resolve the continued threat of Iran's nuclear program.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
When companies are faced with making a decision between multiple risky options, they will often seek out information in order to reduce their uncertainty. So, a pharmaceutical firm will conduct clinical trials in order to determine if a drug is safe or dangerous, information that could mean the difference between profitable sales and damaging litigation. Such an investment in information is never free -- indeed, it often comes at a significant cost that must be weighed against the value of the knowledge obtained.
In this sense, the recently concluded U.S.-Iran talks in Geneva can be considered a diplomatic purchase of information. The United States, by offering to remove Iran's low-enriched uranium and turn it into the raw material required to make medical isotopes, is testing Iran's claim of peaceable intent and the Obama administration's hopes for engagement. If the Iranians comply, they may be open to further compromise, perhaps as a result of the political pressure they have faced at home since the summer's election turmoil. Their refusal, on the other hand, would serve as a clear signal of intransigence and lead Washington to pursue an alternative path. The most likely result is somewhere in between -- Iran gives no clear answer, but seeks to draw out talks and divide the P5+1 -- meaning that the United States has to ensure that we and our allies agree on what constitutes an acceptable response from Tehran. Whatever the result, it is a bold and innovative gambit by the United States, and the Iran hands at the National Security Council should be commended for devising it.
Like all purchases of information, however, this one comes at a cost. The P5+1 have had to accept the uranium enrichment which Iran has conducted in recent years in defiance of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. Even if it ultimately does not reach a deal to send its LEU abroad, Iran will surely seek to pocket this concession and declare a measure of victory. Similarly, by presenting the admission of IAEA inspectors to the until-recently-covert Qom enrichment plant as a concession, Iran gains tacit international acceptance of a facility built in defiance of its Nonproliferation Treaty obligations. If the P5+1 accepts this fait accompli and negotiates to limit rather than eliminate uranium enrichment in Iran and to monitor rather than shut down the Qom facility, the result could be a dangerous one for the stability of the Middle East and the viability of the global nonproliferation regime.
Another cost of the current U.S. initiative is that it risks demoralizing Iran's ascendant political opposition by bolstering the regime at a time when its legitimacy at home appears to be waning. Given that an internal transformation in Iran may be the best hope for long-run peace and stability in the region, any action that risks delaying it could be costly indeed. None of this is to say that the current approach should not be tried, given the paucity of attractive options; it is simply to say that it is not free. At some point the purchases of information must end, and a decision must be taken. A pharmaceutical company that conducts many clinical trials but sells no drugs eventually finds itself out of business.
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By Jamie M. Fly
The Obama administration's Iran policy should rightly be criticized for a variety of reasons. The administration wasted their first five months in office, doing little more than sending a backchannel message to Ayatollah Khamenei while failing to make a serious effort to build leverage by turning the President's popularity in Europe into support for sanctions.
During the post-election tumult in June, President Obama dithered, first refusing to criticize the very regime with which he hoped to negotiate and expressing concern about the situation only after worldwide horror as regime-backed militias slaughtered protesters in the street.
Then, in September, when Iran offered its standard non-response to a renewed offer by the P5+1, the administration jumped at the offer to negotiate, culminating in an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran, including Under Secretary of State William Burns.
The Obama administration has thus pursued engagement at all costs and not built up the leverage that will be required if Tehran is to be persuaded to reconsider its march toward a nuclear weapon.
This is a record worthy of criticism, but in the wake of the Geneva talks, some critics have taken their skepticism about the Obama administration's approach too far.
At the talks, Iran reportedly agreed to let international inspectors into its newly revealed uranium enrichment facility at Qom and to transfer a significant amount of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) at Natanz to Russia and France for further processing in order to turn it into fuel for its medical research reactor in Tehran. In the days following the talks, the Iranians have cast doubts on what was actually agreed, making the upcoming Oct. 19 meeting in Vienna to discuss implementation of the arrangement an important sign of how serious the Iranians are.
Some conservative critics have criticized the Geneva talks and these supposed agreements, arguing that they are just Iranian ploys to buy more time and that talking to Tehran at all legitimizes a repressive regime. It is valid to question whether in the post-June 12th political environment, the United States should be negotiating with discredited leaders rather than trying to undermine them, but given the Obama administration's insistence on engaging Tehran, the proposed LEU transfer deal concocted by the administration is an intriguing confidence building measure that, if implemented, will reduce the short-term threat posed by Iran's nuclear program.
Despite the ongoing debate in the press about the status of Iran's work on weaponization of a nuclear device, the key wild card right now is the production of the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon. Although most analysts believe that Iran would attempt to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) required for a weapon at a covert site like the recently revealed facility at Qom, the growing stockpile at Natanz is currently the greatest known threat posed by Iran's program. Although any Iranian attempts to reconfigure Natanz to produce HEU or to transfer the LEU to another site would likely be discovered by the international community, Iran could use the stockpile as a bargaining chip in negotiations, much as North Korea has used its Yongbyon reactor to extract concessions during the Six Party process.
If Iran is not provided the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, it will strengthen the regime's argument that Iran is being denied the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It could also result in Iran reconfiguring its centrifuges at Natanz or Qom to enrich uranium to higher levels.
Instead of hastening such a scenario, if implemented, the Geneva plan would get the bulk of Iran's declared stockpile out of the country for up to a year. Critics point out that given Iran's mastery of centrifuge technology and expanding number of centrifuges, Iran could recoup the transferred fuel in a matter of months. That may be true, but if Iran follows up such an agreement with no additional concessions, it is difficult to imagine that the Obama administration will be able to ignore domestic and Israeli pressure to pursue sanctions.
In today's Washington Post, David Ignatius speculates that Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium may not be as dangerous as once thought. He describes the view of one expert that because of certain impurities in the LEU, Iran may be unable to further process the LEU into fuel for their research reactor or HEU for a weapon without advanced technology which they do not have. Ignatius speculates that perhaps this is why Iran is willing to look to Russia and France for assistance. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to back up this argument and regardless, the goal of the United States should be to keep Iran from even trying to produce HEU, not assuming that if they try they will be unsuccessful.
Others argue that, by assisting Iran with the conversion of its LEU produced in contravention of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions, the administration and its partners have accepted Iran's right to enrich uranium. However, the Security Council resolutions remain in force, the P5+1 continues to demand that Iran freeze enrichment, and the administration has repeatedly stated that it will not accept a nuclear Iran.
There are plenty of questions that should be raised about the administration's
Iran strategy. But given that the administration has decided to engage,
the LEU transfer is a worthwhile first step. The question is whether Iran
has actually agreed or whether Geneva was a feint to buy time. We'll know
more after next week's meeting in Vienna.
Criticism of this administration is often warranted, but Republicans should give them credit for out of the box thinking when warranted as well.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came away from her visit to Moscow this week with mixed results. The two big ticket items involved Iran and the human rights situation inside Russia.
By all appearances, Clinton struck out on moving Russia closer to supporting sanctions against Iran should current negotiation efforts fail. "We did not ask for anything today," she said, in a rather stunning admission. "We reviewed the situation and where it stood, which I think was the appropriate timing for what this process entails."
That she would not try to push Russia toward supporting sanctions is hard to believe -- and, if true, frankly irresponsible. More likely, she tried and failed but was putting the best spin on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments after his meeting with Clinton clearly indicated continued Russian resistance to any sanctions push. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, never a supporter of getting tougher toward Iran, reinforced this position in comments from Beijing on Wednesday when he argued that discussing sanctions now against Iran would be "premature."
This contrasts with comments Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made in New York last month and that he reportedly reiterated in his private meeting with Clinton on Tuesday. The Kremlin, however, has not publicly challenged either the foreign minister's or prime minister's contradictory comments, even though the president is ultimately in charge of Russian foreign policy (the idea that Medvedev would slap down Putin is rather laughable). Yet these conflicting messages cause confusion about who calls the shots in Moscow. Then again, perhaps the situation is very clear: it is Putin and not Medvedev (more on this in a future blog entry). What a shame, then, that Putin was in Beijing, not Moscow, during Clinton's visit. All this is not a surprise to those of us who have been saying that Russia is unlikely at the end of the day to support tough sanctions against Iran -- even in exchange for the Obama administration's regrettable decision September 17 on missile defense (which, by the way, was handled abysmally).
In contrast to the bad news on Iran, Clinton's comments on the human rights situation inside Russia were a pleasant surprise. In spite of her short shrift of human rights concerns in the past (recall her comments on the way to Beijing in February when she said she didn't want those issues to "interfere" with other pressing matters), Clinton made clear the concerns of the Obama administration about the deteriorating situation inside Russia. Her meeting with human rights and civil society activists was a very good follow-up to President Obama's similar meeting in July. Her interview with independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and her remarks to students at Moscow State University (MGU) also touched on these issues in a strong way.
"I think all of these issues -- imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings - it is something that is hurtful to see from the outside," Clinton said at MGU. "Every country has criminal elements, every country has people who try to abuse power, but in the last 18 months ... there have been too many of the incidents," adding that not enough was being done to "ensure no one had impunity from prosecution ... I said that this is a matter of grave concern not just for the United States but for the Russian people, and not just for activists but people who worry that unsolved killings are a very serious challenge to order and the fair functioning of society," Clinton said. In an innovative society, she observed, "people must be free to take unpopular decisions, disagree with conventional wisdom, know they are safe to peacefully challenge accepted practice and authority."
In her interview with Ekho Mskvy, she highlighted the attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, noting they are "of such great concern. ... in the last 18 months ... there have been many of these incidents. ... I think we want the government to stand up and say this is wrong."
Her strong statements on these issues were especially important given an unnecessary and unfortunate situation caused by an article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant earlier in the week based on comments made by NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul suggesting that human rights concerns would receive less attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of the Kommersant article seemed out of synch with Obama's handling of the issue in July, with Clinton's comments this week, and with McFaul's own passion for human rights over his career (and I've known him for some 16 years). Clinton stepped into the fray and allayed the concerns, at least for the time being, of those who were worry that human rights issues will fall down the list of priorities in the interest of the Obama Administration's overall "reset" policy with Moscow.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
Secretary Clinton's recent visit to Moscow provides another opportunity to do a midcourse assessment of Iran policy. The assessment is bleak. Very bleak. The "mission accomplished" banners that Obamaphiles were unfurling when the Russians hinted at a greater openness to sanctions look a bit more faded and ironic today in light of reports that the Russians are back to their old script of opposing sanctions as an impediment to negotiations.
I argued earlier
that the key intermediate objective of the negotiations with Iran was getting
Russia (and China and the European in-laws) on side to impose tougher economic
pressure on Iran. Without such leverage, negotiations were very unlikely to
Of course, the overall objective of those negotiations is to get the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The Obama team, like the Bush team before it, believes that the only way the Islamic Republic will do so peacefully is if the United States can exert serious economic leverage over the regime so a compromise deal looks attractive -- hence the urgency of the intermediate objective of establishing such leverage.
From the beginning, the diplomatic track has been stymied by two stubborn facts. Fact 1: The U.S. cannot unilaterally generate the sanctions leverage it needs to give diplomacy a chance. Fact 2: The Russians, the Chinese, and sometimes the European in-laws all believe that diplomacy is an alternative to sanctions (and vice-versa) rather than understanding that sanctions are a necessary component of the diplomatic track. In other words, sanctions are what you resort to when diplomacy has failed rather than something you resort to in order to help diplomacy succeed.
The "shocking" news that the Iranian regime had been misleading the international community with a hidden second enrichment program provided a one-time opportunity to bring the international community on side, impose sanctions, and then pursue negotiations. Instead, the Obama team contented itself with the rhetorical support for sanctions the Russians offered -- the vague suggestion that if the Iranians kept up their bad behavior stiffer penalties might follow -- basked in the glow of praise for its deft diplomacy, and launched negotiations.
With Secretary Clinton in Moscow, the Russians sprung the trap. We can't do sanctions, the Russians explained, because that would undermine negotiations. As long as the negotiations are ongoing, the Russians will block sanctions. All the Iranian regime has to do to keep sanctions at bay is to string the negotiations along. As was foreseeable, Team Obama is trapped negotiating with the Iranian regime without significant leverage and without much prospect of additional leverage. This does not guarantee failure, but it does guarantee that the Iranian regime has the strongest possible hand and that the U.S. hole card, the evidence of Iranian duplicity revealed at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, has been played to minimal effect.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
By Dov Zakheim
Press reports this past week indicate that the Western powers' discussions with Iran appear to have mollified the Israelis, at least to the extent that Jerusalem has toned down jeremiad-like rhetoric regarding the Iranian nuclear program. How long Israel will be prepared literally to hold its fire while Iran transfers some, but by no means all, of its enriched uranium for processing in Russia, and opens its facility in Qom for IAEA inspections, very much remains to be seen.
with the West talking tough, Israel does not want to be viewed as carping on
the sidelines. But the Israelis recognize that the so-called secret facility at
Qom was not so secret at all; the United States and others were aware of its
existence for some time. The Israelis also harbor grave doubts about the IAEA's
ability to monitor Iranian activity that Tehran prefers it not monitor. And
Jerusalem knows full well that sanctions have a mixed record of successfully
obtaining whatever objective motivated their imposition.
At the same time, however, Israel recognizes that Washington is now increasingly positioning itself to take military action against Iran if the talks, transfers to Russia, and sanctions fail to halt the momentum of the Iranian program. In particular, the Obama administration's announcement that it will reposition its missile-defense forces so as better to protect Europe against an Iranian strike has the direct effect of supplementing Israel's missile defenses. In fact, the American military deterrent has far greater significance than the talks, sanctions, or reprocessing deal. By committing Aegis ships to the eastern Mediterranean, the administration is also putting its forces in harm's way: There is no way that ships off Israel could avoid the effects of an Iranian nuclear strike on that country.
have long recognized -- though rarely acknowledged -- that there is an
additional factor that would give Iranians pause before they launched a nuclear
attack. Even one successful detonation would likely have devastating effects
not just on Israeli Jews, but on Palestinian Arabs (thereby offering one way,
perhaps, to conclude the peace process, namely, by wiping out both sides), and,
indeed, on neighboring Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Saudis. And
while a cynic might point out that Persians have as much contempt for Arabs as they
do for Jews, the fact that Jerusalem might not survive may be the greatest of
all deterrents for an Iranian leadership that views itself at the vanguard of
On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the Obama administration's tough talk will translate into action; tough talk has accomplished little to move Pyongyang, for example. There is considerable uncertainty as to how exactly the administration will deploy naval forces to the Mediterranean: the Navy's force levels are dropping below 300, and the demand for Aegis ships in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has not diminished. Moreover, the fact that, in a remarkable exercise in role-switching, European leaders and intelligence analysts are more pessimistic about the progress of the Iranian nuclear program than their American counterparts, inspires little confidence in Washington's ultimate intentions.
The Israelis are prepared to give their closest ally the benefit of the doubt for the time being. And "the time being" may not be that long. In the end, however, unless they are absolutely certain that, as several senators proposed on Sunday, the United States commits itself to a military strike on Iran if the negotiations fail, they will act on their own. "Sinn Fein," ourselves alone, may be the name of an Irish movement, but it embodies the very essence of Israeli policy in the face of what it continues to view as a threat to its very existence.
By Peter Feaver
How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale.
1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this is achieved, President Obama would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize. Chance of this happening: I would guess near zero.
2. Demonstrable and significant progress: Iran's continued recalcitrance is identified early by all the relevant players, especially Russia and China, and the UN Security Council responds within a few weeks with a substantial ramping up of de facto sanctions on Iran -- sanctions that involve the effective participation of Iran's chief trading partners, the EU, Russia, China, and India. Chance of this happening: I would guess not zero, but maybe just a 1-in-10 chance.
3. No progress beyond what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance provokes a range of global rhetorical censure ranging from Chinese tut-tutting to American (or French or British) bluster. The United States unilaterally increases sanctions pressure, but only incrementally because U.S. unilateral leverage over Iran is minimal. Europeans agree to review their options for an incremental increase of sanctions pressure themselves, but do not commit irrevocably to a ramp up in pressure. Russians and Chinese acknowledge that Iran has not been forthcoming, but block further sanctions on the grounds that these would be counterproductive. Chance of this happening: I would guess this is the most likely outcome, so maybe a 4-in-10 chance.
4. Less progress than what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance even after the U.S. has played its "hole card" of the evidence of Iranian duplicity concerning the second enrichment site splits the international coalition and key members, likely Russia or China, blame the United States for its mishandling of the negotiations. Chance of this happening: I fear this is the next most-likely-outcome, so maybe a 3-in-10 chance.
5. False progress is achieved: Desperate to show progress, the United States accepts a fig-leaf arrangement, or merely declares the negotiations fruitful when they are not, and so there is neither true progress towards Iranian relinquishment of their nuclear program nor increased leverage imposed on them to make a deal in the next round more likely. Chance of this happening: I don't think this is as likely as some Obama critics think, but there is a non-trivial possibility of this happening, perhaps barely a 2-in-10 chance.
6. U.S. capitulation: Desperate for a deal, the United States follows the advice of some and signs a grand bargain agreement that "resolves" the issue by preemptively conceding to all of Iran's demands, including the demand that the world community stop complaining about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chance of this happening: not likely, probably only marginally more likely than outcome #1.
It should be noted that when Dennis Ross, a key player on the Obama team, outlined his strategy for Iran, it was essentially the Bush administration strategy and so was likely only to produce what the Bush team had been able to produce -- or a slight improvement thereupon. While he hoped for Outcome #1, he acknowledged that it might more realistically only achieve #2 in the medium-term. For that reason, I do not think it is fair to declare the strategy a failure if it doesn't achieve #1. However, if it doesn't achieve #2, I think it is fair, and perfectly within the terms established by Team Obama, to declare it a failure.
By Peter Feaver
It is early but perhaps not too early to do a quick assessment on how Team Obama is doing on the three things I am tracking on the Iran issue.
On the micro-tactics level of whether the Team was rattled by the news, the early indications are mixed but on the whole favorable. On the positive side, the New York Times has an extensive tic-toc that makes it clear that the administration had been developing a game-plan for the rollout of this information for quite some time. And Obama knew that the Iranians knew that we knew and were developing a plan to deal with the contingency that Iran forced our hand. On the negative side, even though Obama understood that our hand could be forced at any time, the Iranians were nevertheless able to gain a modest tactical advantage by determining the release of the information and by releasing it before we had adequately briefed our Security Council partners. As a result, we lost an important opportunity: using President Obama’s historic chairing of the UN Security Council meeting to unveil the information. Still, Team Obama adjusted to the fluidity of the unfolding events and it probably helped that the UNGA duties meant the President was focused on foreign policy and not doing yet another health care photo-op. I score this as moderately encouraging. Barring further revelations, this metric is probably complete.
On the more serious matter of whether the Obama team is poised to exploit this opportunity to establish the leverage they need, the early indicators may be a wee bit less promising. Consider this quote from that same NYT article:
There was “a fair amount at anger” within the administration over Iran’s disclosure, a senior administration official said. But there was also some satisfaction. A second senior official said: “Everybody’s been asking, ‘Where’s our leverage?’ Well, now we just got that leverage.”
If the advisor meant “leverage over Iran,” then I am worried. The public awareness that Iran has been cheating does not really contribute much leverage over Iran. Yes, it is embarrassing for them, and it means that Ahmadinejad and others will squirm for a while trying to answer awkward questions. But it does not provide us much real leverage, the sort of leverage that would adjust the Iranian regime’s cost-benefit calculation.
If, however, the advisor meant “leverage over Russia and China and, heck, even France, Germany, Britain, and India,” then I am encouraged. For that is the real impact of this news: it makes the case for sanctions stronger than ever, and it provides the Obama team with their best chance to get the sanctions before negotiations start in earnest rather than waiting until the negotiations fail and then trying to get the sanctions imposed. The “try negotiations first and then try sanctions” sequence had been Obama’s strategy. I did not meet anyone with real experience in governing who would say (off-the-record) that the sanctions would be forthcoming. There are simply too many exit ramps available for our wobbly partners in that sequence: Did negotiations fail because of the Iranians, or was it someone else’s fault? Have they really failed? Wasn’t there an encouraging exchange or two we should explore again? The problem with “tools of a last resort” is that in international diplomacy one can never know when the last resort has been reached.
So the old plan was this: try to negotiate with the Iranians without much leverage on our side (because we had not yet imposed the crippling sanctions) -- and then, when the negotiations fail, try to persuade our partners that the failure was due to Iranian misbehavior and so get them to do what they have refused for years to do and impose crippling sanctions. Then we would have leverage to try negotiations again.
What I can’t tell yet is whether the Obama team realizes they have an opportunity now to forge a plan with a (modestly) higher likelihood of success: use the revealed Iranian duplicity to exploit new-found (and doubtless temporary) Russian resolve to impose the crippling sanctions now. With the United States holding (again, temporarily) the UNSC chair, we can adjust the agenda in this way and with all those soft power assets to spend, President Obama might be able to pull it off. A brief window of opportunity has been opened. Do our leaders realize that, and are they marshalling the forces to jump through the window?
Which leads us to the third indicator: how Team Obama is handling interactions with the “in-laws.” The quality of the interactions depends on results and, of course, it is too early to see any real results. (I haven’t seen anything solid on the Israeli angle, but my eyes are peeled.) The coding of this metric depends on the coding of the second metric. If Obama is using this news to assemble leverage that consists of little more than lots of stern faces on our side of the negotiating table on October 1 coupled with some sincere promises from those stern-faced stalwarts that if the Iranians mess with us again then this time, really, we will consider crippling economic sanctions -- well, in that case, I think his diplomacy and powers of persuasion will be sufficient to get the in-laws on board such a leaky vessel. But if he is trying to assemble serious leverage now so that negotiations have the best possible chance of producing results, then he will face his toughest diplomatic challenge of his young tenure, and we will soon see whether he is succeeding in that task.
Earlier today, President Obama, British Prime Minister Brown, and French President Sarkozy dramatically confirmed that Iran has been covertly building near the city of Qom a second uranium enrichment facility. Obama said the "size and configuration" is "inconsistent with a peaceful program," suggesting that it is intended for military purposes. The revelation will prompt very different reactions from different people.
Some will find the news shocking. And that the Iranian regime would so brazenly flout the international community and the IAEA, despite Iran's own assurances of cooperation and the very real possibility of war or harsh sanctions, is something indeed. Others will find it utterly predictable, based both on the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate's December 2007 conclusion that "Iran would probably use covert facilities ... for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon" -- and on Iran's history of evasion. Iran concealed its first uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, opening it to IAEA inspections only following its public disclosure by Iranian dissidents in 2002, and continues to refuse to answer the IAEA's questions about its work on nuclear weaponization.
The Iranian regime and its backers will have a different reaction altogether -- they will insist that Tehran had no obligation to disclose the existence of the facility, having unilaterally terminated its implementation of the part of its NPT Safeguards Agreement requiring advance notice of the construction of nuclear sites. Thus far, Iranian nuclear officials have confirmed reports about the enrichment plant while insisting that it is for civilian purposes, and Iranian President Ahmadinejad has warned that it would be a "mistake" to press the regime on the issue.
Whatever one's reaction, the actions now taken in light of this news by Iran and the international community will be decisive. Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy were right to stress the need for the IAEA to investigate it seriously and for Iran to meet UN demands which it has heretofore disregarded. One can expect that the information revealed today will be used not only to press Iran to treat seriously the talks that are slated to begin on Oct. 1 in Geneva, but also to convince recalcitrant partners Russia and China (whose leaders are present in Pittsburgh but did not join Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy on the stage this morning) to support tough sanctions against Iran in the likely event that those talks prove inconclusive. If in fact Iran does not comply with international demands, then Moscow and Beijing will be put to the test -- if they refuse to support sanctions even in light of this new deception by Tehran, they are unlikely ever to do so, and the U.S. and its allies will need to move forward without them or weigh other options.
However, even if Iran, whether out of a genuine policy shift or simply an effort to forestall sanctions, embarks on negotiations and promises cooperation, this revelation will severely diminish the international community's confidence in the regime's sincerity, as Sarkozy noted today. As a result, the possible compromises -- whether promises from Tehran not to enrich or some form of "limited enrichment" on Iranian soil -- will look less attractive to the U.S. and its allies. If Iran could repeatedly assure the IAEA of its cooperation and publicly deny wrongdoing while at the same time secretly building an underground enrichment plant, what confidence can one have in an agreement that depends vitally on the regime's willingness to uphold its promises?
At the very least, today's revelations will mean that any agreement must contain water-tight verification provisions. However, they also mean that the international community's "no-deal option" -- a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities -- will look more attractive. Sarkozy suggested today that "everything must be put on the table" likely will reflect greater support for the military option in Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere. Israel's decision, in particular, about whether to exercise that option will likely be heavily influenced not only by Iran's reaction to today's news, but also by that of Washington and the P5+1.
Today's revelation represents a crisis of confidence not only for international diplomacy with Iran, but also for the global nonproliferation regime. That both Syria and Iran could covertly build nuclear facilities despite IAEA activity in these countries suggests that rogue regimes have little respect for international nonproliferation rules. If the IAEA and the international community fail to act in response to the information revealed today, their attitudes will be vindicated and global counter-proliferation will be a shambles.
Gordon Brown suggested that Iran's "serial deception" meant that the "international community must draw a line in the sand." Such lines have been drawn in the past, and Iran has trampled them. What is needed now is not another ephemeral line, but international cooperation -- not only from the U.S. and Europe, but also from Russia and China and the world's emerging powers -- to build a firm wall that stops Iranian nuclear weapons progress and other illicit proliferation activities cold. If we cannot muster the determination to build such a wall and defend it, then we should gird ourselves for a far more dangerous world.
By Peter Feaver
The announcement that Iran has been hiding a second uranium enrichment facility from the IAEA may seem like a "gambling in the casino" moment. But it is, I would argue, more important than that: it is a clarifying moment in which we will discern President Obama's true mettle. We will discern that in three ways.
First, look to see if the President and his team express any surprise in any way more profound than the gendarme's shock at finding gambling in the casino. No serious observer of the Iran file should be surprised that Iran has been withholding information, and no savvy diplomat should be surprised that this information is coming out now, just on the cusp of the long-awaited direct talks. Of course, the Obama team has known for a long time about this secret enrichment facility so they are not surprised or shocked by that fact.
But the more interesting test is whether they are rattled by the way this information interacts with the debate over the wisdom of having negotiations. The pros on the Obama team know this and shouldn't be surprised -- won't be surprised, I'd wager. But many critics of Obama's Iran policy have detected more naiveté than I have detected. If Obama really was approaching the negotiations suffused with hope that the nuclear issue has been all one big misunderstanding that can be cleared up by a little pixie-dust "smart power," then they will be rattled by this news. For my part, I don't think that is the case, and so I expect they have gamed out this contingency and have thought it through.
Second, look to see whether the Obama team treats negotiations as the end or as the means to an end. This has been the debate all along. Some in the debate treat negotiations as the end and are determined to knock down any hindrances that would prevent the negotiations from taking place -- whether those hindrances are pre-conditions Bush established, or diplomatic niceties about dining with Holocaust-deniers, or something more serious like the difficulty of imposing tough sanctions to establish the necessary leverage to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. Others, and I was in this camp when we had this debate in 2006, view negotiations as a plausible means to an end and so worth doing, but only if we had first established the necessary leverage. That leverage could come either with the reasonable precondition that Iran suspend its enrichment activities while diplomacy took place or with the imposition of severe economic/financial sanctions on the Iranian regime so that it would have an incentive to negotiate in good faith: the incentive would be the carrot of having the sanctions lifted.
If you see negotiations as an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as one more hindrance that must be overcome -- in this case, denounced but otherwise ignored. If you see negotiations as a means to an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as an opportunity: an opportunity to impose the severe sanctions before you begin negotiations so the negotiations have a chance to succeed. If Obama is in the first camp, he will issue the usual talking points about dismay and vague threats about sanctions in the distant future. If Obama is in the second camp, he will direct his diplomatic team to begin immediate work on the imposition of sanctions and will consider delaying (not abandoning) the direct talks with the Iranian regime until those sanctions have been imposed.
Which brings us to the third thing to look for: look at how well the Obama team manages the international coalition of "in-laws" (what used to be called "allies") and key players like Russia and China. Of late, the rhetoric on Iran has been harsher from Paris and London than from Washington, D.C. There might finally be some backbone in Europe for tougher action on Iran. And, of course, Obama did get Russia to make a rhetorical concession on sanctions once he gave up the missile shield in Poland. It is show-time for President Obama's 9 month stimulus package accumulating soft power assets.
Now is when we will see whether President Obama and his team can persuade the international community to do things that President Bush never quite could get them to do: impose severe sanctions on Iran as a way to empowering the diplomatic track. Look also to how President Obama manages Israel. Those who were gleeful at the way President Obama slapped the Israelis around over the settlement freeze, and dismayed at the way he has walked back from that tough line, have never quite explained how they would manage Israeli concerns over Iran (beyond, of course, shooting down Israeli planes if need be). Well, a more serious explanation is needed now and will, I believe, be a top priority for the Obama team in the coming days.
We will get clarity on the President's mettle very soon, and that clarity may go a long way to establishing the Obama brand in national security.
By Peter Feaver
It does not look like the world will wait while we sort out healthcare. On the contrary, it is looking more and more like gut-check time for our wartime Commander-in-Chief. He is facing serious challenges in both of his major military conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, and very ominous clouds on a third front, Iran. I think in his first 8 months or so in office President Obama has surpassed the gloomiest predictions about how he would handle the portion of the job for which he had the least preparation. But the next couple months will really test his mettle.
The challenge on the Iraqi front is multifaceted, but the aspect that may be
most critical will be how he deals with Iraqi over-confidence. The recent
bombings underscore that it is woefully premature to declare "mission accomplished" in
the counter-insurgency. The 2007 surge strategy reversed the trajectory
in Iraq, but there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the phased
withdrawal laid out under the Status of Forces agreement will be gradual enough
to meet President Obama's cleverly-formulated goal of "leaving Iraq more
responsibly than we went into Iraq." But ever since we transferred
sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in 2005, a persistent pattern has emerged: Iraqis
have been over-confident in their ability to govern and provide security and
have been underwhelming in their delivery of the same. They have done
well where U.S. forces have been well-aligned, well-resourced, and well-led.
They have done much less well in other areas. Unfortunately, U.S.
leverage over the Iraqis is diminishing on an almost daily basis and the faster
we pull out the faster our leverage erodes.
This is a challenge to Obama because the facts on the ground in Iraq may require that he resist the political instincts he has honed in a domestic context, all of which will be pushing him to get out of Iraq as fast as the logistics train will let him.
The domestic context is also a critical factor in the Afghanistan challenge. As a recent Washington Post poll makes clear, public support for the Afghan mission is starting to wobble. There is even a slim majority giving the negative answer on the "is it worth it" question. I have never liked that question because it involves almost hopelessly complex and incommensurate judgments. From a policy point of view, what matters the most is the public's stomach for continuing the fight and I do not believe that the "worth it" question taps into that well. The poll is somewhat more encouraging on the dimension that the Gelpi-Feaver-Reifler model identifies as key: optimism about eventual success. The public shows continued optimism on that score and I believe that translates into a reservoir of public support that President Obama can tap.
The challenge for Obama is that his military advisors and independent experts
may believe that eventual success requires the commitment of additional troops
and resources to Afghanistan. And on the question of more troops, the
recent poll makes clear, Obama does not have a reservoir of support --
indeed, the numbers are running nearly 2-to-1 for reducing rather than increasing
troops. President Obama could shift those numbers, if he came to
believe that an increase was necessary and if he committed the political
capital and the bully pulpit to the job. But he would be dealing
primarily with skeptics within his party. He enjoys robust support from
across the aisle. His problem is with the majority opinion of his own
party. At a time when he is facing a within-party backlash over health
can he also do what it takes to bring his partisan troops in line? As
Will Inboden points out, the great
presidents with which he likes to compare himself managed this tricky maneuver;
the not-so-great ones he does not want to emulate did not.
The third great Commander-in-Chief challenge is still on the horizon and not (yet) predominantly military in form: Iran. Over the next couple months, the deadlines President Obama himself set for his Iran policy will come due. By mid-September, we will see whether the Iranians respond meaningfully to the offer of direct negotiations. By the end of the year, President Obama has promised to reassess whether this gambit has yielded results. At best, the Israelis may be on a similar clock; at worst, their clock may be ticking even faster. That means that within a few short months, at a time when both Iraq and even more probably Afghanistan will be constituting grave military challenges, President Obama will have a fateful military decision to make concerning Iran. If the diplomatic track does not produce results, and if he chooses to eschew the military option, he still will face the daunting challenge of persuading the Israelis to eschew the military option.
The last several weeks have marked a consequential chapter in how historians will evaluate President Obama's domestic legacy. The next several months could be an equally consequential chapter for how historians will evaluate him as Commander in Chief. For all of our sakes, I hope he performs well.
By Peter Feaver
Secretary Clinton's awkward Iran statement last week and the extensive efforts at damage control that she did yesterday on Meet the Press underline a basic challenge of statecraft and contingency planning: It is hard not to have Plan B interfere with Plan A.
In this case, Plan A is the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and Plan B concerns what we would do if Plan A fails and Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear weapon. It would be irresponsible of the Obama administration not to be evaluating various Plans B, including the one option Clinton mentioned in her original statement: extending some sort of defensive shield over America's Middle Eastern friends to neutralize the strategic advantages Iran might hope to derive from their nuclear arsenal. However, press attention to Plan B undermines Plan A because it gives the impression that the United States has resigned itself to living with an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Clinton's assignment on Meet the Press was to knock down that impression. She did not disavow the defensive shield option of Plan B, unlike White House spinners who had sought to distance Obama from her earlier remarks by claiming they were just her "personal" views (a very odd way to treat the country's chief diplomat). But she drew sharp lines -- and drew them more sharply than President Obama has -- concerning Iran's control of the nuclear fuel cycle, essentially adopting a very hawkish stance concerning Plan A.
Reasonable people can debate whether a defensive shield is a good component of a sound Plan B (no one, not even the most ideologically committed academic realist, I hope, would pretend that it is by itself a sufficient Plan B). But no reasonable person can be dismayed that the Obama administration is doing such contingency planning. And while we debate the merits of this or that component, we should not be punishing the administration for the fact that they are doing contingency planning. It is hard enough to do it well without piling on from those of us on the bench.
Excessive concern about leaks concerning contingency planning can undermine it. Arguably, one of the reasons that the Phase IV planning on Iraq had the problems that it had was due to this concern. In the first term, during the critical coercive diplomacy phase on Iraq, the Bush administration was concerned that leaks about "occupation" planning would undermine the coercion efforts (giving the impression that a long-term occupation was inevitable). That concern may have led the team to unwisely constrain the planning; as a result, Phase IV was considerably under-developed compared to Phases I, II, and III.
Bottom line: let's constructively critique the various options under consideration, but let's not punish the administration for considering them.
By Peter Feaver
The Washington Post is spinning this comment from Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Iran's former foreign ministers and an ally of the regime leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as a positive and hopeful sign: "America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran." It is true that this statement is, by Iranian standards, a compliment to President Obama, but I am not sure it is a very auspicious omen about the fruitfulness of any coming negotiations with Iran.
To be clear, I do think it is worth negotiating with Iran, under proper conditions. Indeed, I think it is worth negotiating with Iran even if you believe that such negotiations will fail and that the military option is the best of a bad set of options. I am not ready to endorse the military option, but I don’t see how any such option is viable without having conducted more intensive negotiations than we have thus far. Put it another way: It seems to me that negotiations are a necessary precursor to the military option, and they are probably even a necessary precursor to ramping up non-military coercive pressure, too.
But it is dispiriting to see the Iranians praise Obama as someone who “gets it” -- who gets that Iran really needs to be a nuclear power. I don’t think it is necessarily a fair assessment of Obama’s position, but it could be a fairly revealing indication of Iran’s position. And that depresses an already pessimistic assessment about the possibility of achieving a meaningful settlement with Iran that leaves Iran short of nuclear-weapons capability.
The only plausible “acceptable” diplomatic solution I can imagine is one in which we give Iran some sort of fig-leafs on a few key issues: “yes, they have a ‘right’ to control the fuel cycle”; and “yes, they have understandable security needs that make nuclear weapons attractive”; and “yes, even under the NPT, they retain the right some day to leave the NPT if they so chose” and so on. In exchange for these rhetorical concessions and lots of other goodies, Iran would agree to forego these “rights” for some long period of time (at least a decade or more) and would agree to intrusive inspections that verified they were honoring those promises (even if only for a decade or so). This would not solve the Iranian nuclear issue for all time, but it would kick the can far enough down the road to be counted a success. (Note: even the most optimistic outcome for a military option would only delay an Iranian nuclear program by a decade.)
If Velayti was hinting at those sorts of fig leafs in his statement, then I agree with the Post that this is, relatively speaking, a positive sign. But I think he is saying something different: that the Iranians perceive Obama to be so eager to cut a deal with Iran that he will accept a nuclear Iran. If that is the case, then Obama would be starting any such negotiations with a weak hand.
By Kori Schake
This weekend we celebrate our country's independence and the courage of those brave men who met in congress in Philadelphia to chart a path to greater liberty. Despite the considerable effort Jefferson goes to in the Declaration to enumerate the crown's depredations, and the very real grievances Americans had against the British government, we stand now far enough from the colonial experience to acknowledge we rebelled against perhaps the most humane and legally responsible government of its time.
And yet we rebelled. We are a country founded on the belief that people have rights, and they loan them in limited ways for limited purposes to their government. We were made great by distrust of a largely beneficial British government, and we remain great by distrust of our own.
Which is what makes our president's response to Iran's elections so discouraging. America's reflex -- our natural position as a country -- is to stand with a people against their government when that government is infringing upon their natural rights. But our president chose the course of deference to an authoritarian government as it repressed its own people.
We do not know whether the Iranian election was fair. It certainly strains credulity to believe Ahmadinejad won more votes than any Iranian office-seeker of all time. Or that he decisively carried every demographic in every region. But to be honest, the June vote was never going to be all that significant. What we call Iranian "moderates" are not; advocates of real change in Iran are stricken from the ballot by the hundreds.
Nor do hundreds of thousands of Iranians filling the streets prove the election was invalid, as moving as their mute protests were. Ahmadinejad's support was likely to be rural, not urban. Muqtada al-Sadr turned similar numbers out into the streets of Iraq's cities, and we did not consider that invalidating of the elected government. Our founding fathers, John Adams in particular, worried about democracy emboldening the mob instead of the people.
But it is the behavior of the Iranian government in reaction to the protests that we should unequivocally object to. Iranian protestors were not hurling Molotov cocktails and kidnapping government officials. They were engaged in a disciplined civil disobedience of the kind that changed our country many times: independence, the civil rights movement, anti-war campaigns. We belong by their side.
Our president expressed "deep concern" and urged the Iranian government to respect its people. He had to be pulled by public reaction into condemning the Iranian government as it threatened executions of protestors. This from a president who repeatedly lectures us that there is no conflict between our values and our interests.
His "realism" and caution now are of a kind with his initial reaction to Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer, when he urged both the invader and the invaded to exercise restraint. President Obama is a "realist," unwilling to impinge on our national interests or the established international rules of state sovereignty, even when those interests and rules crush the hopes of others striving to gain by peaceful means what we have long enjoyed.
This all makes me a little homesick for what came to be called "the freedom agenda" in the Bush administration -- now that we are hearing what the alternative sounds like, now that we are taking the measure of ourselves as a nation, and now that we are willing to consign other people's freedom to our interests. It makes us a little less a force for good in the world, a little less deserving to say we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
By Peter Feaver
was wrong (and lots of people are adding, "again"). It turns out that
Dennis Ross will not be taking up the strategic planning portfolio, as I had
but will instead take up the broader Middle East portfolio.
The wiring diagram is not clear from afar (and may not even be clear from
close up) but it looks like he will have a position more like a combination of
the roles filled by Elliott Abrams,
who covered everywhere the "Near East and North Africa" from Morocco to Iran
(but not Iraq), plus Meghan O'Sullivan,
who had Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has Pakistan, and so that gives him
a remarkably broad regional portfolio that encompasses the two hot war military
conflicts plus arguably the most urgent national security problem (Iran). It encompasses the portfolios of two formidable Special Envoys housed at
State -- George Mitchell (Israel-Palestine) and Richard Holbrooke (Af-Pak). It also, quite deliberately I suspect, matches almost exactly the
portfolio of General Petraeus, CENTCOM commander. That is a lot of grist
for one mill, and more world-historical-figures than most mortals could hope to
coordinate. But Dennis has formidable talents and will, I believe, work
well with Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor who is said to have
been the one most keen to bring him on board. So I think it will work out
well. For my part, I will be interested to see how all these people
coordinate with the Global Engagement Directorate
which struck me as an intriguing office when it was announced (especially for
the region that comprises Dennis Ross's portfolio) but which, so far as I
can tell, is still in the process of getting its sea legs.
As for my old post on the NSC's strategic planning cell, I now believe it is being filled by Ambassador Mary Yates. She has a long and distinguished record of public service. She is a career Foreign Service Officer with an extensive career with emphasis on Africa. She most recently served as the senior civilian advisor at the new military command of AFRICOM. This experience of close coordination with the uniformed and civilian sectors of the Department of Defense -- at the intersection of policy and operations - will be valuable for her in her new post. The key to succeeding in the strategic planning office lies in establishing close working relationships vertically with the top people -- Jones and Donilon -- and horizontally with the other heavyweights at the NSC -- likely to be Ross and McDonough - and diagonally with the other key offices in the White House. If Ambassador Yates can do that, the office has the potential to make useful contributions to the system. The Obama administration likes to think big about domestic and foreign affairs and so it is a good time to be sitting in the "big think" chair.
By Christian Brose
For your weekend viewing, check out this interesting Senate roundtable discussion (it's not a hearing!) on Iran with Sen. Kerry presiding. The discussants are Karim Sadjadpour, Mehdi Khalaji, Hooman Majd, Suzanne Maloney, and Shadow Government's own Mike Singh. For some reason, the video doesn't begin until 37 minutes into the clip, so just scroll ahead.
Below is a bloggingheads.tv that I recorded yesterday with Rob Farley, a very sharp scholar and decent guy who, along with a few other folks, keeps a wide-ranging, smart, and quite funny blog called Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Rob also has great headwear! We discussed Iran and North Korea.
By Peter Feaver
I have a quick reaction to Chris's post on the necessity of raising human rights whenever President Obama finally sits down to negotiate with the Iranian regime. Perhaps it is time to revive the idea of some sort of Helsinki process for the Persian Gulf region.
Recall that the Helsinki Accords were devised as a way of accommodating various conflicting desiderata of the sort of dilemmas identified by Chris: more expansive diplomacy with the Soviet Union that did not exacerbate transatlantic divides; maintaining progress on security/arms control negotiations without sacrificing the human rights dimension; leveraging the Soviet Union's interest in broader economic contacts; and so on. The process itself was a compromise, and like all compromises it resembled a camel more than a stallion. It certainly came in for a fair amount of criticism at the time, much of it well-grounded.
Yet it played a key role in sowing seeds and nurturing shoots of freedom that helped ultimately to undo the Soviet empire. The Soviets agreed to the human rights basket within the Helsinki process primarily because they believed that it could be contained and perhaps even used as a club for some tendentious bashing of human rights "violations" in the West. But what the Helsinki process also did was legitimize and institutionalize the human rights issue within international engagement of the Soviet Union. That proved far more consequential in the long run than did the efforts contained in the security basket.
Something like that process could be of considerable value in the Gulf region. Properly constructed, it would eclipse the activities of that embarrassing self-parody, the UN Commission on Human Rights. If the regional/multilateral efforts aimed at shoring up Iraq were going gangbusters, one might be reluctant to launch this kind of Helsinki process now for fear of siphoning off momentum. But despite the best efforts of both the Bush and Obama administrations, I think the regional effort on Iraq is about as strong as it is ever going to be. A broader effort just might goose the other along and, in any case, could hardly slow it down.
Of course, the Helsinki model has one bitter pill for American foreign policy: it requires the participation of all regional players on an equal footing, which would include Iran. This would necessarily involve some "legitimation" of Iran that successive administrations from either party have been reluctant to grant. Doing so on the heels of the regime's brutal crackdown is an even more distasteful prospect.
But, as Chris reminds us, we will be stuck with the regime that emerges. There may be a way of dealing with that regime that incurs short run costs and long run benefits. The Soviet Union thought it was buying with Helsinki its long-sought goal of international legitimacy for its ill-gotten post-World War II gains. Instead what it bought was something far more important: the legitimation of voices of internal accountability and protest. Could something like that work this time with Iran?
President Obama’s opening statement on Iran in today’s presser was a welcome increase in his support for Iranian aspirations and condemnation of the government that’s thwarting them. But as the president struggled with the questions that followed -- about whether his stated desire to engage with the Iran's rulers was still viable, whether they would bear any consequences for trouncing the international norms that Obama speaks of so highly, and whether he would accept the election of Ahmadinejad when so many Iranians clearly don’t -- it was increasingly clear that Obama’s desire to hedge his bets on Iran has become untenable. This is Obama’s Iran dilemma.
Hedging, after all, has been the president’s strategy thus far: He has tried (cautiously of late, but more strenuously today) to voice support for the aspirations of Iran’s people and criticism of the regime’s violence against them; at the same time, he has tried to preserve his diplomatic flexibility in the event that the street protests lead to no substantive changes in Iran’s current leadership or its foreign policy. But with each day that Iran’s election stand-off continues, with each day that violence against Iranians continues (and increases), and with each day that the Iranian government further delegitimizes itself in the eyes of an ever-growing number of its people, Obama’s ability to hedge is vanishing.
If one assumes the Iranian regime will survive this unrest, weakened but basically unchanged (and sadly, I think that assumption is right in the short term), then Tehran will claim that any support for Iran’s people is evidence of a U.S. regime change policy and use it as an excuse to shun talks with Obama. And yet, if Obama mutes his support for Iranian demands for justice in the aftermath of this uprising in an effort to engage with the country's deeply discredited leadership, he risks landing America (once again) on the wrong side of Iranian history.
It’s worth noting what many Iranians themselves are saying. Yes, high-profile dissidents like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, as well as other Iranians, have urged Obama not to do or say anything that would unwittingly strengthen Iran’s ruling elites. But for much the same reason, I imagine, they and other Iranians have also been equally outspoken in urging Obama not to deal with Ahmadinejad and his government -- or at least not to do anything that undercuts the desires of Iran’s people for democracy and human rights.
Consider this from Ganji:
The Iranian people are saying the Ahmadinejad government is a coup d’etat government. They’re asking that no government accept the legitimacy of his government. This is what most people want, for no government to work with the Ahmadinejad government.
Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working to achieve?
Or this plea from an Iranian student identified as Mohammad speaking yesterday to CNN:
Americans, European Union, international community, this government is not definitely -- is definitely not elected by the majority of Iranians. So it’s illegal. Do not recognize it. Stop trading with them. Impose much more sanctions against them.
My message … to the international community, especially I’m addressing President Obama directly -- how can a government that doesn’t recognize its people’s rights and represses them brutally and mercilessly have nuclear activities? This government is a huge threat to global peace. Will a wise man give a sharp dagger to an insane person? We need your help, international community. Don’t leave us alone.
If the Ahmadinejad government hangs on (which it seems quite likely that it will), and if Obama remains committed to engaging with it (which he has given every indication that he does), then he only has one option, as I see it, of not leaving Iran’s people feeling that America is selling out their aspirations: Obama must make it clear that when he and his administration finally do sit down with Iran’s discredited leadership, they will not only raise the nuclear issue, but also Iran’s abuses of its citizens’ human rights, the fate of Iran’s political prisoners, and the need for democratic reforms -- and what's more, America will insist on progress on all these fronts, because we have seen that this is what the Iranian people want.
Iran’s leadership would surely bristle at this, and they’ll probably refuse to enter into talks unless issues like human rights and democracy are dropped from the agenda. That will heighten Obama’s dilemma. He ran for president pledging to engage Iran without preconditions. He won that debate, and the election. Now, in light of the dramatically changed (and still changing) circumstances inside Iran, the new debate is whether America will allow Iran’s rulers to get away with putting preconditions on their engagement with us.
By Christian Brose
This is clearly a bad idea:
The United States said Monday its invitations were still standing for Iranian diplomats to attend July 4 celebrations at US embassies despite the crackdown on opposition supporters.
President Barack Obama's administration said earlier this month it would invite Iran to US embassy barbecues for the national holiday for the first time since the two nations severed relations following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"There's no thought to rescinding the invitations to Iranian diplomats," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.
"We have made a strategic decision to engage on a number of fronts with Iran," Kelly said. "We tried many years of isolation, and we're pursuing a different path now."
Really, State? Can't we celebrate America's birthday this year without members of a government that just a few days prior was killing its citizens in the streets?
But privately Obama advisers are crediting his Cairo speech for inspiring the protesters, especially the young ones, who are now posing the most direct challenge to the republic's Islamic authority in its 30-year history.
One senior administration official with experience in the Middle East said, "There clearly is in the region a sense of new possibilities," adding that "I was struck in the aftermath of the president's speech that there was a connection. It was very sweeping in terms of its reach."
This, too, from later in the same article:
Obama's advisers say the outreach may have contributed to the defeat in Lebanese elections a few days later of a coalition led by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed party, that had been predicted to win. In recent days, administration officials have pointed to the Iranian demonstrations as further evidence of Obama's possible influence in the region.
As a rule, I try not to make claims for which there is no discernable evidence (extolling my own virtue aside). In part, this is because I remember how we in the last administration tried to make the argument that our rhetoric of freedom helped to explain the remarkable events of 2005: Mahmoud Abbas's election as Palestinian president, all those purple fingers in Iraq, the Cedar Revolution that ended Syria's occupation of Lebanon, and so on. In retrospect, it turns out it was about them, not us.
I'm not saying that Obama's speech in Cairo or his general approach to the Middle East did not "inspire" the outcome of Lebanon's election or "influence" the recent uprising in Iran. But I have not seen, read, or heard one fact that leads me to believe how this is the case, nor does the unnamed source above offer anything beyond faith-based assertions. So until some evidence is presented, I'll continue to hold my default position, which is that the behavior of Lebanese and Iranians -- and plenty of other peoples as well -- has virtually everything to do with their own personal, social, economic, and political circumstances and little at all to do with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or the United States of America, no matter how much we wish it were so.
By Will Inboden
Sometimes it takes non-American voices to identify America's strengths. Such is the case with the new book by the British writers (and Economist editors) John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge with the audacious title God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. About half of the book is a survey of the seemingly endless -- and endlessly creative -- varieties of religion in the United States, while the other half of the book profiles a range of important religious movements around the world. Though in most cases it is not that religious faith has "re-appeared" after a long secular decline, but rather that elite observers are finally noticing what has been true all along: the vast majority of people outside the West, and many people in the West, are religious.
To their credit, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not pretend that they are the first to (re)discover this. Nor do they glibly contend that religion is univocally either a Good or Bad thing. Their argument is rather that religion is important, is powerful, and must be understood if the world is to be understood.
This is relevant in the context of many unfolding events, not least Iran. For example, as this article in today's New York Times describes, most participants on all sides in the prevailing protests would consider themselves Muslims who seek to follow God's will -- where they differ is in precisely what God's will is for their country and their government. Witness the demonstrators shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is Great)!" in their protests against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, who for his part insisted that Ahmadinejad had won a "divine victory." Even among the protestors, differences abound. Many of Moussavi's followers seek to preserve Islamic rule while eradicating corruption, while other activists think that the entire system of clerical rule is itself un-Islamic and inimical to liberty and justice. In other words, the upheaval in Iran is about competing religious visions of what kind of nation Iran should be, and under what kind of political order.
Nor is it mere coincidence that Ayatollah Khameinei's regime, founded on a revolutionary order of militant Islamic rule (which is itself a deviation from Shi'ism's generally quietist tradition of distinction between mosque and state, cf. Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq), is among the world's worst violators of religious freedom. The tiny minority populations of Iranian Christians, Jews, and Baha'is have all suffered severe persecution. And as seen vividly in the current protests, Iranian Muslims who differ from the regime's version of Shari ‘a law have for decades been stifled in interpreting and expressing their faith as an alternative model for how their nation should be governed.
Religious freedom is central to Micklethwait and Wooldridge's argument as well. As breezy and sometimes sprawling as the book is, the authors attempt to tie it together around a provocative thesis: the American religious system of disestablishment, choice, and competition, is becoming the ascendant religious model around the world. This is also a potent illustration, they believe, of American soft power. Whether consciously or not, religious leaders and movements across different faiths and spanning many nations are finding growth and success through models pioneered in America: independence, innovation, communication through new media, and energetic appeals for new adherents.
Yet Micklethwait and Wooldridge also argue that this dimension of soft power has been relatively neglected by the U.S. government: "one of America's oddest failures in recent years is its inability to draw any global lessons from its unique success in dealing with religion at home. It is a mystery why a country so rooted in pluralism has made so little of religious freedom."
This is a bit too harsh, as the United States has done and still does more to promote international religious freedom than any other government. Witness the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) and annual report on religious freedom conditions in every country in the world, or the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or the Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom. No other government has any of these, let alone all of these, entities devoted to religious freedom promotion.
But the Micklethwait and Wooldridge critique still rings true. The IRF office is rather marginalized within the State Department bureaucracy, religious freedom is rarely integrated into the broader national security portfolio, and the United States could do much more to advance it. As my former State Department colleague Tom Farr has written, promoting religious freedom could and should be a strategic component of important issues, including counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism strategies, democracy and civil society promotion, conflict-resolution, and economic development. There are also intriguing connections between religious freedom and the overall quality of life and citizen happiness in nations, as the Legatum Institute's Prosperity Index demonstrates. So promoting religious freedom should be understood as in the national interest more than it is.
Perhaps one reason behind this mystery is the generally secular nature of foreign policy elites, especially at the State Department. As Peter Berger has famously observed, if the Indians are the most religious people in the world, and the Swedes are the least religious people, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by a government of Swedes. Many foreign policy professionals in the United States just don't understand religion, and do not see the merit in promoting religious freedom. This is beginning to change, judging by the recent spate of books, conferences, and task forces devoted to religion and foreign policy, but there is still much more to be done to address decades of cultural and systemic neglect.
Most immediately, the Obama administration needs to appoint a capable professional who understands both religion and foreign policy to the still-unfilled position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And the Administration needs to appreciate that the valiant cries for justice and liberty being voiced today in Iran reflect not just the Iranian peoples' political aspirations, but their religious aspirations as well.
By Peter Feaver
One important thing seems to be missing in President Obama's commentary on Iran and much of the commentary about Obama's commentary: We want to create and deepen fissures within the Tehran regime -- check that, we need those fissures -- because that is the only plausible way that a diplomatic deal on the nuclear file could be struck.
At key moments in recent days, as Obama has struggled to salvage his Iran policy from the street riots of Tehran, it has appeared that he is waiting/hoping for someone, anyone, to consolidate power there so that he can get back to the urgent business of sitting down for lengthy negotiations. But those negotiations only have a chance of bearing fruit if our Iranian interlocutors believe that their negotiating position is a decaying one -- that the deal they could strike now is better than the deal they could strike later. Otherwise, they will keep "negotiating" and wait for the better deal. That is why an ascendant Iran -- one with oil and natural gas revenues soaring and a fully consolidated hard-liner regime in uncontested domestic control -- is a lousy negotiating partner. It would simply dictate unfavorable terms to us on a take it or leave it basis and keep progressing steadily towards nuclear weapons status. We could get a "deal," but it would be the sort of "deal" advocated by those who essentially argue, "let's just learn to love the Iranian bomb."
To make diplomacy work, what is needed is a sweet spot of pressure that shifts the Iranian calculus to the opposite stance, where the deal they feel they can strike now is better than the deal they could strike later because their negotiating position is eroding. Now, achieving this sweet spot is difficult, because the Iranian decision-making system is closer to a unit-veto system than ours -- factions find it easier to block action than to mobilize for action. Thus, at least at lower degrees of fissures, the wider the fissures, the greater the pressures towards inaction (fruitless negotiations). However, it is reasonable to hope that at extreme levels of fissures, the cross-cutting pressures might tilt the other way. Or, rather, it is unreasonable to hope that any other plausible Iranian negotiating partner would give us a deal we would want, and so this is our best shot at steering between two undesirables: military action or living with an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Financial sanctions that activates business pressure on the regime and thereby deepens fissures within the political elite seemed to be our best shot at fissure-exacerbation, but the Bush administration struggled to get sufficiently tough economic sanctions. The Obama team wasn't making much progress on this front either, even though their erstwhile Iran czar, Dennis Ross, understood it was a necessary ingredient.
Well, the ham-handed way the Ahmadinejad faction manipulated the election results has managed to exacerbate faction fissures within the Tehran regime beyond any level seen in recent years. Obama is right that, insofar as the nuclear file goes, and insofar as the world as it was a week or so goes, a consolidated Ahmadinejad presidency would not have been much worse than a consolidated Mousavi presidency: Ahmadinejad is discernibly worse, but neither would have been a very good negotiating partner.
But a lot has happened in the past week, and it is not at all clear that the Mousavi of today is "much of a muchness" with Ahmadinejad. He is no nuclear dove, but he could be a Gorbachev-like figure whose tolerance for partial reform to reignite the revolution has the unintended effect of sowing the seeds of the regime's own destruction. At a minimum, the populist outrage Mousavi has stirred means that the election (and resulting protests, of course), far from consolidating power within Tehran, is pushing the regime closer to the cracking point. A regime that is cracking from within may be the only one that would accept a nuclear deal we could live with. To be sure, that sort of deal would have to offer face-saving fig-leafs to let the hobbled regime "declare victory" -- but a cracked regime is the only kind that would have the requisite strategic horizon to accept it.
So the administration should be doing whatever it can to let those fissures widen. Obama is right that he has to be careful not to act in a ham-handed way that lets the Ahmadinejad faction rally Persian hyper-nationalism with bogus charges of American meddling. He should choose his words artfully, and not treat Iranians to the type of rhetorical abuse that they heap on us with on a daily basis, for instance. But our interests here are clear: the regime should be seen as discredited for discreditable action, and even if Khamenei succeeds in installing Ahmadinejad over Mousavi, as seems likely (but by no means certain), we want the faction that has mobilized the street protests to be as strong as possible.
It is not clear that the Obama team has figured out how best to accomplish this. It is not even clear that they understand this is what needs to be done.
I share President Obama's desire not to say or do anything that would turn America into a "political football" inside Iran, and I've tried to offer what I hope are some constructive ideas in keeping with that end (though that may come as a surprise to some of my own loyal opponents in the comments section). Still, Obama's remarks yesterday were embarrassing. Not only that, they were harmful -- not for their toughness but for their timidity. Peaceful Iranian protestors are having their heads smashed by government goons, and Obama is explaining to CNBC, with his characteristic professorial emotional detachment, how the guy those Iranians voted for and are bleeding to support is actually no different than Ahmadinejad. I know what Obama meant. The office of Iran's presidency doesn't call the main shots, and Mousavi is no liberal peacenik. I get it. But save it for another time, please.
One other thing: Can our president just stop talking about the nuclear issue altogether while Iran is convulsed by the most consequential popular uprising since the 1979 revolution? That doesn't mean we aren't serious about Iran's nuclear aspirations; just that we have the decency not to dwell selfishly on our own policies while thousands of Iranians are risking life and limb for justice.
Again, I share Obama's goal not to play into the hands of Iran's hard-liners with meddlesome statements and actions, but he still has a healthy amount of room to move forward until he runs up on that line. Iran's people deserve to hear from the most inspiring and internationally beloved American president in a generation that the violence they are enduring at the hands of their government is not just of "deep concern" to him, but "unacceptable." They deserve to hear him "condemn" it (memo to the State Department). And they deserve to hear Obama say that if he does finally talk with Iran's rulers about changing the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran, that goal will also include pushing them to grant all Iranians the same basic human rights that people everywhere should be free to enjoy and exercise without fear of violence and repression.
Is that really too much to ask?
While the remarkable turmoil in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election has captured the world’s attention, other news relating to Iran has slipped by relatively unnoticed. Last week, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency told Congress that Iran and North Korea were cooperating on ballistic missiles. Diplomats in Vienna told the press that Iran had denied an IAEA request to install additional monitoring cameras at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and IAEA director-general Mohammad ElBaradei asserted that Iran desires nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, two Hizballah operatives were reportedly arrested in Azerbaijan, bearing Iranian passports.
The juxtaposition of these activities with the ferment in the streets of Tehran reveals two altogether different Irans struggling with one another -- one marked by political dynamism and a hunger for justice, and another that is autocratic, bent on projecting power, and in which elected officials have little influence. To Iranians, this sort of conflict follows a familiar pattern in Iran’s history. To Westerners, it has been eye-opening. What is surprising to outside observers is not that Iran’s elections were rigged, but that their manipulation has elicited such a powerful response from the Iranian people.
While policymakers in the United States and elsewhere pin their hopes on the first, vibrant Iran, they must deal with the stark reality of the second, harsher one. This may explain the unusually cautious statements emanating from the White House, including President Obama’s own statement to the effect that Ahmadinejad and his challengers are not much different as far as the United States is concerned. This begs the question: Upon which Iran should U.S. policy be focused? Can the United States successfully support freedom in Iran without endangering its “tough diplomacy” aimed at the Iranian nuclear threat?
In formulating an answer, it is important to note that prospects for U.S.-Iran engagement, never too great, have been diminished by the election and its aftermath. The Iranian regime’s willingness to flout international opinion and the yearnings of its own people reveals either overconfidence or, conversely, serious insecurity. A cautious regime might see an opportunity in President Obama’s offer of dialogue, but a regime that is either supremely confident or shakily insecure is unlikely to grasp Obama’s outstretched hand. A confident regime is likely to dismiss the consequences of defiance, and an insecure one will see any opening to the West as a threat rather than a prize.
The results themselves suggest that engagement with the United States is not the regime’s top priority. Whereas his challengers argued during their campaign for improving U.S.-Iran relations, Ahmadinejad heaped scorn on those who would pursue “détente” with the West. He was supported by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who pronounced himself “ideologically disinclined” toward U.S.-Iran reconciliation and urged Iranian voters to reject candidates who would reach out to Washington.
Nevertheless, whatever chances exist for successful engagement with the Iranian regime will not be dimmed by a vigorous defense of the rights of the Iranian people; rather, those prospects would paradoxically be enhanced.
This crisis provides an opportunity to demonstrate to the regime that it will face multilateral penalties for flouting international norms, a lesson clearly transferrable to the nuclear question. While our allies may vary in their views on the risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the best way to deal with it, the regime’s actions against its own people are drawing broad condemnation from across the world. If even this global outcry is not translated into concrete action, Iran’s leaders will draw the lesson that the international community’s resolve has dissipated and will act accordingly.
Furthermore, vigorously defending Iranians’ rights, both now and in the context of any future dialogue with Iran, could enhance U.S. credibility inside Iran and boost support among Iranians for a compromise with the West.
Some have argued that Iranians will naturally resent any perceived involvement by foreign powers in their affairs, citing as an example the American-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953. This reading of history strains credulity. Iranians’ wariness of outside powers arises in large part from Western indifference to the oppression of Iranians and failure to support their struggle for justice, whether in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, or during the Mossadeq era. Iranians do not want outsiders, including the United States, to pick winners in their elections. But silence in the face of a violent crackdown in Iran would compound these historical errors, not reverse them.
Iran is a multifaceted nation which demands a multifaceted U.S. policy. A successful approach to Iran will require the United States to simultaneously confront head-on the challenges posed by both Irans evident today -- to support the first Iran, which is demanding justice, and to deter the second, determined to challenge international security. If we fail to do so, we will unwittingly be writing yet another tragic chapter in the troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations.
President Obama has finally broken his long silence about the events in Iran. He said many of the right things and hit many of the right notes in his remarks last night, and echoed them again today in comments with the South Korean president. Obama is correctly not saying anything that the Iranian regime could use to discredit the opposition. And his expressions of support for Iran's sovereignty, respect for its people, and resolve that it is Iranians, not America and not anyone else, who should determine the outcome of Iran's election are absolutely right. We can't say all of this enough, as I suggested yesterday.
The problem is, the force that is currently preventing Iranians from determining their own future is not America or any other international actor. It's Iran's government. It did so when the Guardian Council hand-picked who could run in the election in the first place. It did so when the official results of that voting were, to say the least, deeply suspicious. It is doing so now through truly horrific state-sponsored violence and intimidation against peaceful Iranian dissidents. And in all likelihood, it will continue to do so when the Guardian Council, the same unaccountable institution that stage-managed the election on the front end, will now "investigate" charges of voter fraud and make a final ruling on the back end.
It is important for all Americans, especially we of the loyal opposition, to realize that the greatest force of leverage that exists to prevent the Iranian government from quashing the will of Iran's dissidents to endure in their quest for justice is not the U.S. government. It is not President Obama or Congress. And it is certainly not some mysterious "Obama effect." It is the Iranian people themselves. For this reason, the U.S. goal must be to shape international conditions that bolster the willingness of Iran's people to put peaceful pressure on their government, while also deterring that government from resolving this stand-off through continued violence, intimidation, or duplicity. Unfortunately, Obama's statement last night gave the impression that, though he is "deeply troubled" by events in Iran, he is more eager to get the whole matter resolved so he can get on with his plans to engage with Iran's rulers.
I am whole-heartedly in favor of America playing the supporting role. I'm all for doing things like getting Twitter to keep its website up and available to Iranian users. But let's not mistake passivity for support.
Let's demand that foreign journalists in Iran be free to report on events, not confined to their bureaus or have their press credentials revoked. Let's put some of our new cyber-warfare capabilities to the test, quietly and covertly of course, to disrupt Tehran's ability to shut off the flow of information to Iranians and between them. Let's start trying to rally and unify the community of nations -- the democratic ones, if nothing else -- to start speaking with one voice: to condemn the violence against peaceful Iranians, to call on Iran's government to address allegations of voter fraud, and to state that supportive nations will continue to support Iran's dissidents in this internal Iranian matter as long as they feel that justice has not been done. Let's start defining some broad international expectations for Iran's government -- how it should and should not treat its people. The only person in the world who can orchestrate this kind of diplomatic effort to build international consensus in support of Iran's dissidents is the President of the United States, and it's high time that he start.
In fact, if Obama is unwilling to state that Iran's treatment of its people during this incident will have a bearing on his desire to engage with Iran's government, then why not say that one of the issues he now plans to raise when they do finally talk is the fate of the many, many peaceful Iranian protestors who the world has watched savagely clubbed in the streets and then hauled away to God knows where?
I'm under no illusions that the United States has a lot of levers of influence in this situation. Nor do I think that Ahmadinejad couldn't actually win a free and fair vote if one were held, albeit with a smaller majority. But that is beside the point. Ayatollah Khamenei's concession yesterday in committing to a recount was important, and who knows how much further the Iranian regime could be made to back-peddle if the Iranian people continue to pressure it.
If you had said several weeks ago that hundreds of thousands of Iranians would take to the streets and stay there, despite violent repression and intimidation, few would have thought that possible either. Could further pressure compel Iran's leaders to call a new election altogether? To invite international monitors into the country to observe it? Who knows? And if Ahmadinejad wins that election anyway, so be it. That would nonetheless be an unprecedented victory for the democratic aspirations of Iran's people, and that is very much in our national interest.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.