The Persian new year falls on the vernal equinox, but the government of Iran set off some fireworks to start the Julian year: announcing it had manufactured a nuclear fuel rod, test-firing three new missiles, threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, and warning the U.S. not to return the Fifth Fleet's aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
The Obama Administration has got the response -- a very difficult balancing act -- almost exactly right: not giving Iran the lift of a high-level political statement, instead quietly proceeding on sanctions, letting the economic arguments speak for themselves, reassuring allies in the region, and having our military refute Iran's claims with our obvious superiority and the unambiguous statement that "interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
Preserving freedom of navigation through the Straits would play to our military's strengths and showcase the increased political resolve and military capabilities of Gulf allies in recent years. The Obama administration has advanced cooperation with friendly governments in the region, Iran's own truculence producing closer involvement with the U.S.
I agree with Michael Singh that assertive military operations are a valuable deterrent and should be pursued, although it looks to me as though we've been doing that pretty well for the past few years: while our military leadership has mostly played down the likelihood of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, they have pushed back on Iranian maritime harassment, conducted operations near Iran's shoreline, arming and exercising with regional allies, and (as the recent drone capture by Iran demonstrates), extending surveillance and intelligence operations into Iranian territory.
One of the few missteps so far is the White House attempting to forestall Congressional furthering of the very means the administration has advocated for in limiting Iran's choices. Sanctions have been biting since the United Arab Emirates began compliance last year, and are set to tighten further with Congress' action to extend prohibitions to Iran's central bank. President Obama signing the legislation over the weekend may well have precipitated this round of bellicose posturing: Iran's currency promptly lost 12% of its value (continuing a plunge of 50 percent from a year ago).
Another potential wrinkle in the strategy is Israel's isolation. An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is more likely due to the friction between the Obama and Netanyhu governments; in making settlements the centerpiece of its peace proposals, Obama made cooperation between Israel and others more difficult and promises from us less reassuring. Secretary Panetta's comments don't help, either.
But still, President Obama has come a long way since the stolen elections of 2009, when he put potential relations with Ahmadinejad's government ahead of condemning the government's repression. The domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime faces a new challenge because reformists are refusing to participate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections, stripping away even the pretense of representative government.
Ayatollah Khameni and his wayward protege President Ahmadinejad claim that Iran is the inspiration of the Arab Spring. And they're right -- just not in the way they mean. The uprising of Iranians against their government rigging 2009's election was the first flowering of Spring, the first middle eastern populace brave enough to stand up to tyranny. Their demands for political rights were crushed by a government that has more in common with despots overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen than with the people overthrowing them.
As the new year dawns, we should continue to tighten the screws on this Iranian government and wish the Iranian people well in ending the tyranny that has repressed and impoverished them. We will have less to fear from a democratic Iran, even if it continues its nuclear programs, than we will Khameni's repressive Iran.
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.