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Paying a premium for strategic incoherence

The Obama administration has changed U.S. strategy toward Iran three times. At the administration's inception, President Obama shed the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran's government, ending support for regime change, sending flowery good wishes at Persian new year and declining to condemn that government for election fraud in 2009. This was a strategy of unconcern for the nature of Iran's government, banking instead on working with it to achieve mutual interests. Let's call that strategy detente.

The administration's second policy shift was to give up hope for progress in government-to-government channels (after remarkably little effort), and instead emphasize multilateral sanctions. In order to gain support of reluctant potential partners, the administration further dialed back U.S. policy in two areas: threat of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, and condemnation of Iranian domestic policies. Even the Pentagon leadership -- civilian and military -- downplayed what could be achieved by destroying elements of Iran's programs.

The main limiting factor on the effectiveness of a sanctions strategy is our ability to cajole or coerce other countries to comply. The United States has had near complete sanctions against Iran since the 1979 seizure of our Embassy; there is little we can do directly. But to their credit, the Obama administration has done much to persuade Europeans and the countries of the Gulf to enforce sanctions. The EU is seriously considering an embargo of Iranian oil purchases; Gulf countries with close banking and commercial ties to Iran have even for the first time curtailed their activity. 

And Congress, to their credit, has done even more, passing legislation to sanction companies that do business with Iran's central bank. Congress took the administration at its word and put in place sanctions that Iran could not circumvent. Ken Pollack, one of the best Middle East hands, estimates the new sanctions could impose a 30 percent penalty on the Iranian economy. That will put enormous pressure on the government of Iran, especially in the run up to Parliamentary elections in March.

The White House objected to the legislation so vehemently that Congress suspects the administration will stint on implementation. But Treasury Secretary Geithner was sent to China and Japan, lesser officials to South Korea and other purchasers of Iranian oil to explain the administration will have only narrow avenues to exempt countries temporarily from exclusion from the dollar zone unless they comply with the legislation.

The administration's third policy shift on Iran was necessitated by two things: the Arab spring, and Iran's provocative behavior. An administration that didn't want to champion democracy was pressed into it by the fact that the so-called Arab Street -- so often depicted as virulently opposed to American values -- actually wants the political liberties we have and is taking responsibility for outcomes in their own countries. But the way the Obama administration navigated our response to the Arab spring managed to infuriate both democrats in the region and authoritarian governments we are allied with.

Here the administration's incapacity to develop a strategy has had deeply detrimental effects. They don't seem to realize their writing off Iraq has fanned sectarian tensions throughout the middle east, how their inactivity on Syria is further destabilizing Iraq (and vice versa), or their approach to the peace process undercut Palestinians working to build a state and further isolated Israel, can't tell the difference between success in Libya and success in Egypt, what fleeting opportunities now exist to contain Iranian activity and influence in the region, how far -- and even just how -- to support the transition to democracy, whom to partner with, or coordinate their rhetoric about priorities (a pivot to Asia?) with in this once in a century set of changes occurring in the middle east.

Our saving grace, at the moment, is that governments in the region see the effects of our strategic incoherence and are taking actions that mostly help them and us. The two crucial changes are in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both precipitated as a reaction to, not an endorsement of, our policies. Many middle easterners see Turkey as a model for their own countries' development as democratic governments in Muslim societies, a position the government of Turkey thirstily wants to retain. Turkey refused to support U.N. sanctions against Iran and gets 30 percent of its oil there, but its policies have evolved and oil refiners are now moving to comply because of Iran's recent bellicosity and continued support of Bashir al Assad's bloody crackdown in Syria.

Saudi Arabia is even turning the screws on Iran, offering to provide additional supplies of oil to countries that refuse contracts with Iran. Iran reacted with predictable threats that Saudi and others will be considered accomplices of the West. That approach used to worry the Saudis, when Iran could plausibly claim the crown of Islamism to delegitimize governments. But Iran's use of religion to justify a fraudulent election, assassination plot involving the Saudi Ambassador, and stoking of sectarian tensions has devalued that currency even more than sanctions have devalued the rial.

This is worse than leading from behind: being handed a propitious set of circumstances, we are failing to set the conditions for a middle east that will be conducive to American security. Syria's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood actually declined Iranian offers of mediation, saying Iran's support for Assad made them unacceptable as an interlocutor. Allegiances cast in stone for generations are fracturing -- what opportunities the rocking of boats in the Middle East presents! What a pity the Obama administration can't come up with a strategy to capitalize on them.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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