Shadow Government

Obama and Rouhani: Strategy, Capability, and Resolve in Nuclear Negotiations

After I served on the Reagan-Bush National Security Council staff in the 1980s, my former colleagues cooked up an approach of reaching out to the Islamic Republic of Iran. As we know from the transfer of U.S. arms to Iran in exchange for Americans held hostage by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, extending a hand to Iran failed. Capitulation was the outcome of that scheme, as more hostages were seized following receipt of American arms by Iran.

Harking back to the era when President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reached out to China to balance the Soviet Union, my former associates envisioned that extending a hand to Tehran would create an American-Iranian condominium that would bring security and peace to the Middle East. But in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic had not made a decision to be a normal nation rather than a revolutionary cause.

Two decades after this failure, political-realist President Barack Obama uses nuclear talks between the major powers and Iran to test whether it is ready to come in from the cold. With an adroit use of mostly congressionally-imposed financial and trade sanctions, Obama hoped it would be possible to turn Iran away from its revolutionary zeal and into a nation engaged economically with the West that fits within the U.S. security framework for the Middle East. If Rouhani were a realist, he might calculate as Obama would and conclude that preserving the Revolution is not as worthwhile as a prosperous economy.


When the President Obama authorized secret talks with President Rouhani's agents to create the basis for the November 2013 and January 2014 preliminary accords with Tehran, Obama thought he was dealing with a like-minded realist who wanted to turn Iran into more of a republic and less of an Islamist cause. By using terrorism as a strategy to destabilize the region as he negotiates an exchange of sanctions relief for a cap on Iran's "right to enrich" on its own soil, however, Rouhani shows his true colors. Like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Rouhani is a radical who uses deception against a realist like Obama. And Rouhani plays to his weakness relative to so-called hardliners, which gives him one up on Obama in the talks.  


Nuclear talks with Iran give a great deal of attention to capability while the major powers pay too little attention to the nature of the Iranian regime, its deceptive practice of cheating and only retreating when caught, and use of nuclear talks to achieve strategic goals regarding the Sunni Arab Gulf States and Israel.

Regarding capability, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) compared Iran's breakout time in August 2013 with the time if Iran complied fully with the January 2014 interim accord and allowed stringent inspections. In August, ISIS assessed Tehran might reach breakout status at about 1.0-1.6 months, as opposed to 1.9-2.2 months after the January agreement.

A team led by ambassadors Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross, stated that, "the JPA [Joint Plan of Action] has set back Iran's breakout timing by nearly one month." James Jeffrey and David Pollock, of The Washington Institute, expand the definition to include exploiting the threat of a breakout for regional coercion. Doing so would require limitations on Tehran, they claimed, including "extensive verification, monitoring, and intelligence capabilities, inside and outside the agreement ... and a credible response if breakout occurs." Because verification is crucial for deterring an Iranian breakout, there is a premium on a variety of intelligence sources and methods, e.g., satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, and human sources.


No matter what sources are used by the intelligence community, resolve is necessary to carry out a credible response if breakout occurs. Unless President Obama establishes his willingness to use force beyond pinprick drone attacks, Rouhani comes out ahead because of his use of terrorism without facing any costs from Obama. To avoid complete capitulation, Obama also might toughen his approach in the talks: Adopting "zero enrichment" for Iran would be a good first step.


Shadow Government

China and The Age of Contempt

Just four days after the conclusion of President Barack Obama's trip to reassure the United States' Asian allies of its commitments to defend them, China challenged U.S. credibility and staying power in Asia. Obama's week of tough-minded statements during his swing through the region -- including his announcement that the U.S.-Philippines alliance is "ironclad" -- apparently left Beijing, the unstated target of the trip, unmoved.

Escalating the already tense situation in the South China Sea, China sent an oil rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam, and followed this provocative move by dispatching 80 vessels, including naval and coast guard ships, to defend the rig.

Though China has been increasingly aggressive in the South and East China Seas over the last three years, the dispatch of an oil rig indicates a troubling change in Chinese behavior. First, the nature of the act marks a notable shift: An oil rig is a more permanent signal of China's intent to explore for oil in contested waters and therefore a brazen attempt to unilaterally define maritime territory. Second -- and more ominously -- given that the move was made right after the president's trip,  there is every reason to believe that China is treating the United States not with anger or fear but with contempt.

The United States' allies in Asia needed reassurance from Washington that, despite missteps in Syria and Ukraine, it was serious about defending the political and economic order in Asia. But reassuring allies also means demonstrating U.S. intent and capability to stand up to China's revanchism.

Unfortunately for the United States, the Chinese pay close attention to world events and make careful assessments about U.S. credibility based on its global actions. And Beijing has assessed that American credibility is in tatters. After the Obama "red line" debacle, Syria has made a mockery of the United States as Assad escalates his use of horrific weapons against his own people. Russia, meanwhile, has successfully taken the first step in reversing nearly a century's work of creating a Europe "whole and free."

Can anyone argue with a straight face that U.S. action -- or inaction -- in one region does not affect how the United States is perceived in another? To believe that is to believe that geopolitics can somehow be siloed, or that the United States can harm its credibility in one place while preserving it elsewhere.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which respects power above all, has determined that Washington will not use U.S. power to check Beijing. So China no longer fears or respects the United States. It never had any love for the United States, and now contempt and disdain are all that remain. Any relationship marked by contempt is difficult to salvage.

There is little reason to believe that Obama will regain the respect of the CCP. Where, for example, is the counter-coercive toolkit the Pentagon revealed during the president's Asia trip? Are statements labeling the Chinese move as "provocative" supposed to alter Chinese behavior? A serious response would include moves to lift the ban on arms sales to Hanoi and to negotiate naval base access for U.S. warships. Nothing of the kind seems to be in the works. Washington needs to act to re-establish a modicum of fear and respect in Beijing.

Obama administration officials complain that Putin and his ilk -- and implicitly Chinese President Xi Jinping -- are trying to drag the international system back into an early 20th century world. Leave aside the rather arrogant and ahistorical idea that power politics would be abandoned in the 21st century on America's say-so. If we need a new label for this era, let's call it the "Age of Contempt." Presidential words and speeches are met with collective eye-rolling, new U.S. policy initiatives are not carried out, and in the absence of a U.S. security blanket, chaos reigns as aggrieved citizens turn to violent acts against innocents (in this case, Vietnamese are attacking Chinese nationals). Meanwhile, the revisionists change the liberal international order that has served so many so well.