Commentary Magazine


McCain Is Losing the Iran Debate

Two thoughts on the Obama-Iran-appeasement controversy:

1. It seems to me that it’s a victory for Obama. The Iran debate is being defined as one of diplomatic engagement versus diplomatic isolation, with Obama presenting himself as the bearer of a new strategy while McCain is portrayed as obdurately insisting on the approach of the Bush administration. This, of course, creates an unsavory political problem for McCain, in which he is said to represent a third Bush term. But it also allows the recent history of Iran diplomacy to become completely fictionalized.

Over the past six years, we have seen almost exactly an Obama approach to Iran, save for Obama’s promised “presidential diplomacy” (which sounds more like a graduate school course than a national security strategy, but I digress). From 2002 to 2006, the EU-3 (Germany, France, the UK) and the IAEA attempted to dissuade the Iranians from their nuclear program through high-level diplomacy, and when that saga of fruitlessness was finally handed over to the UN Security Council, Russia and China saw to it that the only sanctions passed would illustrate nothing more than the ambivalence and impotence of the international community.

So it seems to me that McCain should be making a bigger deal over the fact that the western world has indeed been deeply involved in attempting to deal with the Iranian nuclear program through almost exactly the kind of diplomacy that Obama says has yet to be tried. McCain should emphasize the fact that the Iranians have not only been unmoved by this “diplomatic offensive,” but have used the negotiations in order to buy time for nuclear development.

2. Why is McCain allowing himself to be dragged into a debate about presidential-level diplomacy, when the more important question — and the question whose answer is more politically favorable to McCain — is whether diplomatic engagement will actually get anything accomplished? McCain should be asking Obama what concessions he realistically thinks he’s going to get from the Iranians upon going hat in hand to Tehran. UN Security Council sanctions have done virtually nothing to impede Iran, nor have EU diplomacy or IAEA reports. Russia and China continue to stand as the major impediments to the kind of UN sanctions that might so cripple Iran that it would give up its nuclear development. The hard question for Obama, who says he wishes to pursue “tough diplomacy,” is how he proposes to get these two stalwarts on board. The question of whether the President should go calling on Assad and Ahmadinejad is an important one, and it says a lot about a person’s understanding of foreign policy and the Middle East. But ultimately it is a diversion that does no favors for McCain.