Commentary Magazine


Obama on Iran: Is it Too Late for a Paper Tiger to Show He Has a Spine?

The Obama administration’s announcement that it will demand the International Atomic Energy Agency reveal classified information proving Iran is working on nuclear military weapons technology is meant to ramp up the pressure on Tehran in the wake of their failed assassination plot in the United States. But while such an action would be helpful in the struggle to restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions, it’s hard to argue such a belated measure would do much to either scare the ayatollahs or motivate America’s allies to take action to isolate them. Having spent his first three years in office doing everything to convince the Iranians that Obama’s America was a paper tiger, it would be hard to blame them for thinking they don’t have much to worry about.

The problem is not that the ideas being mooted by senior administration officials speaking off the record to newspapers like the New York Times about what they’d like to do are ill-conceived. The trouble is, they are nearly three years late.

Despite provocations that might have brought military retaliation from an administration less worried about offending Muslim sensibilities, the scariest thing contemplated by the administration appears to be a plan to ban financial transactions with Iran’s central bank as well as on the sale of oil produced by companies controlled by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards. Though such measures could be the start of a much-needed full-scale effort to cripple the Iranian economy, given the lack of enthusiasm for the plan on the part of America’s allies, let alone countries like Russia and China, the ayatollahs may be feeling confident about their ability to go on defying Washington.

The United States is paying the price for Obama’s hubris when he took office. The president arrived in Washington determined not only to reverse every conceivable policy put in place by the Bush administration but to ignore even those actions which dovetailed with his own ideas. Under Obama’s predecessor, diplomacy to Iran had been farmed out to Germany and France, who did their best to appease the ayatollahs. Obama, however, apparently thinking his own magic personality would convince Iran to give up their nukes, acted as if those years of attempts at engagement never happened. He then proceeded to waste three more years on similarly futile attempts.

The Iranians are wagering that neither Germany, nor Russia or China will suddenly reverse years of refusals to back serious sanctions just because Obama is mad about Iranian terrorism. A shutoff of oil imports from Iran could have a deleterious effect on the already tottering economies of the West at a time when many believe we are on the eve of another recession. And given the fact that Obama’s own re-election depends more on the state of the economy than his stance on Iran, Tehran may be calculating that the latest threats from Washington lack credibility.

It is too late to do anything about events that have created the image of Obama’s America as a paper tiger. But the situation is not irreparable. Were the administration to begin enforcing the existing sanctions on Iran and acting as if they really did think the ayatollahs had committed an act of war, there is a chance Europe would have to follow the president’s lead. An American effort, even if largely unilateral, to restrict not only Iran’s exports but to place limitations on the ability of even our allies to trade with it would not be popular in Europe but it might turn heads in Tehran.

Doing so requires the president to discard his almost religious belief in the United Nations and multilateralism. If he doesn’t, it will leave the West with the choice of using force or living with a nuclear Iran.