Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Precarious Iran Policy

As American peace efforts toward Iran have meandered along, Western diplomats have been eagerly pointing to the moderate and supposedly promising statements coming from Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif. Amidst the Geneva negotiations between the Iranians and the P5+1 nations, not only has the Obama administration been backing away from using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but the president has spoken firmly about his will to stop Congress from implementing further sanctions against Iran. Yet, just as Obama’s clamor for peace with Iran is becoming most frantic, Iran is once again giving every indication that it is clamoring for war.

Writing at Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former security advisor in the Bush administration, makes the case that President Obama is essentially so allergic to the prospect of intervention in the Middle East that it may well have always been his strategy to acquiesce in the face of the Iranian bomb. Doran’s case is as disturbing as it is compelling, for as he points out, if containment rather than prevention had been Obama’s strategy from the outset then he hardly could have expressed this openly. Rather, he would have been at least compelled to publicly adopt the appearance of staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. Yet, consistently, both in the case of Iran and Syria, Obama has expressed tough words, backed up by the kind of inaction that gives every reason to doubt the sincerity with which those words were offered.

One might have thought that the Iranians would have seized the opportunity that Obama was presenting them with–to pay lip service to reciprocating his own platitudes for peace, and in return they could rest assured that America would never get serious about intervention. Iran’s previous president, Ahmadinejad, never quite caught on and a series of crippling sanctions were the result of his fierce rhetoric and his refusal to even feign cooperation. It seemed that Rouhani was different in this respect and that he had learned that mild words could easily purchase sanctions relief and enthusiastic engagement from Western governments eager to renew trade relations.

It is, then, a sign of just how unpredictable Iran can be that over the last few days Iran has abruptly resumed the rhetoric of war. On Friday, as has now been widely publicized, Iranian state television ran a documentary featuring simulated footage of an Iranian bombardment of Israel’s cities as well as an air strike on a U.S. naval carrier. This appears to have been coordinated with a series of aggressive statements made by the regime over the weekend. These included an Iranian admiral announcing that Iran has dispatched warships to the north Atlantic, while both Iran’s defense minister and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ naval commander spoke of Iran’s ability to strike American forces. And perhaps most significantly of all, the nation’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the Americans of being liars in their peace efforts with Iran. Khamenei also spoke mockingly of how he found it “amusing” that the U.S. thought Iran would reduce its military capabilities.

As Doran points out, the so called interim agreement between Iran and the West is designed in such a way so that negotiations can in fact run on indefinitely without reaching the end goal of forcing Iran to relinquish its nuclear capabilities. It is in Iran’s interest to try and keep this interim period open for as long as possible. The next round of talks are due to commence on February 18 and to run for five months. Iran may have decided that with part of the sanctions already lifted, it would be advantageous to delay the start of these negotiations by causing a minor diplomatic crisis. By pursuing a stop-start strategy on these talks, Iran can drag out the period in which it is still permitted to enrich, while sanctions have been scaled down and the threat of further sanctions are being held off, giving it time to cross the threshold of full weapons capabilities.

As the recent statements from the Iranian leaders demonstrate, the Obama administration can talk peace all it likes; the Iranians, however, may still have no interest in reciprocation. What they know full well is that by even threatening war, with a White House that is clearly intimidated by the prospect of military intervention, Tehran can keep America running scared.