Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Hossein Askari seems to think Barack Obama has plenry of time to engage Iran’s mullahs: “He’d be better off first taking a long, deep breath and allowing Iran’s economic crisis to take its toll on the mullahs before getting down to serious business,” he writes.
While Obama’s intention and commitment to talk with Iran is a symbol of his promise for “change,” a growing faction of experts who (in principle) support his engagement policy advise caution. Askari’s logic is based on economic realities. He writes that sanctions are “squeezing” Tehran – with possible “catastrophic” outcomes for the regime. But his thinking is also based on a very suspect prediction:
If Obama takes stock of these developments, he’ll realize there is no need to rush to engage Iran. Iran is no superpower, after all. Its GDP is less than 2% of that of the U.S. Its military is puny; Iran fought Saddam Hussein for eight years and could not advance even 100 miles into Iraq, so it hardly represents a military threat to the United States or Israel. The large U.S. military presence in the region can easily keep Iran in check. Even if Iran is striving to develop nuclear weapons, it is at least three years away. All Iran can do is fan the flames against U.S. interests through surrogates such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
If you believe that Iran is “at least” three years from developing a nuclear weapon, Askari’s plan seems reasonable. “A rush to negotiation would only embolden the Mullahs,” he writes, and therefore suggests Obama “back-burner serious negotiations with Iran for a while.” But gambling on this timetable may be far too risky. What the mullahs want, above all else, is time to develop weapons. How the U.S. reacts to this growing “wait before you talk” sentiment will depend in large degree on assessments Obama gets from his intelligence chiefs. And not only do they have their own agenda to take into account, but they often seem to be playing the same guessing game as Askari.