Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obama and Iran: Beat Demonstrators, Build Bombs, But We’re Eager to Negotiate with You

By Barry Rubin

Put these two stories together.

The first is from the Times of London:

``More than 2,000 Iranians have been arrested and hundreds more have disappeared since the regime decided to crush dissent after the disputed presidential election, a leading human rights organisation said yesterday.

“`A climate of terror and of fear reigns in Iran today,'” the International Federation for Human Rights , an umbrella body for 155 human rights organizations, said as it released the startling figures.’’

And the second is from the Post of Washington:

``The Obama administration is open to discussions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions despite protests questioning the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, U.S. officials said Sunday….

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the legitimacy of the government, while questioned by the people of Iran, is not the critical issue for the U.S. goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear capability…."It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," she said.

Both Rice and David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said Ahmadinejad doesn't appear to have the final say over Iran's foreign policy.

Now, on the surface—but not really--Rice is right on the first point, but both Rice and Axelrod are wrong on the second.

Let’s review:

First, by announcing that the door is open for negotiations with Iran despite the repression at this moment, Rice says the United States is not doing the Tehran regime a favor. But of course it is doing the regime a favor. How? Well clever diplomatists are supposed to understand this. The signal being sent is this one:

Don’t worry. No matter how much you repress your people, now matter how many you murder, no matter how extreme you get, the door is still open. We are not, and will not, define you as an enemy.

Indeed, since we can't negotiate with you until you solve your internal unrest, hurry up and destroy the opposition demonstrations so you can take advantage of our offer. This is not the administration's intent, of course, but in effect that's what it is offering, an incentive for restoring "order" faster.

That policy is an extremely valuable asset for the Iranian government. The bridge to America is made of asbestos, it cannot burn (though it might be toxic). Not for one second does the regime need to fear that what it’s doing will limit its options internationally.

Here's how the real world works. If the Iranian regime believes that there will be diplomatic and economic costs if, for example,  it kills 500 people, the rulers may be less inclined to do so. But if the leaders know that the extent of repression will have no effect on their trade income, sanctions, or ability to stall of the West until their nuclear weapons are ready, they have no such restraint.

Regarding the U.S. national interest, of course, Washington wants to use all the elements at its disposal. The problem here is that the Obama position ignores the fact that the United States and Europe have been already doing this with Iran for a half-dozen years. By ignoring that history it can ignore the lesson of that experience: it doesn’t work.

In practice, also, Rice’s approach means that the United States will continue using such means—weak and without teeth—until the very moment that Iran gets nuclear weapons. The clock is ticking but the Obama administration hasn’t even started its stop-watch yet.

Finally, the Rice-Axelrod position is childish. If Iranian politics have shown anything in the last nune
months it's that supreme guide Ali Khamenei and supreme loudmouth president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are united on their policy and world view. By refusing to recognize this, even today, people like Rice and Axelrod show themselves to be unqualified to pronounce on such issues.

Obamapologists at this point get a smug expression on their face and ask, “Well, what would you have the president do on Iran?” Simple, and the answer is not, of course, any direct intervention. Arguing that the administration isn't endorsing the opposition for its own good is a red herring. What's required is not that but rather a strategic policy toward Iran that includes two elements:

1. Denounce the regime every day as an enemy of liberty, of its own people and of Western democracies. Point out that it has refused to negotiate in good faith on its nuclear weapons’ drive and continues to be the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism. The last point is in the State Department report on terrorism.

2. Announce that since the regime has shown its true nature, the United States will work with its allies to increase sanctions against Iran, that it is necessary to go into Phase Two of the effort to block Iran’s nuclear weapons.

The key points about the current situation are these:

--The Iranian regime is weakened, at least temporarily.

--It is also more extreme, having jettisoned the less hardline elements and united around the Ahmadinejad policy of screw the world, we’re taking over, what are you punks going to do about it?

--Every day, the regime isn’t just beating up demonstrators; it’s also setting up more centrifuges for building nuclear bombs, training terrorists to attack targets in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, too.

And what’s the Obama administration’s response? We are prepared to wait until hell freezes over for you to negotiate with us! But until then we aren’t going to do anything.

Then administration officials smile broadly, shake hands, and gloat: Now we really have the Iranians where we want them!

Something is very wrong here.

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