Friday, July 31, 2009

U.S. Iran Policy: Better Late Than Never But Too Little Too Late

By Barry Rubin

There are more signs that the Obama administration is switching gears on its Middle East policy. The recent visit of several U.S. officials to Israel did not bring any major friction over the construction on settlements issue which is probably far deader than people think.

There are two factors involved in bringing about this new phase:

First, it is dawning on the administration that its Middle East policy isn’t working so well. The phrase “no success in six months” is being heard. That obviously isn’t enough time to solve the world’s problems but to fail to have a single positive development anywhere in the globe--given the high expectations generated by this administration and its over-optimism--is humiliating. And as they look ahead they don’t see any successes on the horizon.

Second, the administration has to gear up for its sanctions-building plan on Iran. The leaks say that the basic timetable is clear. In August and September, the United States will try to mobilize international support (Europe, Russia, and China) for increasing sanctions. If Iran hasn’t changed course by the end of September—and it won’t—these sanctions will be put into effect.

What’s on the list? Cutting exports of gasoline and other ready-to-use petroleum products—something Congress is already passing--and no insurance for companies trading with Iran are highest on the list. There might also be boycotts of companies trading or investing with Iran.

All of this would be a step forward, but of course there are numerous problems:

--What will the Europeans support and implement? Probably less than the United States wants. While Obama has done everything possible to please the Europeans—and they have declared their love for him—getting them to act is something else.

--What will the Russians and Chinese back? Clearly, they will only go for even less impressive sanctions at best.

--How will Iran react? By ignoring the sanctions and trying to go around them. They will not find China and Russia helpful in that pursuit. As for Russia, Obama is viewed there with actual contempt.

Presumably, the administration will not get tough with those countries no matter what they do, or don’t do.

--By making the main theme of its foreign policy, “partnership” rather than unilateralism, the administration has tied its own hands so that the United States cannot get too far out ahead of its allies.

And it’s also too little too late, not because Iran is so much closer to getting the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles but because the Tehran regime has made up its mind. The time to do this was before the Iranian election, not after—as the Obama administration mistakenly chose.

Now that it’s stolen the election, crushed the opposition, and picked the most extremist leadership, the Iranian regime has decided to go for broke and regard the West as weak, helpless, and cowardly. Those in the establishment most willing to think otherwise have been pushed to the margins or out altogether.

So if the Obama administration gets phase 2 together it should be better than phase 1—an unworkable combination of getting Israel to stop settlement construction, persuading Arab states to help, producing dramatic progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace, and engaging Iran and Syria—but will also ultimately fail.

No one seems to realize—and it is better to avoid saying so in public—that Israel has won a tremendous diplomatic victory. Obama who, before running for office, was arguably hostile to Israel and who began his term as an incredibly popular new president by confidently issuing an ultimatum demanding Israel concede on the construction issue has now for all practical purposes backed down.

Of course, as always, much of the “credit” is due to a Palestinian leadership which made crystal-clear its intransigence on making peace along with Arab regimes who told the Obama administration they wouldn’t help. And of course as best-supporting actors, Iran and Syria also treated Obama with contempt and showed they weren’t at all interested in any real compromise with the United States.

Indeed, the administration itself helped sabotage its own policy. By coming out of the starting-gate so critical of Israel, the administration unintentionally signaled Arabs to sit back and enjoy a U.S.-Israel confrontation And since the new U.S. government made its desire to avoid friction with Arabs or Muslims clear, they knew there would be no cost for defying Obama.

Incidentally, the reason why U.S. policy is the critical variable in the region is not that America is so all-important in its own right, though of course it is—or should one say used to be?—such a powerful factor. The reason is that the stances of everyone else are fixed. In their basic course, Arab regimes and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians are not about to make huge changes.

And so U.S. policy is the only aspect of the region that really shifts much. Of course, this was another point which the Obama administration missed, thinking that changes of its own along with the application of energy, charm, empathy, and imaginative diplomacy would break log-jams and produce dramatic progress.

They were wrong, as anyone who knew the region well could have told them long ago if they’d been willing to listen.

One day--though it’s not going to happen this year--the administration is going to have to think about things like toughness, the use of force (not necessarily applied by itself), and defining enemies in serious terms.

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