Saturday, September 26, 2009

Barack Obama, Iran, and the “Or Else” Factor

By Barry Rubin

At the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama and several European leaders threatened Iran that it had just better stop developing nuclear weapons right away or else they would act decisively. Let’s call this the “Or Else” factor.

The Western countries revealed that they knew all about a secret Iranian enrichment facility which showed how thoroughly that regime had hitherto lied and concealed its nuclear weapons’ project. Yet there is something very curious in this: Why didn’t President Barack Obama mention this facility during his UN speech?

A different way to express the same thought is the contradiction between the U.S. delegation walking out on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN, declaring him an extremist and antisemite, at the same time as Obama is stating his eagerness to negotiate with Iran in a "serious, meaningful" dialogue and to make a deal with that very same man's regime.

Presumably, in both cases, Obama wanted to keep the U.S. response limited and to avoid triggering a real crisis. By behaving this way he also forfeited a remarkable opportunity to build a large support base for doing something about the problem. Sure, he is moving forward, but doing so very slowly and—after eight months in office—without material effect.

Who believes that he is really willing to confront Iran (or anyone else who threatens U.S. interests) in future? The date on the calendar will change but this administration's underlying philosophy is more likely to remain the same.

Given Obama’s strange (in terms of all previous U.S. history) approach to international relations, the Or Else factor becomes paramount and the usual roles are reversed. Iran is openly defiant, acting as if it is the more powerful side before which the West must cower. The more extreme the regime’s behavior, the more it demonstrates—especially to Iran’s primary audience of Arabs and Muslims—who’s strong, who’s courageous, and who’s winning.

The Or Else factor is a major part of personal, social, and political life. “Clean up your room or else!” Or else a spanking? No allowance? No TV or computer? You’re grounded? The threat must be credible and it is helpful to have seen it put into action once or twice.

“Don’t cheat on your taxes or else!” Or else what? You have a good chance of being investigated, caught, sent to jail? But the people in question have to believe there is a real chance this might happen, a risk that outweighs the benefits they get from the money they save by cheating.

“Sponsor terrorism, attack your neighbor, and ignore our interests and our gunboats will overthrow you or our covert agents will undercut your government. Well, that’s sure out of fashion. In fact, Iranian and Syrian officials help kill American soldiers in Iraq, the U.S. government knows about it, and nowadays does nothing in response.

Or else is based on the idea that we are much stronger than you, that we will take risks, take and give casualties, spend money, and succeed in taking away your power. Or wealth.

But when countries renounce the legitimacy of their power—all states have an equal right to nuclear weapons; we are no better than you are—and lose self-confidence in their power and demonstrably so, they thumb their nose at you or give you the finger.

That is what Khomeini did: they are bluffing (see my Iran book) and Ahmadinejad is in this tradition. America can’t do a damn thing

This is where credibility comes in. but if you destroy your own credibility by apologizing for past actions (and we’ll never be aggressive and arrogant again), pledging not to do more than timid allies permit, expressing sympathy for the other side (in Middle East politics, kindness is considered weakness and empathy a sign of cowardice), and showing a notable reluctance about the use of force.

There is a saying that a real collision occurs when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. In Obama versus the Islamist regime, it is a case of the reluctant force meeting the immovable object.

And look at the international community’s recent record:

Hamas fires missiles at Israel, Israel retaliates, world condemns Israel.

Hizballah fires missiles at Israel, Israel retaliates, world (through the UN) promises to restrain Hizballah, Hizballah threatens UN forces, world backs down.

Russia seizes parts of Georgia and the West does nothing, with most comments blaming Georgia for not surrendering fast enough.

Yet even if Obama was far more effective (that is, scary for America’s enemies rather than its friends), the Iranian regime would behave this way. After all, it was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was convinced he had the deity on his side.

Khomeini, who seized power in 1979 and died in 1989, was explicit in exhorting Iranians to defy America and the West. He assured them that if they did so, the Great Satan would back down. On one occasion he expressed this by saying, “American can’t do a damn thing,” to hurt Iran. The hostage crisis, and President Jimmy Carter’s restraint, seemed to prove him right.

True, in 1988, fearful that the United States might attack Iran to protect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs in the Iran-Ira war, Khomeini backed down and ended the conflict. Anything short of such a credible threat probably won’t work.

Iran’s current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad styles himself as Khomeini’s disciple. He believes—and he’s shown it—that if he is very aggressive the West won’t take him on. So far, he’s been proven right. That success was a central element in the decision of Iran’s spiritual guide, Ali Khameinei, to back him for another term in office.

To foreign observers, the stolen election and demonstrations make the regime look weak; to Iran’s rulers, having successfully stolen the election and put down the demonstrations makes them feel strong.

Obama is treating Iran as if it is a generic country: offer talks and benefits or sanctions and punishment. But Iran’s Islamist regime is not just another country but rather an ambitious, ideologically guided regime that thinks it is winning and its enemies won’t confront it. That regime is not going to respond to Obama’s treatment, especially lacking the Or Else factor’s credibility.

On behalf of Obama, Britain, and some other states, French President Sarkozy gives a rather low-level "or else" threat: “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.”

If and when this happens, Iran will first examine the level of new sanctions—if any—and find them not so frightening. It will look for ways to get around them, probably with Chinese and Russian help. It will then say: Bring it on! Do your worst! Make my day! Punk, do you feel lucky?

And then, what’s the United States going to do? Go to the UN, where action will be delayed—both by Obama’s caution and the constraints of a divided Security Council--and any tough response whittled down further?

Thus, unless Israel attacks, a year or two or three will go by with Iran surviving the sanctions. And the day will come when the regime has nuclear weapons. This is Ahmadinejad’s game plan and it seems a reasonable one from his standpoint.

Obama is trying above all to prove that he isn’t the Big Bad Wolf of international relations—he doesn’t just apologize for but greatly exaggerates the errors of past American diplomacy—and daily expresses his determination not to threaten to, “Huff and puff and blow your house down.” Whether their regime is made of straw, mud, or bricks, the Iranian dictators can thumb their nose at him, give him the finger, and not tremble the least bit.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," said the British political philosopher Edmund Burke. He might just as well have said: …do far too little, far too late.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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