Friday, November 20, 2009

When it Comes to Iran, President Obama Won’t Hear “No” For an Answer

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By Barry Rubin

Question: What does Iran have to do to get across the fact that it isn’t making a deal on its nuclear program?

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton says she doesn’t consider the Iranian foreign minister’s statement that they aren’t making the deal to be “the final word.” The Obama Administration will give Tehran a few more chances—and probably a few more months—to stall in order to race ahead in their atom bomb program and to build up ways of overcoming any sanctions that are some day applied.

Indeed, the United States and five other powers are holding still another meeting to, in the words of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's spokeswoman "review the latest developments on the Iran nuclear issue." But since no one is concluding Iran is saying no, they won’t take one step toward higher sanctions.

Higher sanctions, you might remember, were supposed to come about in September 2009 under the Obama Administration's own original time table. You know when the deadline was for the multi-year European negotiations with Iran was? September 2007.

Now at the earliest sanctions probably wouldn’t come before, what, March 2010? Victory for the Iran regime.

Another great power statement says that Iran has "not responded positively" to the plan, "We are disappointed by the lack of follow-up," and "Iran has not engaged in an intensified dialogue and in particular has not accepted to have a new meeting."

I think Iran is trying to tell you something, guys. But since it isn’t in writing yet, well, they claim they can’t do anything. And of course the Iranian regime will--with U.S. government cooperation--draw this out as long as possible.

Memo to world leaders: Do you think they might be stalling for time?

Note something important here. It isn’t as if the minute they declare that Iran rejects any compromise or serious negotiations there will be stronger sanctions. Oh, no. At that point, the United States and Europeans will start meeting to figure out what sanctions to put on. Of course, they will disagree, the Russians and Chinese will water it down. The plan is also to bring in the entire EU which means, for example, that Spain or Sweden could slow down the process or force a reduction in the planned pressures on Tehran.

Now what is the president of the United States's response to all this? Hold onto your syntax:

"Iran has taken weeks now and has not shown its willingness to say yes to this proposal...and so as a consequence we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences."

Can you imagine what would have been said if President George W. Bush, that fumblemouthed clown so unlike the brilliant articulate Obama had said "the importance of having consequences"? What does that phrase mean? Translation: I refuse to threaten Iran. I am reluctant to put on sanctions. I don't want to admit that engagement has failed. Where's the teleprompter?"

Now a new voice has been added asking for Obama to take tough action. that of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, international spokesman for Iran's main opposition movement. He urged Obama to increase  public support for Iranian dissidents and stop the regime from getting nuclear weapons.

Recall that Obama's claim that a tougher stance would hurt the opposition was a major reason for him refusing to condemn the election theft, speak out forcibly against the repression, and hit the regime harder. Well, obviously that's untrue.

But even Makhmalbaf, former campaign spokesman for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, thinks the regime won't make a deal because, in his words, "If they agree not to pursue a nuclear bomb and start negotiations, they will lose their supporters. Definitely dialogue is better than war. ... But can you continue your dialogue without any results?"

Answer: Apparently yes.

Now here's where it gets really disgusting.

In 1983, 241 U.S. servicemen were killed in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in an operation backed by Iran and Syria, carried out by Hizballah and other Iranian agents. Two yars ago, a federal court ruled that Iran was indeed responsible and ordered that Tehran pay $2.65 billion in damages to families of those killed.

The Justice Department is arguing that implementing the decision "can have significant, detrimental impact on our foreign relations, as well as the reciprocal treatment of the United States and its extensive overseas property holdings."

Really? What is Iran going to do, seize the U.S. embassy and hold everyone hostage? Oh, they already did that. Support terrorist attacks against Americans in Iraq. Oh, they are doing that, too. Hold anti-American rallies and call the United States "the Great Satan?" Oh, too late.

What this Administration doesn't understand is the value of pressure, leverage, credibility, and lots of other diplomatic techniques. What it should do is: let the court decision be implemented and put on sanctions now. That would be a much better situation:

--Under more pressure the likelihood of its slowing down the program and bargaining will increase. Sure, they won't really make a deal but at least they will be more scared and cautious.

--If sanctions are increased, Iran's ability to move ahead quickly with the program and its other aggressive designs will be weakened.

--Seeing the West being tougher and the United States showing some real leadership, Arab and other states will take heart and will resist more themselves. Otherwise, they will rush--as is already happening--to appease Iran.

Otherwise, the U.S. government will just go on holding "discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences."  Unfortunately, for Iran Obama's policy has no consequences.

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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