Sunday, December 13, 2009

Clinton Speaks About Iran: Shows How Slowly U.S. Policy is Changing Gears from Engagement to Sanctions

By Barry Rubin

In a December 10 al-Jazira interview, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explains U.S. policy toward Iran, showing the administration has still not really started turning from engaging Iran to slapping on high sanctions.

A lot of what she said revealed the administration’s almost pathological desire to avoid conflict:

“What we have tried to do is engage in diplomacy in a very vigorous way in order to reassure the international community, including all states, that Iran’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the kind of response we were hoping for from the Iranians.”

This is a rather shocking formulation and though I know it isn’t as bad as it sounds, after all Clinton is the one choosing her words. She basically is saying: We want to show the world that Iran has a peaceful intent so Tehran should help us do so.

It is a bit late in the game to take Tehran’s claim that it is only seeking the peaceful use of nuclear energy at face value. Of course, this isn’t what Clinton really thinks. She's just being too clever by half, hinting that if Iran wants to prove it isn’t seeking nuclear weapons it must agree to some kind of deal. She's giving Tehran a face-saving way out.

But really isn’t this coyness out of date? Al-Jazira’s audience, millions of Arabs, is likely to interpret this as meaning the United States isn’t insisting there’s a big threat or doesn’t have proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. They are more likely to ask what’s all the fuss about, making it seem that Iran is being framed by extremist Muslim-haters and is actually not building weapons of mass destruction? This is a dangerous miscalculation.

But Clinton goes further to make Iran seem sort of innocent:

“President Obama made it absolutely clear [despite] lots of political opposition that if he reached out his hand and if Iran reciprocated, we could talk about anything and everything. Then came the [Iranian] election, then came the crackdown on peaceful dissent, then came demonstrations, and the turmoil inside Iran is continuing until today.”

The implication here is that if not for all this disruption, Iran might have agreed. Now obviously if the United States is in the mode of persuading the Iranian regime to make a deal it can put the emphasis on not offending Tehran. But it isn’t March or April any more but mid-December 2009. Isn’t it time to lay the basis for getting tough and applying sanctions? If Clinton hasn’t switched gears yet when will she do so?

When it comes to covering for the Iranian regime, Clinton goes even further. After explaining that the United States supports the proposal for Iran shipping out enriched uranium to be turned into something relatively harmless she adds:

“They had first agreed in principle, and then I think because of internal disputes, they backed off from that, raising a lot of questions about what their true intentions are.”

This makes it sound like they came really close but then got sidetracked by internal bickering. Perhaps, an observer might think, they'll change their mind after a few more internal debates. This also gives credence to Iran’s latest efforts to confuse the situation and stall for time by pretending they might agree to a deal.

It’s not that Clinton doesn’t point to some of the evidence to the contrary:

“Obviously, the secret facility at Qom was revealed. They now say they want 10 or 20 new nuclear power plants. It’s not confidence building, let us say. And I think the international community really still wants to engage with Iran, but people are going to now turn to other routes like more pressure, like sanctions to try to change their mind and their behavior.”

Here we get a bit more of a sense of the heat being turned up on Iran but it is pretty limited. True, at one point the line might change and everything will become talk of the decision to get tough and how sanctions are on the way. But shouldn’t the ground work be laid for that now? As always, the administration thinks it must be all-conciliatory rather than mix talk of engagement with some more credible threats and tougher language.

The problem here is not that Clinton doesn't understand the situation but that the tactics used in explaining U.S. policy are counterproductive, giving Iran too much slack and intensifying credulity toward the Tehran regime's stalling tricks.

Here’s another point made by Clinton, which sounds like the Obama Administration’s motto:

“We want to work with others. There’s not a problem in the world that the United States can solve alone, but I would quickly add there is not a problem in the world that can be solved without the United States. So we want to create coalitions. We want to find common ground with people. There are many things we could go off and do unilaterally, as the prior administration certainly demonstrated. That’s not our chosen path. We would prefer to take some more time, to be more patient, to bring people together to make the case.”

There’s a key element missing here: the concept of leadership. Here’s an example involving another Bush. Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990. The Bush administration vacillated a bit but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, bless her, helped get it on course. The U.S. government then proclaimed that it was going to get Saddam Hussein out of Iraq one way or another; organized a coalition by inviting others to join; directed and led it; and won the war.

That was not unilateralism but a coalition created by saying: Here's what we're doing, follow us! But it was a coalition created by leadership and direction, not waiting until everyone agrees. Many other examples can be offered. Clinton brags:

“For example, at the Board of Governors at the IAEA, the vote...condemning Iran, calling for Iran to act, was shocking to some people because it was so unified. It wasn’t just the United States. It was Russia, it was China and many other countries. That’s because we have spent time listening and working hard to create this common ground and these common interests, and we’ve done it out of a sense of mutual respect. We respect and admire so many other cultures and societies….But we do feel like at a certain point, the international community must speak with one voice, and we think that time has come with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The last sentence might hint that the Administration’s policy is shifting. But this is a bit misleading perhaps. After all, if the international community speaks with one voice, doesn't that voice have to reflect a Russian or Chinese accent?

What happens if the United States has to change its voice to be one of the crowd in order to show respect for other cultures and societies? After all, if the community disagrees, the United States might have to do something—shudder!—unilateral. Thus, this approach doesn’t solve the problem but only begs the question.

If Russia and China don’t agree--and we're not talking here about respect or Russian culture. We're not taling about Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky, we're talking about Vladimir Putin and pure greed--does this hold the United States and everyone else hostage? Suppose Spain and Sweden keep the EU from taking a united stance to support strong sanctions, must the United States “respect and admire” that position and accept this watering down of any action?

To be fair, the EU did issue a statement saying that Iran should be punished for its actions on December 11. So the administration can claim its patience, listening, and dialoguing has succeeded. But the statement is vague and does not reflect whether many of these countries are really willing to support anything serious.
If the United States is not a leader, then it is a follower which means, in practice, accepting the lowest common denominator, what the most unwilling ally will agree to.

This interview will not build support for U.S. policy among al-Jazira’s audience which the Obama Administraiton's style, tries to pander to and flatter. This is a part of the world—like Russia and China, too, by the way—which still believes in realpolitik.

And what of the Gulf and other Arab leaders who are scared of Iran and waiting to see if the United States will protect them? This is simply not the way they talk. An Arab leader or intellectual is likely to interpret Clinton as being afraid of Iran and unwilling to take action.

One can understand that Clinton and colleagues don’t want to sound like a George Bush, but why do they always try to act like a weak reed?

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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