Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obama's 2010 Policy and Iran: Misconceptions Guarantee Failure

By Barry Rubin

A friend of mine is angry, saying I’m too tough on President Barack Obama and that nothing he does pleases me. Well, I wish he’d do more that pleases me, and disconcerts America’s enemies.

True, he has done three good things lately: his Nobel speech, which sounded like it was actually given by a U.S. president; his remarks on the demonstrations in Iran (better six months late than never), and his tough verbal stance about investigating the mistakes that led to the near disaster (though I worry they’re less about dramatic change and more just a show to reassure the public that something will be done). I also pointed out that the administration’s relationship with Israel was pretty good overall.

Yet on the single most important Middle East issue, Iran’s nuclear program and its aggressive ambitions, hints about his policy are getting worrisome both because of what this administration isn’t doing and what it’s obviously thinking. The year has now ended with no major public move toward imposing serious sanctions.

True, there are a few statements you can dig out indicating a turn in that direction. Yet what should have happened was a major public speech by December 31 about the administration’s sanction plans. After all, it set that date as a deadline for action ten months ago yet let it pass with no visible action.

There are other bad signs that the administration still doesn’t comprehend the problems it faces. The likely sending of Senator John Kerry to Tehran is a terrible idea. It signals to the Tehran regime U.S. desperation to make a deal and chooses a highly unqualified envoy with too big an incentive to get some hint of agreement at any price. (Meanwhile, further weakening the Western hand, an 11-member EU parliamentary delegation is visiting Tehran and will make clear how eager the Europeans are to make concessions in exchange for Iran offering some kind of deal.)

Of even more concern is the strategy revealed by officials in interviews with the Washington Post: that the sanctions are focused “against discrete elements of the Iranian government, including those involved in the deadly crackdown on Iranian protesters….” In other words, they’ll put sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its front companies.

"We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy," a senior U.S. official told the Washington Post, adding, "We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation--whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame."

In other words, Obama Administration sanctions on Iran (if they ever arrive) will have three functions. First, as a public relations’ campaign “to avoid alienating the Iranian public” while striking at their rulers. Second, to “force the Tehran government to the negotiating table, rather than to punish it” for being an oppressive dictatorship or for seeking nuclear weapons. Third, it will supposedly bring the most fanatical group of rulers to their knees by attacking their pocketbooks.

It would be hard to devise a worse strategy, other than doing nothing at all. The U.S. government thus signals the Iranian regime in advance that it won’t go too far because it wants to avoid making the regime too angry to negotiate. In addition, the strategy encourages Iran’s rulers to manipulate American eagerness for talks in order to stall for time. Then, too, it makes clear that there won’t be a serious effort to undermine the country’s economy. So why should Iranians pressure the regime to change course due to sanctions since it isn’t costing them anything?

Finally, the strategy “hits” the current rulers in their least vulnerable spot. Once again we see the West’s absolutely classical mistake in dealing with revolutionary Islamism: the belief it is responsive to materialist punishments. What are the Revolutionary Guard and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme guide going to say: Oh, my! The Americans are reducing my income! Unless I give up nuclear weapons I won’t be able to buy that new country house, that sports car I’ve been eyeing and the Paris original evening gown for my wife!

Sigh. No matter what sanctions the United States focuses on the Iranian elite that group will still have enough money from within the country to buy whatever it wants.

But there’s more. Ordinary people may not understand the uses of sanctions yet leaders of great nations should. Of course, the ideal is to use sanctions to force the target to change its policies. Just because sanctions don’t succeed in doing that, however, doesn’t mean they failed because there are other goals involved:

--Sanctions seek to weaken the target so that it might be more easily defeated or fall in future.

--Another purpose is to deny the enemy resources, making it less able to carry out its programs.

--Still another is to show one’s own allies a high degree of resolution in containing and countering a threat, thus encouraging their own defiance of the mutual foe.

--Sanctions seek to isolate and discredit the target, denying it allies and the help of others.

For example, sanctions against South Africa and the USSR failed to force directly any major policy shift yet by succeeding in the other categories they eventually contributed to the regime’s downfall

The administration is ignoring all these functions to focus merely on one—which will inevitably not work—of getting the Tehran regime to make a deal. But we know they won’t back down, which is precisely why the regime should be weakened and made to face a tougher challenge to succeed in getting nuclear weapons at a relatively low cost.

Then there’s the idea that sanctions will rally Iranians to believe that America is on their side because they won’t affect the lives of the masses.

Can the United States really determine what the Iranian people are going to think by such methods? If they support or believe the regime they will hate America no matter what it does. If they oppose the regime, they will blame it for Iran’s troubles any way and want a tougher policy against it, though they still might be anti-American despite these calibration efforts. Like the bumper sticker says: Never apologize. Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it any way.

In fact, the administration’s sanctions strategy could have the opposite effect. By being afraid of even non-violent confrontations, Washington would be showing Iranians the power of the regime, its ability to defy the United States which is either afraid or unable to fight back effectively. This could make more Iranians support the government.

Equally disconcerting is that the U.S. government continues to believe that much of the regime wants a deal in which it will give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, it’s just too divided and busy dealing with internal conflict to make a decision.

Whatever back-channel intelligence has been handed out—remember the 1996 scandal when the Iranian regime fooled the Reagan administration into thinking it was divided in order to get American missiles to use in the Iran-Iraq war?--this Iranian regime is not split between moderates and radicals. How has the United States scared regime elements to the point they want to make a big concession? Does any Iranian politician still in power believe he can give up on the nuclear campaign and still stay in office given the views of that country’s supreme guide and president?

Two other fantasies on the administration’s part add to the mess. One is the idea that the engagement effort has somehow undermined the regime because it is so attractive to some leaders and the masses. An official told the Post that the effort to engage "has had an unsettling effect on people in the regime. It has made it more difficult to demonize the United States and say it has been the root of all evil." This is a fantasy.

In addition, the administration is still pretending that its strategy of engagement has won over Russia and China for tougher sanctions, despite the constant statements from these two countries that they aren’t interested.

One “clever” technique was Obama telling the Chinese that they should support tough sanctions since if Iran did get nuclear weapons Israel would then attack and China’s own energy supply would be jeopardized. The Chinese opposition to sanctions runs deep: fear of antagonizing Iran, of jeopardizing their energy supplies right now, and of setting a precedent that might someday be used against itself.

When the U.S. government so clearly misunderstands the situation and how countries interact with it, the odds of Washington’s policy being effective are zero. If you want a guarantee that there will be lots of violence and defeats for U.S. interests, follow the Obama Administration’s strategy.

Here’s what needs to be done: show the revolutionaries that the West is courageous, that they cannot win, isolated them and deny them of every possible asset. The United States should not attack Iran, except with words, aid to its own allies and the opposition, and sanctions that weaken the regime. If you want an alternative to war this is the one to pursue.

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