Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Obama Administration's Three Gambles on Iran Which It's Sure to Lose

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By Barry Rubin

Two articles today are especially worthy of attention. The Washington Post has a piece about how Iran has been running into technical troubles in building nuclear weapons. This is the kind of thing Israeli analysts have known about for years. Since it is out in public now, please note that the idea that Iran is about to get weapons in the next few months has been often exaggerated. But we are talking about, say, two years roughly, and some more time before they could deliver them by missiles. 

More immediately, following up on its editorial, the New York Times has an article, “Obama Takes Several Gambles in Bid to Defuse Nuclear Standoff With Iran,” which is not bad as such but somewhat detached from reality. Indeed, it could have been written six months ago in many respects. It is also interesting to note how on each point the article partly misses the point. Always keep in mind that they way things are worded, defined, and argued reflects the thinking of the foreign policy elite including the government itself.

Basically, the article says that the Obama administration is taking three gambles.

First, the belief that it can get through stronger sanctions, “that are strong enough to convince Iran’s divided leadership that its nuclear ambitions are not worth the price.”

The article doesn’t mention that the administration’s own starting point—even before having to water down sanctions with concessions to get support from others!—is too weak to convince Iran’s leadership to back down. That’s pretty significant.

[Yes, the administration has just put on some new sanctions. If you are a high-ranking official of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps--which is seeking to spread terrorism and Islamist revolution and shouts "Death to America" every day--it will be harder to do business in the United States. That's going to scare them?]

The article continues: “for Mr. Obama, that effort is complicated by the fear that sanctions could crush a resilient antigovernment movement that appears on the verge of taking to the streets again.”

There are circumstances where such concerns would be valid but this isn’t one of them.

Think about it. If Iran does get nuclear weapons it will greatly strengthen the regime at home for several reasons: hysterical enthusiasm at Iran becoming a great power; a show that the regime can easily defy the world (so how can any opposition challenge such a powerful and confident state?); and international gains that will produce material benefits at home. Therefore, if sanctions are too weak it will ensure that the antigovernment movement will be crushed in the not-distant future.

Moreover, those who hate the regime already hate it. They aren’t going to change their mind because America is “bullying” the mullahs. True, in the Arabic-speaking world the idea of rallying around the dictator in the face of foreign pressure is a real possibility. But Iranian history is different. It has never had a strong coherent nationalism and this regime has not ruled on a nationalist basis (though it has used such appeals at times, as in Iran's war against Iraq).

To be frank, Iran has more of a tradition of deserting to make a deal with powerful foreigners. Nobody knew that better, incidentally, than the leader of the Islamist revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and he talked about it a lot. Before the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979, Iranians were lining up there to ask for visas and to seek support in overthrowing the regime. That’s one of the main reasons the government backed the takeover.

Clearly, Iranians don’t want the United States to invade their country or even attack it militarily (though more than you might think wouldn’t mind so much). But put pressure on that weakens the regime? That’s a different matter.

The second gamble is that he will win over China, which even the Times sees as unlikely. For some peculiar reason they don’t mention Russia which is also a problem. By the way, note that through its friends in Hizballah who are part of Lebanon’s government, Iran now has a foothold in the UN Security Council since Beirut is a member there.

The third gamble is to stop Israel from attacking. This is silly since Israel won’t attack unless Iran is on the verge of getting deliverable nuclear weapons by which time it would be clear that the Obama administration had failed. Moreover, Israel is going to give every chance for sanctions and diplomacy to succeed, both because it would prefer not to attack and to “subvert” these efforts would sabotage Israel’s support in the West, especially the United States.

It is amazing how hard it is for Western elites to understand Israeli interests and policies, perhaps because the mythology is piled higher than a February snowstorm in Washington.

So here we have a trio of straw men. Here’s the real gamble: expecting to achieve anything without strong sanctions (why doesn’t the Times ever mention Congress’s proposal of a refined oil products cut-off which would be far more effective?), building a strong international coalition against the ambitions of the Iran-led Islamist alliance, making a credible threat of toughness, and doing a lot more to support Iran’s opposition.

Here's an idea: since it is obvious that the administration policy is going to fail, why wait for a year to find that out?

There are two ways to look at it this administration strategy as a gamble: Either this is a gamble that cannot win or the Obama administration is gambling with the future of the Middle East and the survival of some very basic U.S. interests.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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