Monday, February 1, 2010

How Can the U.S. Stop Iran's Nuclear Program if it Doesn't Want to Scare or Hurt the Tehran Regime?

By Barry Rubin

With virtually simultaneous editorials in both the New York Times and Washington Post, it's clear that the foreign policy establishment is becoming aware that something is wrong with the administration’s Iran policy.

The Times weighed in on January 29 with, “Iran, After the Deadline,” remembering that four years ago the UN started demanding that Iran stop enriching uranium and that President Barack Obama promised to do something about sanctions by the end of December. Since, “Tehran has shown no interest in resolving the dispute over its nuclear program. It is time for President Obama and other leaders to ratchet up the pressure with tougher sanctions.”

With the pomposity only it can muster, “We were glad to see Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly warn China, which seems especially intractable, that it faces diplomatic isolation if it fails to back new sanctions.”

This kind of writing shows the true isolation from reality of the establishment. Let me see now, aside from everything else, China has a huge hold on the U.S. debt. America’s economy is also dependent on imports from China. So is the United States really going to do anything to pressure Beijing? Of course not.

So the Times shouldn’t be sucking up to the secretary of state but should simply be pointing out how unlikely it is that China, or Russia for that matter, will change course. Given that fact, it should then discuss what the United States might do in that situation. Perhaps they will get around to dealing with that in a year or so.

The Times’ next point is also fascinating in its lack of logic. It praises the administration’s initiative in engaging Iran for proposing a deal by which uranium would have been processed abroad into being harmless. It then adds: “That wouldn’t have solved the problem, but it would have bought more time for negotiations.”

Yes, and for Iran using the time to develop nuclear weapons, too. Again, there is no serious analysis. The question is whether the Times believes this time might have produced an agreement or not. To do so would require considering the nature of the Iranian regime, its leadership and goals.

Then the Times, despite a show of independence, then endorses the administration’s foolish sanctions policy, with words that sound like they were written in the White House, indeed follow the administration’s talking points:

“New United Nations sanctions must be deftly targeted to inflict maximum damage on the levers of repression — especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which also runs the nuclear program — without imposing additional suffering on the Iranians. That circle must somehow be squared. And the door must remain open to negotiations.”

This is sheer nonsense. Sanctions that don’t damage Iran’s economy will have no effect. Focused sanctions on a group that operates within Iran won’t even hurt the elite. The administration’s sanctions policy is a joke, appearing to do something while really doing nothing.

While they do advocate U.S.-Europe joint action if the UN doesn’t act—a good thing—it opposes the idea already passed by Congress to stop gasoline exports to Iran, saying, “That may be necessary at some point, but right now we are concerned that this approach will hurt too many Iranians outside the government.”

In other words, sanctions must not affect people. But if they don’t, why should Iranians press their government to stop nuclear weapons’ development as the country’s main priority? Why should the Iranian regime care when sanctions won't make the elite suffer in the elite? What's the administration's plan going to do in practice, stop Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' generals from vacationing in Disneyland?

Then we get a Times specialty, the setting up of a phony extreme position that it can oppose while ignoring reasonable alternatives:

“Some experts say the government is so weakened that the United States should withdraw its offer to improve relations and focus solely on regime change. No one has put forward a compelling plan for achieving that, but military action would be a disaster. As we saw in Iraq, talk of regime change can be an unpredictable and dangerous game.”

So that’s the choice: weak sanctions or trying to overthrow the regime? How about a balanced strategy of strong sanctions, assembling an alignment of all forces that oppose Iranian ambitions, plus backing for the opposition? That’s what I favor and that seems to be what Congress favors, too.

The next day, the Post weighed in with an editorial, “The key to dealing with Iran: Press ties with opposition.” It wisely points out precisely the point the Times ignored regarding the administration’s plan:

“Yet any new measures are likely to take months to approve and implement, and Iran has shrugged off the three previous Security Council sanctions resolutions.”

Regarding the administration focus on narrow sanctions plus engagement, the Post adds:

“The problem with this strategy is that it keeps the administration focused on the least likely scenario for success--a deal with the current regime--instead of the more likely one, which is an opposition victory.” It advocates more pro-opposition broadcasting into Iran, financing opposition groups, and more speeches by Obama supporting citizen rights in the country.

The editorial concludes:

“The regime professes unconcern about another round of sanctions--perhaps with some reason. But it does not hide its terror and paranoia about the possibility that the United States would help to sponsor a popular `color revolution.’ If the object of sanctions is to punish the regime and force it to make concessions, why not begin to do what it fears most?”

Personally, I don’t think the opposition is going to overthrow the regime. It is good the Post does raise this issue more strongly, though. Again, what is needed is a balanced policy: real and tough sanctions, support for the opposition, and building a united front against Iran and its allies (Syria, Hizballah, Hamas) in the region to the greatest extent possible.

Yet in the end the most impressive point is the lack of sophisticated strategic thinking on the part of both newspapers' editorial boards. They fear criticizing the executive branch of government too much and hold back from supporting the legislative branch. While it is completely understandable that they want to avoid military confrontation, they are too eager to avoid diplomatic battle.
What both seem to miss is that the purpose of sanctions is to frighten the regime (not make it double over with laughter) that America is out to destroy it, damage the country’s power, deny it resources for using toward military ends, and isolate it. The administration’s policy and the Times’ view do none of these things; at least the Post understands better and wants to try harder, achieving at least some real goals.

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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