Saturday, August 7, 2010

Obama Policy on Iran's Nuclear Weapons: One Step Forward

By Barry Rubin

If what Robert Kagan writes is true, and he does make a persuasive case, President Barack Obama is taking a more realistic view of Iran, showing that he has no faith in Tehran's willingness to negotiate and eager to boast about the tough sanctions that now exist. This is a step forward. I presume that the situation is not that Obama always understood these things but that the hardline policies of the Iranian regime has been a good teacher for him, dispelling early naive assumptions.

The good news is that the administration did push through sanctions at the UN--even getting Russia and China to support them--which then brought tougher sanctions from the United States and the Europeans.

The bad news is that it took eighteen months to do so; the sanctions were passed by the UN because they were weak and the administration made clear it would look the other way when Russia and China violated them; and the Obama government has now done everything it's going to do before Iran actually gets nuclear weapons.

Also, a lot of credit for the tougher sanctions is due to Congress and the Europeans for pushing ahead, even beyond what the administration wanted.

Another key point is that while U.S. officials are sometimes hinting now that economic problems within Iran--intensified by the sanctions--will bring down the regime, U.S. policy is still not supporting the Iranian opposition. They believe that American backing will discredit the opposition among Iranians whereas its real effect would be to scare the regime more than just about anything else. Iran is not an Arab country, where nationalism would prevail, and the opposition is too strong to be destroyed by branding it as unpatriotic.

Still, there are now biting sanctions on Iran, though not pointed enough to damage the Tehran regime seriously or stop its nuclear project.

Equally, this does not mean that U.S. policy will be as tough as necessary or that the administration really understands the extremism of America's foes (it certainly still has illusions regarding Syria, for example) or the worry of America's friends that Washington won't defend them. At least, though, there has been progress and people should be careful not to stereotype Obama's policy. Some things have been learned though whether too little, too late is still a very real possibility.

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