It’s showtime for Obama on Iran

It’s showtime for Obama on Iran

By Peter Feaver

The announcement that Iran has been hiding a second uranium enrichment facility from the IAEA may seem like a "gambling in the casino" moment. But it is, I would argue, more important than that: it is a clarifying moment in which we will discern President Obama’s true mettle. We will discern that in three ways.

First, look to see if the President and his team express any surprise in any way more profound than the gendarme’s shock at finding gambling in the casino. No serious observer of the Iran file should be surprised that Iran has been withholding information, and no savvy diplomat should be surprised that this information is coming out now, just on the cusp of the long-awaited direct talks. Of course, the Obama team has known for a long time about this secret enrichment facility so they are not surprised or shocked by that fact.

But the more interesting test is whether they are rattled by the way this information interacts with the debate over the wisdom of having negotiations. The pros on the Obama team know this and shouldn’t be surprised — won’t be surprised, I’d wager. But many critics of Obama’s Iran policy have detected more naiveté than I have detected. If Obama really was approaching the negotiations suffused with hope that the nuclear issue has been all one big misunderstanding that can be cleared up by a little pixie-dust "smart power," then they will be rattled by this news. For my part, I don’t think that is the case, and so I expect they have gamed out this contingency and have thought it through.

Second, look to see whether the Obama team treats negotiations as the end or as the means to an end. This has been the debate all along. Some in the debate treat negotiations as the end and are determined to knock down any hindrances that would prevent the negotiations from taking place — whether those hindrances are pre-conditions Bush established, or diplomatic niceties about dining with Holocaust-deniers, or something more serious like the difficulty of imposing tough sanctions to establish the necessary leverage to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. Others, and I was in this camp when we had this debate in 2006, view negotiations as a plausible means to an end and so worth doing, but only if we had first established the necessary leverage. That leverage could come either with the reasonable precondition that Iran suspend its enrichment activities while diplomacy took place or with the imposition of severe economic/financial sanctions on the Iranian regime so that it would have an incentive to negotiate in good faith: the incentive would be the carrot of having the sanctions lifted.

If you see negotiations as an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as one more hindrance that must be overcome — in this case, denounced but otherwise ignored. If you see negotiations as a means to an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as an opportunity: an opportunity to impose the severe sanctions before you begin negotiations so the negotiations have a chance to succeed. If Obama is in the first camp, he will issue the usual talking points about dismay and vague threats about sanctions in the distant future. If Obama is in the second camp, he will direct his diplomatic team to begin immediate work on the imposition of sanctions and will consider delaying (not abandoning) the direct talks with the Iranian regime until those sanctions have been imposed.

Which brings us to the third thing to look for: look at how well the Obama team manages the international coalition of "in-laws" (what used to be called "allies") and key players like Russia and China. Of late, the rhetoric on Iran has been harsher from Paris and London than from Washington, D.C. There might finally be some backbone in Europe for tougher action on Iran. And, of course, Obama did get Russia to make a rhetorical concession on sanctions once he gave up the missile shield in Poland. It is show-time for President Obama’s 9 month stimulus package accumulating soft power assets

Now is when we will see whether President Obama and his team can persuade the international community to do things that President Bush never quite could get them to do: impose severe sanctions on Iran as a way to empowering the diplomatic track. Look also to how President Obama manages Israel. Those who were gleeful at the way President Obama slapped the Israelis around over the settlement freeze, and dismayed at the way he has walked back from that tough line, have never quite explained how they would manage Israeli concerns over Iran (beyond, of course, shooting down Israeli planes if need be). Well, a more serious explanation is needed now and will, I believe, be a top priority for the Obama team in the coming days.

We will get clarity on the President’s mettle very soon, and that clarity may go a long way to establishing the Obama brand in national security.