Caught in a bear trap

Caught in a bear trap

By Peter Feaver

Secretary Clinton’s recent visit to Moscow provides another opportunity to do a midcourse assessment of Iran policy. The assessment is bleak. Very bleak. The “mission accomplished” banners that Obamaphiles were unfurling when the Russians hinted at a greater openness to sanctions look a bit more faded and ironic today in light of reports that the Russians are back to their old script of opposing sanctions as an impediment to negotiations.

I argued earlier that the key intermediate objective of the negotiations with Iran was getting Russia (and China and the European in-laws) on side to impose tougher economic pressure on Iran. Without such leverage, negotiations were very unlikely to succeed.

Of course, the overall objective of those negotiations is to get the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The Obama team, like the Bush team before it, believes that the only way the Islamic Republic will do so peacefully is if the United States can exert serious economic leverage over the regime so a compromise deal looks attractive — hence the urgency of the intermediate objective of establishing such leverage.

From the beginning, the diplomatic track has been stymied by two stubborn facts. Fact 1: The U.S. cannot unilaterally generate the sanctions leverage it needs to give diplomacy a chance. Fact 2: The Russians, the Chinese, and sometimes the European in-laws all believe that diplomacy is an alternative to sanctions (and vice-versa) rather than understanding that sanctions are a necessary component of the diplomatic track. In other words, sanctions are what you resort to when diplomacy has failed rather than something you resort to in order to help diplomacy succeed.

The “shocking” news that the Iranian regime had been misleading the international community with a hidden second enrichment program provided a one-time opportunity to bring the international community on side, impose sanctions, and then pursue negotiations. Instead, the Obama team contented itself with the rhetorical support for sanctions the Russians offered — the vague suggestion that if the Iranians kept up their bad behavior stiffer penalties might follow — basked in the glow of praise for its deft diplomacy, and launched negotiations.

With Secretary Clinton in Moscow, the Russians sprung the trap. We can’t do sanctions, the Russians explained, because that would undermine negotiations. As long as the negotiations are ongoing, the Russians will block sanctions. All the Iranian regime has to do to keep sanctions at bay is to string the negotiations along. As was foreseeable, Team Obama is trapped negotiating with the Iranian regime without significant leverage and without much prospect of additional leverage. This does not guarantee failure, but it does guarantee that the Iranian regime has the strongest possible hand and that the U.S. hole card, the evidence of Iranian duplicity revealed at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, has been played to minimal effect.