Shadow Government

Obama’s Iran policy is all bark and no bite

The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise. Secretary of Defense Robert ...

Rick Gershon/Getty Images
Rick Gershon/Getty Images

The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s memo requesting White House guidance to further defense planning leaks, characterized as a wake up call for identifying military activity that could be taken against Iran. The national security advisor rebuts the characterization as a routine part of their 15 months of activity "successfully building a coalition of nations to isolate Iran and pressure it to live up to its obligations." Secretary Gates personally reinforces that view. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes (i.e., Presidential speechwriter — since when did they become commentators of record on military options?) gets sent out to mop up any misunderstandings the hapless Jim Jones might have left. Admiral Mullen’s Chairman’s Guidance is revealed to task planning for "limited results" strikes on Iran. A prominent scientist who defected is publicly identified (picture in the newspaper) as an intelligence coup. The director of national intelligence publicly explains the national intelligence estimate on Iran has been delayed these six months because we suddenly have enormous streams on intelligence coming to us from disgruntled Iranian "technocrats." When the undersecretary of defense for policy tells a conference in Singapore military options are "not on the table in the near term," the secretary of defense personally refutes her statement. A senior administration official states the United States will not allow Iran to even acquire a "weapons capability," much less a weapon. Secretary Gates publicly questions whether it is possible to verify the difference between capability and weapon, suggesting the administration’s threshold for action is actually more restrictive than Iran crossing the nuclear threshold.

And yet it is patently clear that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is not on the table for the Obama administration. All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing — they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope I’m wrong, but it would appear the Obama administration wants very much to look like the pincers of their strategy are closing in on Iran precisely because they have taken military force off the table, can’t get the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton trumpeted, and just held a summit meeting on nuclear proliferation that said nothing about Iran or North Korea’s nuclear programs.

They are hoping against all evidence that this Iranian government will have a Damascene Conversion. Secretary Clinton told the Financial Times, "what we believe is that if the international community will unify and make this statement, maybe then we would get the Iranians’ attention in a way that would lead to the kind of good-faith negotiations that President Obama called for 15 months ago." That’s their strategy.

Secretary Gates’s memo asked for direction on what comes next, since "the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran‘s steady progress toward nuclear capability." He sent it in January and hasn’t gotten an answer, which tells us they aren’t willing to look those hard choices in the face. They’re hoping that if they don’t have an answer to the questions, the questions won’t get asked. That’s terrible strategy.

The Defense Department has been quietly doing good work of the kind that President Eisenhower called "quiet military measures," intended to alert hostile governments without drawing the attention of publics or alarming allied governments. The Treasury Department has likewise been serving us well, identifying banks and companies to pressure out of business with Iran. Still, these examples of excellence stand out because so little else is being done. Gulf states may be worried about Iran, but they remain the main impediments to effective sanctions.

The fundamental incongruity in the administration’s approach is that they are banking on this Iranian government to save us from having to do the unpleasant and unpopular work of making the world a safer place.

Contrast the harshness with which President Obama himself and his cabinet excoriate Israel for building settlements that were not even covered by the temporary freeze with President Obama’s careful language as Iran’s Qom reactor was revealed (he even delayed the announcement so that it would not interfere with his message of a different America at the UN last fall). It would appear that Israel is the only government for which the Obama administration favors regime change. Imagine what signal that sends to Iran.

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