From its start, I have viewed the Iran sanctions regime the Obama administration has helped devise with great skepticism. However, if recent reports are to be believed, the sanctions may someday be seen in retrospect as a vital element of an effective strategy to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the possibility is beginning to emerge that they could be seen as part of what may someday be seen as one of the signal triumphs of Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
My initial concerns about the sanctions program were several. First, it was my sense that such sanctions programs tend not to be terribly effective where authoritarian regimes are concerned. Next, sanctions tend not to be effective if they do not are not supported globally by all the economies interacting with the country facing sanctions. Third, in the case of these sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese carved out elements that protected important components of their own trade with Iran. Fourth, my sense is that the Iranians are engaged in a cat and mouse game with the international community in which they make a few seemingly constructive moves, even appear to make concessions, and then continue on with their nuclear development work behind the scenes.
My sense was also that international diplomatic and economic pressure would simply not be enough to really impede their program — especially if the threat of the use of force to punish them if they did not back down was not credible. And the message from the administration was not tough enough on that last point.
However, when last week, the departing boss of Israel’s intelligence service, Meir Dagan, stated that in his view the Iranian program had in fact been set back to the point that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons until 2015 at the earliest, it suggested that whatever was being done was working. No one, for obvious reasons, takes the Iranian threat more seriously than the Israelis (although WikiLeaks confirmed for all how worried the Iranians make all their neighbors). If they who had been saying two years ago that the Iranian threat would reach a critical level within a matter of a year or so were now saying it has been pushed out several years, it was more than just an interesting sound bite.
Of course, Dagan was not just referring to the sanctions in his remarks. He spoke of "measures that have been deployed against" the Iranians. This seemed to acknowledge a program of covert operations against Teheran that had played an important role — and possibly the central role — in producing the delays. While one cannot help but view the latest Iranian announcement of rounding up an "Israeli spy ring" as more likely to be about political posturing than it is the result of genuinely successful counter-espionage work, it seems clear that a systematic effort has been undertaken to compromise Iran’s program. Elements of that effort that have been visible to the public range from the apparent cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to the physical attacks on prominent Iranian nuclear scientists.
Now it is far more credible that a program of sanctions plus covert action against the Iranians would be effective. Further, there has been a third element to this initiative which has featured the dogged attention to maintaining diplomatic pressure that has been led very effectively by Secretary of State Clinton. Whether it has been the recent public dismissals of the Iranian effort to divide and conquer major powers by inviting a few but not the United States on guided tours of their nuclear facilities or the effort to blunt the effectiveness of third party initiatives such as those of Brazil and Turkey, the U.S. State Department has had to work feverishly to manage the fractious coalition of forces needed to put meaningful pressure on the Iranians. Again, WikiLeaks inadvertently showed the scope of these efforts behind the scenes in the region.
Frankly, there is also a fourth element to the program that doesn’t get as much credit as it perhaps should. While candidate Obama’s calls for "engagement" as a centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy seemed naïve in the context of real world problems like those with Iran — and whereas real engagement with the Iranians has proved nearly impossible — Obama’s stance did give his administration more credibility with allies in Europe as well as with critical partners like Russia and China. Via his engagement language he sent a clear message that America was moving away from the "us versus them" world of the Bush years and this restored some of the diplomatic high ground to U.S. diplomats.
The threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program remains grave. It continues to be the case that should they achieve nuclear weapons manufacturing and delivery capabilities that it would be severely destabilizing throughout the Middle East. However, the comprehensive, multi-tiered effort led by the Obama administration does seem to be gaining at least temporary traction. It also illustrates just how even nations with very differing perspectives can piece together programs using diplomatic, political, economic and intelligence tactics and tools that can be effective and can postpone or avoid having to turn to the blunt instrument of military intervention.
Again, it is far too early to hail this as a lasting or even a truly significant success. The Iranian government is capable of levels of mendacity, callousness and brutality that make them a grave threat and there are others in the world who will overtly or covertly continue to tirelessly work with them to support the efforts of those who would see Iran have nuclear weapons. But far from being naïve or assuming tough but ineffective diplomatic poses, the efforts to date of the United States, the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, Iran’s gulf neighbors, and even the Israelis working together seems to be producing at least some encouraging results — and the first elements of what might, we can hope, someday be viewed as a lesson about how to conduct effective foreign policy in the 21st Century.