Shadow Government

Obama has Bush’s Iran policy, and Europe may hold the key

By Peter Feaver Cable TV will devote most of its energies to determining why so many of President Obama’s high-profile nominees have failed what Vice President Biden might call the "patriotism test": paying their taxes.  But for discerning observers, there are plenty of examples of another test Biden mentioned: an international test of the mettle ...

By Peter Feaver

Cable TV will devote most of its energies to determining why so many of President Obama’s high-profile nominees have failed what Vice President Biden might call the "patriotism test": paying their taxes.  But for discerning observers, there are plenty of examples of another test Biden mentioned: an international test of the mettle of the young president.

As Dan Twining mentioned, there is Iran’s saber-rattling missile test, a possible North Korea saber-rattling missile test, Kyrgyzstan’s threat to close the vital Manas air base, and the EU’s threat of a trade war over the "Buy American" provision of the Democrats’ stimulus package. There is also the warning that Iraqi Sunnis will not accept the validity of this weekend’s election results. This is particularly worrying because one of the things that undid Iraq in early 2006 was the slowness of Iraqi Sunnis to accept the December 2005 election results. Plenty of fodder for Shadow Government bloggers.  

The one that most interests me is a different test posed by our European allies for Obama’s Iran strategy. The American public is not ready for this test, because in lieu of an honest debate about Iran strategy, the media framed the presidential campaign dishonestly as a choice between diplomacy (Obama’s way) or war-mongering (McCain’s way). Obama’s team pretended that their tactic of offering unconditional bilateral talks with Iran — dropping the Bush condition that Iran suspend (not stop permanently, just suspend for the duration of the negotiations) its enrichment programs before talking — amounted to a real change in strategy.

In fact, what Obama was proposing was a tactical tweak to the Bush strategy of carrots and sticks. Indeed, the Obama strategy depended on beating Iran with even bigger sticks than the Bush team had assembled: specifically, getting European allies to ratchet up their economic pressure on Iran. Doubtless there were implementation errors on the part of the Bush team, but a significant cause of the failure of the Bush Iran strategy to stop the Iranian nuclear program was the reluctance of the European allies to wield the sticks the strategy required. Our NATO allies would say that they could not do more without additional UN Security Council resolutions, which Russia and China slow-rolled and watered down. Even with additional cover of Security Council resolutions, the Europeans were skeptical of the utility of tougher sanctions and, perhaps, unwilling to forgo the economic benefits that free commerce with Iran promised.

This was the understated secondary reason why the Bush administration was reluctant to open unconditional bilateral talks with Iran. Once those talks began, there would be almost no chance of getting the Europeans to ratchet up pressure. Iran would hold the talks hostage to such pressure and no European would-be sanctioner would want to be blamed by doves at home or the Iranian regime abroad as the reason that talks failed. Any such pressure had to be ramped up before talks began. So the Bush gambit was a double lever: offer talks to Iran as a way of getting them to suspend enrichment (and thus buy time for diplomacy to work), and offer talks to Iran as a way of getting the Europeans to ratchet up their pressure to improve our bargaining position with Iran (and thus buy space for diplomacy to work).

The Bush gambit failed, but now there are tantalizing signs that the Europeans might be willing to do more on the sanctions front and thus help along President Obama. I hope it is true, but I will believe it when I see it. In the meantime, I think getting the European allies fully on board for the Bush-Obama Iran strategy is a serious test for an administration that is facing more than its fair share of tests.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
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