Shadow Government

How’s Obama doing on Iran so far?

By Peter Feaver It is early but perhaps not too early to do a quick assessment on how Team Obama is doing on the three things I am tracking on the Iran issue. On the micro-tactics level of whether the Team was rattled by the news, the early indications are mixed but on the whole ...

By Peter Feaver

It is early but perhaps not too early to do a quick assessment on how Team Obama is doing on the three things I am tracking on the Iran issue.

On the micro-tactics level of whether the Team was rattled by the news, the early indications are mixed but on the whole favorable. On the positive side, the New York Times has an extensive tic-toc that makes it clear that the administration had been developing a game-plan for the rollout of this information for quite some time. And Obama knew that the Iranians knew that we knew and were developing a plan to deal with the contingency that Iran forced our hand. On the negative side, even though Obama understood that our hand could be forced at any time, the Iranians were nevertheless able to gain a modest tactical advantage by determining the release of the information and by releasing it before we had adequately briefed our Security Council partners. As a result, we lost an important opportunity: using President Obama’s historic chairing of the UN Security Council meeting to unveil the information. Still, Team Obama adjusted to the fluidity of the unfolding events and it probably helped that the UNGA duties meant the President was focused on foreign policy and not doing yet another health care photo-op. I score this as moderately encouraging. Barring further revelations, this metric is probably complete.

On the more serious matter of whether the Obama team is poised to exploit this opportunity to establish the leverage they need, the early indicators may be a wee bit less promising. Consider this quote from that same NYT article:

There was “a fair amount at anger” within the administration over Iran’s disclosure, a senior administration official said. But there was also some satisfaction. A second senior official said: “Everybody’s been asking, ‘Where’s our leverage?’ Well, now we just got that leverage.”

If the advisor meant “leverage over Iran,” then I am worried. The public awareness that Iran has been cheating does not really contribute much leverage over Iran. Yes, it is embarrassing for them, and it means that Ahmadinejad and others will squirm for a while trying to answer awkward questions. But it does not provide us much real leverage, the sort of leverage that would adjust the Iranian regime’s cost-benefit calculation.

If, however, the advisor meant “leverage over Russia and China and, heck, even France, Germany, Britain, and India,” then I am encouraged. For that is the real impact of this news: it makes the case for sanctions stronger than ever, and it provides the Obama team with their best chance to get the sanctions before negotiations start in earnest rather than waiting until the negotiations fail and then trying to get the sanctions imposed. The “try negotiations first and then try sanctions” sequence had been Obama’s strategy. I did not meet anyone with real experience in governing who would say (off-the-record) that the sanctions would be forthcoming. There are simply too many exit ramps available for our wobbly partners in that sequence: Did negotiations fail because of the Iranians, or was it someone else’s fault? Have they really failed? Wasn’t there an encouraging exchange or two we should explore again? The problem with “tools of a last resort” is that in international diplomacy one can never know when the last resort has been reached.

So the old plan was this: try to negotiate with the Iranians without much leverage on our side (because we had not yet imposed the crippling sanctions) — and then, when the negotiations fail, try to persuade our partners that the failure was due to Iranian misbehavior and so get them to do what they have refused for years to do and impose crippling sanctions. Then we would have leverage to try negotiations again.

What I can’t tell yet is whether the Obama team realizes they have an opportunity now to forge a plan with a (modestly) higher likelihood of success: use the revealed Iranian duplicity to exploit new-found (and doubtless temporary) Russian resolve to impose the crippling sanctions now. With the United States holding (again, temporarily) the UNSC chair, we can adjust the agenda in this way and with all those soft power assets to spend, President Obama might be able to pull it off. A brief window of opportunity has been opened. Do our leaders realize that, and are they marshalling the forces to jump through the window?

Which leads us to the third indicator: how Team Obama is handling interactions with the “in-laws.” The quality of the interactions depends on results and, of course, it is too early to see any real results. (I haven’t seen anything solid on the Israeli angle, but my eyes are peeled.) The coding of this metric depends on the coding of the second metric. If Obama is using this news to assemble leverage that consists of little more than lots of stern faces on our side of the negotiating table on October 1 coupled with some sincere promises from those stern-faced stalwarts that if the Iranians mess with us again then this time, really, we will consider crippling economic sanctions — well, in that case, I think his diplomacy and powers of persuasion will be sufficient to get the in-laws on board such a leaky vessel. But if he is trying to assemble serious leverage now so that negotiations have the best possible chance of producing results, then he will face his toughest diplomatic challenge of his young tenure, and we will soon see whether he is succeeding in that task.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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