Obama’s Iran Trap

Just because Iran got caught with its hands in the nuclear cookie-jar doesn't mean the U.S. president now has the advantage. If anything, his troubles have only begun.


The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

Current and former officials seem to think announcing the facility was a shrewd move. "We have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday. "I think this is actually healthy that this has broken," former President Bill Clinton chimed in.

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

For one thing, it’s not clear that "the Russians" have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should "calm down" over Iran’s latest missile test and "not give way to emotions.") And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

And let’s also remember that the point of all this isn’t the sanctions themselves — it’s getting the Iranians to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions. Now, put yourself in the minds of Iranian leaders. Despite some major remaining technical hurdles, you’re inching closer to achieving your nuclear goals. You’ve been watching the North Koreans very closely, noticing  that even after they tested a nuclear device one, two times, the regime is still in power and, if anything, the carrots they’ve been offered have only become more generous. And you’re willing to bet that once you’ve got The Bomb, you’ll be able to sort out all those issues like your frozen bank accounts and airplane spare parts with The Great Satan.

Even living under tougher sanctions wouldn’t be so bad. You’ve got oil, and other countries will still need to buy it. Cutting Iranians further off from the world is a good thing from your perspective, because you didn’t like all those wicked, licentious foreign influences anyway and globalization only seems to strengthen moderate and liberal forces wherever it spreads. Plus, you’ve got a great safety valve in Dubai, where anything goes and thousands of Iranian expats will eagerly work around obstacles to get you whatever you need. They know how to work in the shadows.

The wild card here is Israel. Many experts say that the Israelis don’t have the capability to wipe out Iran’s nuclear facilities, that it will take hundreds of underequipped sorties over several days, flying thousands of miles across hostile airspace, to do the job. And even if Israeli airstrikes are tactically successful, they’ll only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not destroy it. After all, one can’t bomb knowledge.

But the Israelis might make a different calculation. Their goal may not be to take out Iran’s program altogether, but rather to dump a steaming mess into the arms of the international community (read: the United States), saying: "Now you deal with this." For a country that views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, all these other concerns that analysts rightly raise — the likely prospect of Iranian retaliation in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf; skyrocketing oil prices; a swift end to the Iranian reform movement — are decidedly secondary.

Before that happens, though, the Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions "time to work" — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

So, has Obama really put pressure on Iran? More likely, the pressure is going to be on him to get results that are beyond his ability to deliver. Sure, the U.S. disclosure makes Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who received the diplomatic equivalent of a good pantsing last week, look like a bunch of liars. Gotcha! But we already knew the Holocaust-denying, show-trial-staging, Mahdi-obsessed Iranian president wasn’t really a credible fella. What remains to be seen is whether Obama, or anybody else, has a credible strategy for winning this diplomatic showdown without reaching for the F-15s.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola