Stephen M. Walt

The Obama administration is still sleepwalking on Iran

I don’t for a minute think that President Obama cares about what I write, or that he’s even aware that I’ve criticized the lack of progress being made on the main items on his foreign policy "to-do" list. It is therefore just a coincidence that he held a surprise meeting with a group of journalists ...

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

I don’t for a minute think that President Obama cares about what I write, or that he’s even aware that I’ve criticized the lack of progress being made on the main items on his foreign policy "to-do" list. It is therefore just a coincidence that he held a surprise meeting with a group of journalists on Wednesday and offered a lengthy defense of the administration’s approach to Iran. 

You can find links to eye-witness accounts of the meeting here, but the gist of the president’s pitch was as follows: 1) Our efforts to isolate Iran are working, and the regime is under growing pressure; 2) We remain open to improved relations with Iran and would welcome the opportunity to cooperate on matters of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan; 3) All Iran has to do is accept our entirely reasonable demand that it cease all nuclear enrichment; 4) Iran isn’t making rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb, so there’s no need for precipitate (i.e., military) action, but 5) All options are still "on the table."

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record here, but the administration’s policy reminds of this famous Syd Harris cartoon depicting two scientists staring at a blackboard covered with equations, except for a spot in the middle where it says "then a miracle occurs." One scientist says to the other: "I think you should be more explicit here in Step 2."

Exactly. I’d like someone in the administration to be explicit about why they think our current approach is going to deliver any of the tangible things we claim to be want, such as 1) A guarantee that Iran won’t get nuclear weapons, 2) An improved relationship with Tehran, or 3) An end to Iranian support for Hezbollah, etc. It’s always possible that our current policy will eventually cause Iran to simply cave in to our demands, but the extensive literature on the efficacy of economic sanctions doesn’t offer much hope that this will happen soon. It is also possible that the clerical regime might conveniently collapse and be replaced by some version of the opposition, but there’s no reason to think this event is imminent. Indeed, tighter sanctions may even be strengthening the Revolutionary Guards and other pillars of the current regime, for the simple reason that they control key sectors of the illicit economy. And even if we did eventually get some sort of regime change, there is considerable popular support for Iran’s civilian nuclear program and key leaders of the opposition — including former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi — are strong proponents of the program. So why do we think our current policy will bring us what we want?

The basic problem is that our approach to Iran is rife with contradictions. We say we want better relations, but in the meantime we are almost certainly engaged in covert action inside Iran and we rarely miss an opportunity to remind the world that all options are still "on the table." We’ve made it clear that we think Iran’s current government is illegitimate and ought to be replaced, and then we wonder why they don’t immediately respond when Obama says he really does want to cooperate. As I’ve noted before, this sort of inconsistency just fuels the suspicion that the United States is insincere and duplicitous and reinforces Iran’s own paranoia. We’ve also made it clear that we are dead-set against Iran’s getting a nuclear weapons capability — which they may or may not be trying to do — yet we continue to act in ways that can only reinforce their interest in having a more effective deterrent, even if it is only a "latent" capability. 

True, we’ve been able to round up more international support for slightly tougher sanctions, but we’re well shy of the sort of "crippling" sanctions that might induce a change in behavior and the main reason we’ve gotten more international support is because our European allies prefer that course of action to the use of force. And states like China are probably delighted to see us remain at loggerheads with Iran forever, while they make profitable investments and oil deals without facing competition from U.S. firms. 

All of which leads me to stick to my original forecast: The United States isn’t going to make any meaningful progress on relations with Iran during Obama’s first term. I don’t think Obama will authorize an attack, because that wouldn’t solve the problem for long and could make many other issues (Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf in general) much worse. (And contrary to what you may have heard, this recent survey suggests that attacking Iran over its nuclear program wouldn’t do much for our image elsewhere in the region). I don’t think the clerical regime will collapse — though I would shed no tears if it did —  and I doubt very much that it will agree to halt all enrichment. In short, relations with Iran will be pretty much where they were in 2008.   

Two other quick points. It’s possible that Obama’s meeting with the journalists was intended to damp down the recent groundswell of voices calling for imminent military action. After all, part of his message was that Iran’s nuclear program isn’t moving that rapidly, so we have lots of time for diplomacy to take effect. I hope that reflects his own views, but there is no reason to believe that the sort of the diplomacy that the administration is currently practicing is going to produce a breakthrough and he’s going to face continued right-wing pressure for a more forceful response.

Another possibility is that this is all just a bit of political theatre. In this version of events, the architects of our Iran policy don’t believe that diplomacy will actually succeed, but they know that you have to go through the motions and appear to exhaust every avenue before you can convince the American people and the international community that you have no choice but to oh-so-reluctantly start bombing. Some of Obama’s key advisors made arguments along these lines prior to joining the government, but there’s no way of knowing how influential this view is either within the White House or throughout the administration.

But I can’t help but wonder: What if the United States acknowledged that it can’t stop Iran from having control of the full nuclear fuel cycle (at least, not at an acceptable price), and that in all likelihood Iran will end up with a latent "breakout" capability akin to Japan’s?  What if we actively tried to construct a deal that kept them from crossing the nuclear threshold and actually testing and deploying a weapon? Have we ever put a proposal like that on the table — one that acknowledged their right to an enrichment program provided they ratified and implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and maybe undertook some other measures designed to reassure us about the peaceful nature of their nuclear program?

An initiative like this would require real patience and might not work, but it would be real diplomacy as opposed to our present policy. Right now, Washington simply assumes that Iran won’t negotiate unless it is coerced into doing so by outside pressure.  At the same time, Tehran has made it clear that it wants to negotiate but refuses to do so under pressure. The predictable result is the current stalemate. You’d think the U.S. government could come up with something creative to try to overcome this impasse, instead of just hoping for a miracle.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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