Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Guide To A Big Mistake: U.S. Decision to Talk with Iran

By Barry Rubin*

September 13, 2009

Forgive me for a bit of repetition but what has just happened is so important that it deserves the closest attention and clearest analysis. A more comprehensive explanation is here. This article presents these themes in a brief, straightforward manner.

1. President Barack Obama produced the theme of U.S. engagement with Iran and proposed a world free of all nuclear weapons as a goal.

2. The United States had tried to engage with Iran but that country refused. Nominally this can be attributed to being busy with stealing an election and repressing the opposition but it would have happened any way.

3. Iran is now governed by its most radical government since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini twenty years ago. Extremist and adventurist, anti-American and antisemitic, this is a government bent on getting nuclear weapons (at least as leverage, not necessarily to use), destroying U.S. influence in the region, and wiping Israel off the map.

4. Seeing that engagement wasn’t working, the U.S. government made a plan to bring together key countries and raise the level of sanctions in late September, just two weeks from the time the Iranian letter was received. The key G20 meeting was set for September 24-25.

5. Seeking to stall such measures in order to consolidate the regime, which is relatively weak given domestic opposition, the Tehran regime at the last minute sent an insulting note to the United States trying to change the subject. Rather than focus on the nuclear weapons’ drive, they called for changing the UN to empower non-Western states (an old regime theme) and rid the world of all nuclear weapons. In other words: Iran will be the champion of the Third World in getting rid of great power vetoes at the UN and keep on developing nuclear weapons until the United States gets rid of all those it has.

Remarkably, Obama accepted the Iranian offer.

7. Since the U.S. proposal was for unconditional negotiations this means that it cannot ask Iran to do anything—reduce sponsorship of terrorism, decrease internal repression, slow its nuclear program—as long as the talks are going on.

8. Apparently, the United States is not going to pursue the plan for increasing sanctions while the talks go on.

9. The U.S. government is also not setting a deadline for progress. Talks are scheduled to begin October 1.

10. This means: By sending a five-page insulting letter the Iranian government has derailed the sanctions’ project and will gain in prestige without any cost.

11. In addition, the Iranian regime suffers no cost for stealing the election, repressing the opposition, and appointing a wanted terrorist as defense minister. One might expect international outrage and isolation of Iran on those points alone. Here, too, the regime has won a total victory.

12. The cover story is: The U.S. government offered to engage so it must keep its word. Supposedly, various factors will be impressed by this effort and be more willing to support sanctions after talks fail.

13. Yet it is never explained who these parties are? France, Germany, Britain, and other European states are ready to support sanctions increases now. Russia and China oppose raising sanctions now and will continue to do so. Even American domestic opinion doesn’t need this: if Obama, who is wildly popular on the left and seems to own much of the media, wants to raise sanctions what significant forces would oppose it?

14. In short, engagement has no positive function in terms of gathering support for sanctions.

Even the New York Times questions this decision, albeit only indirectly:

"Unfortunately, there is no sign that Iran is serious about doing much more than buying more time....In the seven years since its covert nuclear fuel program was revealed, Iran has managed to split the world powers and deflect any real punishment by promising to talk. It continues to defy a United Nations Security Council order to stop producing nuclear fuel and has largely shrugged off three sets of watered-down sanctions that either failed to target Iran’s economic vulnerabilities or were listlessly enforced — especially by Russia and China."

15. What is really going on?

--The Administration simply wants an excuse for doing nothing.

--It really believes talks with Iran might lead somewhere, though some high officials, notably Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, say they won’t work.

--Seeing that the sanctions effort cannot get unanimous support, it does not want a messy fight with Russia and China or the appearance of failure.

--It is possible the U.S. policy will be to hold talks with Iran for a few weeks and then return to the sanctions' route. If that happens, the decision to talk will be less damaging but will certainly do no good.

16. The policy can also be defended by saying that talking doesn’t hurt.

17. But of course it does. Not only has Iran reversed the direction of events, sabotaged the sanctions, and escape any censure over the regime’s policies, it gains time to build nuclear weapons. Presumably, talks will eat up at least six months after which additional time would be needed to increase sanctions. By then, too, the Chinese project to double Iran’s capability to produce its own refined oil products—one of the main things sanctions would deny the country—will be completed.

18. If the United States had turned down the Iranian offer, the West Europeans would have done so also.

19. It is impossible to see how this decision does the United States any good and it does America, Europe, and the Middle East a great deal of harm.

20. Will the Obama Administration itself derive political benefits at home? Short-term, perhaps but not significant. But what about when crises take place or its policies are perceived as failures as Iran not only gets nuclear weapons but uses them to extend its influence; intimidate Western and regional opponents; and subvert neighbors?

Conclusion: This is the most important foreign policy decision made so far by the Obama Administration. It is a very bad one. Even in the context of its overall policy, it would have done far better to continue with the raised sanctions.

--By letting its own strategy be derailed it looks ineffective.

--By accepting an insulting proposal obviously meant to change the agenda it will be perceived as being humiliated.

--By ignoring the recent behavior of the Iranian regime it will invite more of the same.

--By letting Russia and China veto a U.S. policy it seems to have abandoned American leadership in the world, or at least of the West.

--By allowing the Iranian regime to stall for time it has apparently moved a long way toward acceding to Iran’s having nuclear weapons, and not just the weapons but weapons in the hands of the country’s most extreme faction.

A big price will be paid in future for this mistake.

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