Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It takes much more than talk to stop Iran's stonewalling

by Michael Rubin
New York Daily News
September 30, 2009

Tomorrow, U.S. diplomats and their Russian, Chinese and European counterparts will join Iranian officials to discuss the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The meeting follows new Iranian missile tests and exposure of a second covert Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. Iran enters the negotiations defiant. "The announcement of the enrichment facilities will be Iran's winning card," Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, editorialized last Sunday.

The meeting will be a nail in the coffin of the Obama doctrine. Throughout his campaign, President Obama preached unconditional diplomacy. "We need a President who'll have the strength and courage to go toe-to-toe with the leaders of rogue nations, because that's what it takes to protect our security," Obama declared during his campaign.

Within a week of his inauguration, Obama offered Tehran an olive branch, promising that should Iran unclench its fist, it would find a willing partner in him.

The President sought a fresh start. In order to neutralize historical baggage, he apologized for real and perceived American wrongs, such as the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Iran's populist prime minister. He reached out with letters, interviews and intermediaries.

The President's aides - Secretary of State Clinton, for example - described Obama's strategy as nuanced. Negotiating without precondition would not only force the Islamic Republic to show its true face, but it would give Washington time to construct a united international front. Diplomats scurried the globe, courting Moscow and Beijing, whose UN Security Council veto threat has watered down sanctions for years.

The administration also imposed a time line: If Iran did not respond constructively to negotiation offers by last week's G-20 meeting, then the administration would impose, in Clinton's words, "crippling" sanctions.

Two mistakes, however, will condemn Obama's diplomacy to failure: First, the President assumed that other leaders share his goodwill. If Iranian leaders did not respond to diplomacy offered without preconditions, what reasonable state would not support the U.S. position? Governments, however, are not neutral arbiters; they act in their own interests. Russia's refusal to compromise its position after Obama this month rescinded a U.S. pledge to build an anti-ballistic missile base in Poland is a case in point.

As devastating to diplomacy's success has been the administration's insistence on sequencing talks, sanctions and military preparation. The Obama administration has delayed consideration of sanctions let alone anything more robust during this grace period. Some - Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for one - suggest the White House should extend the deadline for diplomacy because summer unrest distracted Iran.

Any delay in sanctions is dangerous. Failure to abide by deadlines and red lines heightens the chance of miscalculation as Tehran will only conclude that it can act with impunity.

Proponents of diplomacy may chafe at labeling Obama's rush to engage as naive. After all, President Richard Nixon flew to China and, at the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan talked to the Soviet Union. The comparison, however, underlines Obama's weakness. Even as they talked, neither Nixon nor Reagan suspended military preparations. Indeed, it was Reagan's willingness to build and use both the U.S. military and covert capacity that catalyzed Soviet defeat.

If the world is to avoid war or a nuclear Iran, talk is not enough. Engagement is a tactic, not a strategy. If Obama waits to prepare militarily until talks run their course, then the United States will fail. Military preparations take months.

The Iranian leadership will not engage sincerely until faced with a credible threat, nor will European allies - let alone Russia and China - make concessions if they see the commander in chief twiddling his thumbs. The military option should be the last resort. The irony is that without a finger on the trigger, diplomacy will fail.

Michael Rubin, a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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