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The Race for Iran


Back in May 2009—before the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election—we took a lot criticism for our view in a New York Times Op Ed that “President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed”. In particular, we argued that Obama “has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran” and was already “backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran”. We also identified the policies that would soon displace Obama’s rhetorical expressions of interest in “engaging” Iran—including a quixotic effort to rope other major international and regional powers into intensifying economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic and a delusional push to unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a U.S.-led coalition to contain a rising Iranian “threat”.

Notwithstanding the denials of “friends” of the Obama Administration at the time, we are now seeing public confirmation that U.S. policy is now going exactly in the direction we said it would. On the sanctions front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a speech at the École Militaire in Paris late last week that China faces “diplomatic isolation” if it does not support the Obama Administration’s proposals for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. We have argued for a long time that the Obama Administration’s approach to dealing with China regarding Iran is incoherent, divorced from Beijing’s interests, and grounded in an assessment of the balance of power between China and the United States that no longer reflects reality. But Secretary Clinton’s speech put these deficiencies in the Administration’s approach in graphic relief, for all the world to see.


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What Exactly Do Promoters of Sanctions Seek To Achieve?


The New York Times‘ Editorial Board fell into lock-step with the Obama administration yesterday, calling for the United States to impose additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I have so many disagreements with this article that it is difficult to know where to start, but here are three objections to their analysis.

1. The Board says, “We were glad to see Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly warn China, which seems especially intractable, that it faces diplomatic isolation if it fails to back new sanctions.”

Does anyone seriously think that China is concerned about being “diplomatically isolated” if it refuses to go along with sanctions? It is hard to imagine what “diplomatic isolation” even means in a world in which China owns nearly one trillion dollars worth of U.S. treasuries.

Besides, Clinton is making a curious argument. She is, in effect, saying that China’s energy security requires that it join the United States in imposing additional sanctions. Not surprisingly, China seems to have concluded that, in fact, its interests are better served by preserving cooperative relations and increasing its energy agreements with the Islamic Republic, a country with enormous oil and natural gas reserves.

See this post by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett for more on China’s interests in Iran and its management of its “Persian Gulf dilemma.”

The Board also says that while additional sanctions must be pursued, “the door must remain open to negotiations.” But going down the sanctions path and engaging in good-faith diplomacy are mutually exclusive. It is wrongheaded to think that the Islamic Republic will negotiate with a country that is actively seeking to choke its economy. The idea that Iran might respond to sanctions by begging the United States to negotiate on the nuclear issue is pure fantasy.

Finally, the Times says near the end of its piece that “President Obama needs to speak out more strongly on behalf of Iranians who are peacefully seeking change. But the United States and its partners also must be very conscious of the fierce pride and independence of the Iranian people. Squaring that circle will be extremely hard, but it must be done.”

The problem with this statement is that negotiations cannot succeed if the Islamic Republic perceives that the United States is actively supporting its domestic opposition. It is wishful thinking to think that we can have it both ways.

— Ben Katcher


China Understands Its Interests on Iran


Secretary of State Clinton, speaking in Paris, warned China today that it risks diplomatic isolation and disruption to its energy supplies unless it helps keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Clinton’s remarks are part of a broader pattern according to which she and other American officials respond to China’s refusal to agree to further sanctions by lecturing China about what its interests are.

Given the relative successes of the two countries’ recent foreign policies in the Middle East, it is no wonder that China does not appear to be listening.

China understands very well its interest in facilitating positive relations with Iran and the risks that supporting a U.S. policy of confrontation may pose.

For a comprehensive study of China’s relations with Iran, consult Moving (Slightly) Closer to Iran: China’s Shifting Strategic Calculus for Managing Its Persian Gulf Dilemma, a monograph co-authored by John Garver, Flynt Leverett, and Hillary Mann Leverett this past Fall.

— Ben Katcher


Waiting and Waiting for Revolution

Daniel Larison over at the American Conservative asks why Richard Haass thinks that repeating the mistakes of the past is a great idea.

Larison is referring to Haass’ article in Newsweek that calls for the Obama administration to adopt a policy of supporting regime change in Iran.

According to Larison

What Haass’ article reminds us is that predictions of major political upheaval in Iran are becoming very much like the consistently wrong string of warnings that Iran is just a few years away from a nuclear weapon. An Iranian bomb is always just over the horizon, and it has been just over the horizon for almost twenty years. It seems that the next Iranian revolution is also always just around the corner, and this always seems to be an excuse for delaying diplomatic engagement that ought to have started years ago. Obviously, opponents of meaningful engagement exploit prospects for internal political change Iran to kill off a policy option they reject anyway. That’s to be expected. What doesn’t make sense is why so many supporters of engagement have begun abandoning a policy that was scarcely tried and has been given no time to work.

Haass represents something no less frustrating than the hawks who exploit internal dissension to push hard-line policies. Haass is one of many advocates of engagement who have lost all confidence in a policy option that they endorsed when Iran was a brutal, authoritarian state with a thin veneer of quasi-democratic practices. Its internal repression and violence did not deter them then, because they concluded that there was little that could be done about this and it was not directly relevant to the most contentious security issues. Since the crackdown after June 12, Iran continues to be a brutal, authoritarian state, but now it no longer wears that thin veneer, and all of a sudden some supporters of engagement cannot call for regime change quickly enough.

Fundamental Iranian state interests have not changed in the last seven months, nor has the compelling logic of engagement with Tehran become any less so. In 2008, the bankruptcy of demonizing and isolating Iran was obvious, and it was associated with a deeply unpopular administration, and so for a time it became unfashionable. For all of six months, engagement was trendy when Obama was widely liked and the policy involved sending Nowruz messages and doing nothing meaningful. It has taken much less time for pro-Green advocacy to displace engagement as the preferred fashion. Incredibly, the impulse to isolate Iran has regained much of its former strength despite its record of abject failure. Politically, pro-Green sympathizers are making it much easier for hawks to advance measures designed to isolate and punish Iran, because they are resisting the one alternative course of action that will avoid the imposition of more sanctions or military action. Sanctions will, of course, mainly harm the Green movement and do nothing to change regime behavior, and scrapping engagement will ensure that Washington continues to have zero influence over what Tehran does inside or outside of the country.

Larison’s entire post can be read here.

— Ben Katcher


U.S. Senate Approves Sanctions Bill


The United States Senate passed legislation yesterday that would let President Obama impose sanctions on Iran’s gasoline suppliers and other sectors of its economy.

The notion appears to be that these new sanctions might compel the Islamic Republic to capitulate and give up its nuclear program.

Readers of this blog know that I believe the historical evidence suggests this is a fanciful notion.

More soon.

— Ben Katcher