Making Real the Obama Iran Victories That Never Were

Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr Former Brookings Expert, Dean, School for Advanced International Studies - Johns Hopkins University

November 23, 2011

It wasn’t so long ago that the Obama administration was proudly proclaiming success in dealing with Iran, succeeding where the Bush administration had failed. For a time, a presumably weakened and isolated Iran was less of a worry.

Today, America’s Iran policy looks to be in disarray. The administration’s claims of victory ring hollow. Far from subdued, Iran is more defiant and belligerent. And the broad international coalition that the U.S. built against the country has splintered.

With the generally cautious International Atomic Energy Agency having finally accused Iran of secretly working to build nuclear weapons, the stakes are undeniably high. The clues to how to reset U.S. policy can be found in examining how things went wrong.

Whereas the Bush administration threatened military action in an effort to stymie Iran’s nuclear program, Obama officials leaked that they had accomplished that goal through sabotage — deploying the Stuxnet computer worm in a joint operation with the Israelis to set back the Iranians’ progress by several years. The Obama team also succeeded in enlisting the habitually recalcitrant Russia and China to support harsher sanctions against Iran at the United Nations.

The Stuxnet Bug

Iran appeared to be hurting, for a while. Wherever the Stuxnet bug came from, the Iranians acknowledged that it harmed the nuclear program they claim is entirely peaceful. The Iranian economy was faltering and its political house was divided. For an added bonus, the whirlwind set loose by the Arab Spring deprived Iran’s authoritarian regime of popular sympathies in the rest of the Middle East.

Two developments — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s conciliatory decision to release two American hikers imprisoned on spying charges and a new Iranian proposal for resumption of nuclear talks — were interpreted as proof that Iran was buckling under the pressure. The Obama administration’s approach was working, the argument went; the world stood with America, and a chastened Iran was looking for a way out of its isolation.

However, that is not the Iran that comes across today. Last month, U.S. officials unveiled allegations of an audacious Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in a restaurant in the heart of the U.S. capital, a plan that would have risked killing bystanders. That news was followed by the IAEA report.

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were quick to seize on those revelations to turn the tables on the administration. Far from having a handle on Iran, they argued, the U.S. had been too soft. They demanded decisive action — sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil industry. Some broached military action, Bush-style.

China and Russia had the opposite reaction. Unimpressed with the IAEA report, Russia ruled out new sanctions. China followed suit and warned against military action. Under this pressure, the IAEA Board of Governors settled for severely criticizing Iran and postponed talk of additional sanctions to future meetings.

How did the shine come off the administration’s Iran policy? And how did the U.S. lose Russia and China along the way?

Delaying Not Crippling

Part of the answer is that Obama’s Iran policies were never all that effective. While there’s little reason to doubt the value of the Stuxnet worm, it was capable only of delaying, not crippling, Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As for sanctions, the international restrictions approved at the UN haven’t been fully imposed, and the unilateral measures taken so far by the U.S. and European countries haven’t been as successful as the administration has made them out to be. The restrictions have constrained Iran’s economy, but that has not translated into a perceptible change in Iran’s stance on the nuclear issue. Sanctions have caused shortages and fueled inflation, but oil revenue continues to fill the government’s coffers and keep the economy afloat. There is still plenty of liquidity in Iran’s economy; consumption remains robust; salaries are paid; and there is no sign of bread riots.

In truth, it would have been too much to expect the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions so soon. In that sense, Republican claims that the Obama team has failed are excessive. Still, the alleged assassination plot in Washington suggests Iran has not been as cowed as the administration has been suggesting. So the team has a credibility problem domestically when it claims its policies have tempered Iran.

At the same time, the administration is not entirely convincing internationally when it maintains that Iran is misbehaving despite containment efforts. The U.S. allegations of official Iranian involvement in the Washington assassination plot met with considerable skepticism abroad. U.S. public diplomacy has done very little to remove those doubts.

Similarly, the IAEA report, hyped by Washington, was perceived outside of America as less than a slam-dunk. The findings of the nuclear watchdog agency, which reports to the UN General Assembly, are more suggestive than convincing. The report is short on concrete evidence, fuzzy on key details and long on caveats. That is why it met with swift resistance from Russia and China.

The basic lesson for the administration is fairly simple: A little modesty and moderation would have helped. Dealing with Iran is never easy and nobody has a perfect formula. Other lessons include: Touting your success can set you up for a fall. It’s wise to make a strong case if you’re going to accuse another government of terrorism. And before flacking another party’s evidence against your enemy, make sure the proof is airtight.

New Sanctions Round

In an effort to get new traction in its Iran policy, the Obama administration this week announced a fresh round of sanctions and signaled its readiness to extend them to Iran’s central bank. Without the backing of Russia and China, however, unilateral sanctions by the U.S., Canada and European countries will continue to have an insufficient effect on the Iranian regime.

To get Russia and China to sign on to meaningful penalties, the U.S. must be more persuasive about Iran’s iniquities. The Obama administration must put an end to doubts about the veracity of the Washington plot. And it must shore up the IAEA report with convincing intelligence of its own proving the Iranians are working on nuclear weapons.