Four years ago, when then-Senator Barack Obama was locked in a tough battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he did something candidates for national office in the United States almost never do: He offered sense rather than sensationalism on Iran. Proclaiming in a primary debate his willingness to meet with Iran’s reviled president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not as radical as it seemed; indeed, every U.S. president since Iran’s 1979 revolution has sought negotiations with Tehran. But in the context of a country still polarized by the Iraq War, Obama’s offer sounded like a rookie mistake. His Democratic rival at the time, Hillary Clinton, described Obama’s stance as “irresponsible and, frankly, naïve,” and his Republican opponents were considerably less generous. Under fire, Obama chose to double down rather than back down, highlighting his commitment to diplomacy as emblematic of his intention to reboot America’s role in the world.
Today, Obama’s embrace of engagement with Iran is a distant memory, one the administration itself would probably prefer not to revive. Washington’s early diplomatic overtures toward Tehran failed to gain traction; even as U.S. officials pursued negotiations, the Islamic Republic’s always byzantine, fractious politics became even more paralyzed and repressive. With Iran unwilling or unable to sustain a dialogue, the administration shifted its strategy, crafting an ambitious program of pressure in hopes of forcing Tehran to the table where inducements had failed. Over the subsequent two years, the administration has assembled the broadest international coalition and deployed the harshest array of economic sanctions that have ever been mobilized against Iran.
These would be major achievements were it not for the obvious discrepancy: Washington has not managed to halt Tehran’s dogged march toward a nuclear-weapons capability. Sanctions have imposed tremendous costs on Iran, but buoyed by a dangerous combination of opportunism and paranoia, its leadership remains defiant. Instead of buckling under the pressure, Iranian leaders have promised to retaliate against American interests. U.S. officials maintain that negotiations remain the preferred path forward, but it is hard to imagine a constructive dialogue between Iran’s revolutionary theocrats and the nation that has set out to collapse its economy.
Adding fuel to this crisis are two volatile and interrelated uncertainties: the U.S. political calendar and Israeli calculations. The contenders for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in November have latched on to Iran as a symbol of what they see as the administration’s failure and weakness in world affairs. Invoking analogies to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Republican candidates have sought to outdo their rivals’ rhetoric on Iran. Their absolutism on Iran echoes the refrain emanating recently from Israel, where declarations of urgency on Iran are perennial but forebodings of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities loom larger than ever today.
Washington is now imposing draconian measures explicitly intended to bring Tehran to its knees and implicitly aimed at undercutting the Republican critique and averting preemptive Israeli action. It is a precarious balancing act. American policy on Iran has increasingly become divorced from its ostensible objective—negotiations—and this policy drift risks miscalculation and an escalatory spiral that could have devastating consequences for U.S. security and the global economy. The simple, obvious reality—that Iran is a profound threat that nonetheless confounds any easy remedies even for the world’s sole superpower—remains too politically unpalatable to acknowledge in an election year.
The Obama Record
Obama’s advocacy for engagement during his first presidential campaign represented a significant investment of political capital for a candidate with limited national-security credentials, and as such it appears to have reflected the president’s personal conviction that active diplomacy could generate new progress on an old problem. His victory raised expectations about the prospects for reinvigorating the multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities that had been stalled for more than two years, thanks to Tehran’s refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. In its earliest months, the White House conveyed its commitment to negotiations with Tehran through the media, in diplomatic settings, and reportedly, in two unprecedented, direct communications from President Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The administration softened the U.S. stance on participation in multilateral talks with Iran, abandoning the previous insistence on an enrichment suspension as a precondition for American diplomacy. Finally, Obama refrained from explicit threats to use force against Iran, preferring the carefully parsed phrases (borrowed from his more hard-line predecessor) that an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability is “unacceptable” and that “all options are on the table” for dealing with Iran.
However, as soon became clear, Obama never intended American policy to rely solely or even primarily on positive incentives to Tehran. The new administration argued that punitive measures were essential to preventing Tehran from exploiting negotiations to buy time while it raced toward a nuclear weapon, a ploy predicted by Obama’s critics. From the outset, the White House emphasized what amounted to a one-year deadline for its initial goodwill. In April 2009, Secretary of State Clinton warned that Tehran would face “crippling sanctions,” and in May 2009, the president indicated that Washington planned to take stock by the end of the year on the grounds that “it is important for us, I think, without having set an artificial deadline, to be mindful of the fact that we’re not going to have talks forever.”
U.S. officials hoped Iran’s June 2009 presidential elections might lead to new receptivity to American overtures, but instead the dubious declaration of Ahmadinejad’s victory generated unprecedented unrest inside Iran. Within several weeks, Iran’s security forces quashed the street protests, but the country’s leadership was splintered, and the first serious opposition movement since the 1979 revolution had been forged. Caught off guard, Washington moved cautiously. “We did not want to get between the legitimate protests and demonstrations of the Iranian people and the leadership,” Clinton explained a few months later. “And we knew that if we stepped in too soon, too hard, the attention might very well shift, and the leadership would try to use us to unify the country against the protesters.”
In the immediate aftermath of the upheaval, however, Washington continued to probe behind the scenes to see if it could draw Tehran into a meaningful dialogue. In one of the many ironies of Iran’s convoluted post-revolutionary history, Obama’s single opportunity to jump-start negotiations arrived precisely at the moment when Tehran’s remaining credibility had been shattered. Iran’s request to purchase fuel for a medical-research reactor prompted U.S. officials, together with the Russians and Europeans, to devise a creative proposal intended to serve as a confidence-building measure. The scheme boiled down to swapping Western-supplied fuel for the medical reactor in exchange for Tehran ceding the bulk of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Iran’s negotiators initially signed on to the deal but renounced its terms after returning to Tehran. The result was deeper mistrust.
Obama’s program of engagement shifted seamlessly into efforts to pressure Iran. Here, the administration relied on the template—and the personnel—set in place by its predecessor, which had developed new mechanisms for extending the reach of U.S. sanctions without engendering the opposition of U.S. allies. The administration expanded the financial restrictions that had begun to hamstring Iran’s ability to do business with much of the developed world. Measures targeting human-rights abusers were added. And the Treasury Department stepped up its campaign to underscore the reputational—and by implication, the legal—risks for countries that continued to do business with Tehran.
The United Nations necessarily remained the focal point for U.S. policy on Iran. After six months of back-and-forth among the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, U.S. officials managed to craft a consensus around a resolution that included a conventional-arms ban as well as language that enabled other countries to enact even more severe penalties. For the Obama administration, the Security Council represented a foundation rather than a culmination of pressure on Iran. In the ensuing weeks after the resolution’s approval, the European Union announced an unprecedented ban on new investment in Iran’s energy sector, Moscow signaled it would withhold a planned sale of anti-missile systems to Tehran, and Obama signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which among other measures banned sales of refined petroleum products to Tehran.
Beyond sanctions, the administration deployed other forms of pressure. A variety of covert actions aimed at forestalling Iran’s nuclear development have been attributed to Washington and/or its allies, including the Stuxnet computer virus that appears to have temporarily crippled the program and a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Even as pressure on the regime intensified, the administration sought to reach out to ordinary Iranians, establishing the first Persian-language spokesperson for the State Department, implementing programs to expand Iranians’ access to information and technology, and initiating multiple-entry visas for young Iranians studying in the United States.
Still, Iran remained unwilling to compromise. In the wake of the collapsed fuel-swap deal, there have been only episodic interactions between U.S. negotiators and their Iranian counterparts. Tehran has done nothing to signal even the slightest retreat from its insistence on maintaining a large-scale uranium-enrichment program. Instead, the turbulence within the Arab world over the course of 2011 only exacerbated long-standing American concerns about Iran’s ambitions. Indeed, Iranian foreign policy has demonstrated a new aggressiveness, as evidenced by allegations of the country’s complicity in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington and the November 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran. By late 2011, there was evidence that Iran was moving its LEU stockpile into underground, fortified bunkers presumed to be invulnerable to airstrikes.
Thanks to these developments—and greatly facilitated by Israeli anxieties—U.S. policy toward Tehran took on a sense of urgency that bordered on panic. After near-universal endorsement from Capitol Hill, Obama took the dramatic step of sanctioning Iran’s central bank at the end of the year. The measure—if fully enforced and obeyed—would slash Iran’s revenues and virtually excise one of the world’s leading oil exporters from the marketplace. The European Union followed up by declaring a boycott of Iranian crude imports. Both measures have a six-month grace period, so their precise impact remains uncertain, but the news has shaken the Iranian public as well as its leadership. A mass rush to acquire foreign exchange helped crash the Iranian rial, halving its value in less than a month, and reports suggest many Iranians are preparing for even worse conditions. For its part, the regime responded with threats to close the key Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil exports pass every day. As a result, while war between the U.S. and Iran is not imminent, it is not impossible to imagine direct armed conflict.
What Went Wrong?
There is a certain irony in the administration’s present predicament—the possibility that military conflict may prove the culmination of the efforts of a president who risked his campaign to promote engagement with adversaries. This was not, as some conspiracy theorists have alleged, the intention of senior U.S. officials from the start. Engagement was not a ploy. The administration’s early efforts to encourage talks signaled Obama’s commitment to diplomacy.
Still, for many pundits who support engaging Iran, the failure to resolve the differences squarely lies at the feet of Washington. If only American overtures were more substantial, more sustained, or more adroit in navigating Iran’s endless factional minefields; if only U.S. officials appreciated the subtle signaling emanating from Tehran; if only Washington could overcome its obsessive antagonism toward the Islamic Republic: Therein lies the answer to halting Iran’s nuclear advances and resolving the broader estrangement between the two countries. This is a distorted narrative that betrays little awareness of the efforts Washington has undertaken and imputes far greater receptivity to dialogue than Tehran has shown for most of the past 33 years.
In fact, with a handful of notable exceptions—for example, the post–September 11 U.S.–Iranian dialogue on Afghanistan—Tehran has publicly spurned even the idea of negotiations with the United States. U.S. presidents, from both parties, have used a variety of mechanisms to persuade Tehran to enter talks, and nearly all of these overtures have run aground, typically because Iran’s leadership has been too divided. The broader posture of the Iranian regime throughout 2009—the profoundly flawed election, the smashing of public dissent, the bitter strife among its elites, the disclosure of a suspicious new enrichment plant, and the repudiation of the fuel swap—betrayed no hint of interest in an improved relationship with Washington. Overall, the evidence points to an Islamic Republic that in the past three years was increasingly mired in repression and division, whose public mandate had collapsed, and whose leadership neither could nor would negotiate on even minor issues with the West. This interpretation is not simply that of U.S. officials but is shared, and in some cases is held more strongly, by the Russians and Europeans.
It is also clear, however, that the strategy adopted over the course of the past three years has been problematic. U.S. officials were too confident at the outset, too enamored of reviving America’s soft power, and too easily persuaded that the election of an American leader with diplomatic inclinations—and one whose name happened to approximate the phrase “he is with us” when enunciated in Persian—would encourage Tehran to make a serious foray at diplomacy with the “great Satan.”
The administration’s turn toward sanctions proved extraordinarily rewarding, at least in terms of international support, but this too was eventually undermined by miscalculations. For the first time in three decades, dozens of nations—many of Iran’s most important trade partners—agreed to jeopardize their economic interests in hopes of moderating Tehran’s policies. Russia has gone beyond the legal mandate of United Nations measures in an unusual extension of support for U.S. pressure, and although the latest, harsh measures against Iran’s central bank have put Beijing and Washington publicly but politely at odds, cooperation continues behind the scenes.
Despite these achievements, Washington has come up short where it matters—producing meaningful change in Iranian behavior. Sanctions have not convinced Iranian leaders that their interests would be better served by relinquishing their nuclear ambitions or even opening a serious dialogue with Washington. Instead, Washington became trapped in its own logic, which, as articulated by former senior White House adviser Dennis Ross, held that “pressure works.” The administration’s adherence to this formula resulted in a kind of circular reasoning: When pressure failed to achieve its desired outcome, the only solution was additional pressure.
The formula itself is not the problem. Pressure can work in reshaping Iran’s priorities but rarely in short order and only when Tehran concludes that a reversal of policy will generate a preferable outcome. Historically, Iran has demonstrated the capacity to withstand adversity for perceived gains. The country has ample experience with severe economic hardship, thanks to the dislocating impact of the revolution and war with Iraq. The regime is well versed in insulating its preferred constituencies and identifying alternative suppliers of weaponry and technology. Moreover, it is convinced that Iran is less vulnerable to the direct costs of crippling sanctions than the West may be to the indirect costs of imposing those sanctions; the regime trumpets the havoc that higher oil prices would wreak on the fragile economies of the Eurozone and the U.S.
In the end, Obama’s best intentions may lead to the outcome the administration sought to avoid. Washington has changed Iran’s cost-benefit assessment, but in contradictory fashion: The more Washington corners Tehran, the more attractive the perceived value of a nuclear deterrent becomes in the minds of its leadership. As Khamenei recently proclaimed, “We are not the kind of nation to sit idle and let materialistic paper tigers, which are rotten from the inside and eaten by termites from within, threaten the strong and iron-like Iranian nation. We respond to threats with threats.”
Iran and the Campaign
For American politicians, talking tough on Iran is the foreign-policy equivalent of kissing babies—it may be clichéd, but it works. This is particularly true for Republicans. Iran has served as an effective wedge issue since its role in collapsing the re-election prospects of President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Whereas mainstream American public opinion has moved beyond the divisive Iraq debates of the previous decade, and the continuing conflict in Afghanistan seems to elude intense domestic interest, Iran remains a red-meat issue—a country with a peculiar hold on the U.S. political psyche. Even in an election that is likely to hinge on the state of the economy, Iran has been brandished by the candidates vying for the Republican nomination for the presidency. With the exception of Ron Paul, whose anti-interventionist stance has made him a useful foil for the rest of the field, Republican campaign discourse has sought to highlight Iran’s continuing nuclear activities as one of the chief failures of the Obama administration.
The Republican narrative casts Tehran as the focal point of a wide-ranging international threat that parallels the menace of global communism after World War II. Mitt Romney has made the comparison explicit, citing Presidents Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan and describing Iran “as intent on building, once again, an evil empire based upon the resources of the Middle East.” In a major policy speech on Iran in 2007, Romney described Iran as “the heart of the Jihadist threat” and “the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union and, before that, Nazi Germany.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Romney said, “I see Iran’s leadership as evil. When the president stands up and says that we have shared interests with all the people in the world, I disagree. There are people who are evil. There are people who have as their intent the subjugation and repression of other people; they are evil. America is good.”
Romney and his rivals have advanced the notion that an ironclad commitment to military action against Iran’s nuclear program should serve as a kind of litmus test of U.S. foreign policy, as the former governor signaled in a heavy-handed fashion in a November 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “I Won’t Let Iran Get Nukes.” Republican candidates have denounced the circumscribed rhetoric of Obama, even though it borrows heavily from that of President George W. Bush. The language they employ is more explicit and ambitious. “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Romney declared in a November 2011 debate. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
In December, Rick Santorum explicitly advocated the near-term use of force to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions. For his part, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has not shied away from endorsing a strike but has emphasized the logistical impediments to ending Tehran’s nuclear activities. Describing his rivals’ advocacy of military action against Iran’s nuclear program as “a fantasy,” Gingrich instead emphasizes measures intended to “break the Iranian regime.” In fact, many of the Republican candidates have placed great emphasis on utilizing U.S. power and diplomacy to transform Iran’s internal politics. In 2005, Santorum co-sponsored a measure in the Senate that would have appropriated $10 million for regime change in Iran.
At its core, the Republican focus on Iran reflects an unease among many American conservatives. The U.S. has now waged two protracted and costly military campaigns in the Middle East, and as troops have withdrawn from Iraq and are preparing for a drawdown in Afghanistan, there is a nagging sense that the credibility of the country’s coercive power has not yet rebounded and that adversaries such as Iran are exploiting American weakness.
It is still too early in the campaign to gauge the effectiveness of the Republican critique, but a January 2012 Washington Post poll highlights the president’s vulnerability on the issue of Iran. Nearly half of the poll respondents disapprove of the administration’s strategy, considerably less than the deep public support for the president on terrorism and other key foreign-policy issues. Unlike thorny international challenges such as North Korea or Pakistan, hammering the president on Iran offers Republicans the added benefit of resonating with strongly pro-Israeli voters in both the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities.
What is good politics does not necessarily make good policy, however, and the Republican argument on Iran offers much in the way of partisan disparagement but less in the way of specific, viable proposals that would advance U.S. interests in the region or reinforce American security around the world. Despite the tough talk on the stump, it is difficult to assess precisely how much more assertively a Republican administration would behave once in office. In fact, the Obama administration replicated the Iran strategy put in place during the second term of President George W. Bush, retaining the same priorities, policy vehicles, and even many of the same senior personnel.
The Republican determination to blunt Iran’s ambitions through military strikes or regime change should not be dismissed merely as campaign rhetoric, though. Over the past four years, the context for military action against Iran has been transformed, thanks to Tehran’s progress toward nuclear capability and its revived adventurism across a Middle East in flux. Most of the Republican advisers, including some who hesitated to endorse direct strikes on Iran during their time in the Bush administration, have now concluded that an attack is essential. For that reason, the Republican support for military strikes and regime change deserves consideration. Most of the candidates have been vague on the mechanics of implementing what they advocate. When asked for specifics in the interview with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Romney ruled out the use of ground troops but added that “the range includes something of a blockade nature, to something of a surgical strike nature, to something of a decapitate the regime nature, to eliminate the military threat of Iran altogether.”
As Obama himself has observed somewhat sharply, anyone who claims the Iranian threat can easily be eliminated “is either politicking or doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” The truth is that military action against Iran’s nuclear program would deliver relatively short-term benefits at what is almost sure to be a high cost. Depending on the scope and duration of airstrikes, it is unlikely that an air campaign alone could terminate Iran’s program. Tehran learned from the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor and has hardened and dispersed its nuclear facilities throughout the country. For this reason, experts from both sides of the partisan aisle have acknowledged that if Israel were to go it alone, Iran’s nuclear program would probably be set back by a year or two at the most, an estimate consistent with statements from senior Israeli military officials. Even the most sustained air campaign undertaken by the United States’ considerably larger forces would probably buy the world less than five years’ assurance.
Conversely, the negative repercussions of a military strike would be dramatic and sustained. Iran could be expected to retaliate against U.S. and Israeli interests and allies across the region, directly as well as through its network of terrorist proxies that includes Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Israelis would likely endure an onslaught of rocket fire and a revival of suicide bombings. Arab Gulf states might see their oil infrastructure targeted and their Shia populations agitated by Iranian subversion. All of the other American goals in the region—from promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians to ensuring the free flow of oil—would be jeopardized. Although many regional governments would probably support a strike on Tehran, either tacitly or logistically, regional populations might well erupt in the wake of new U.S.–led military action in the region, particularly if it were a sustained bombing campaign that resulted in civilian casualties.
The process of democratic transition that is under way to greater and lesser extents in various Arab countries would likely be disrupted. Iran’s own opposition might be forced to close ranks with the regime or lose legitimacy. Even if Iranians chose not to rally around their regime, their resentment of Washington and mistrust of the international community would be entrenched. The price of oil would skyrocket, at least briefly. If Tehran succeeded in jeopardizing oil exports from its Gulf neighbors, an attack could spark a global energy crisis and a new worldwide recession. Any military commitments spawned by the strike—whether merely upgrading defenses for U.S. assets overseas or waging a full-scale campaign against Iranian threats to the Gulf—would entail massive Pentagon expenditures for an indefinite period of time. If the regime survived, its determination to acquire nuclear weapons would surely become more intense, and any hope of avoiding a Middle East nuclear-arms race would be shattered.
If military action offers no easy answers to the Iranian threat, what of the accompanying Republican recommendation—regime change? Here, too, the candidates offer only aspiration rather than specifics. External intervention in Iran’s domestic politics is difficult to effect for two reasons. First, Washington has only the most limited direct contact with the Iranian population and even less with the small body of political actors who might be capable of providing a significant challenge to the regime. Second and perhaps more important, Iranians of all political stripes have historically resented and rejected any direct role for outside powers in shaping their political futures, a legacy of a century of encounters with England, Russia, and the United States. Only an independent opposition that can command widespread popular legitimacy will succeed in challenging a regime as well entrenched as the Islamic Republic. As with earlier, disastrous efforts to game Iran’s domestic politics, U.S. efforts to promote regime change would probably end in recriminations or worse.
In addition, the Republicans’ endorsement of regime change has a particularly disturbing angle. One of Romney’s senior foreign-policy advisers, former State Department official Mitchell Reiss, has advocated on behalf of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), which remains designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization and whose affiliation with Saddam Hussein long ago eroded any popular support among Iranians. Reiss has repeatedly spoken at events sponsored by MEK–affiliated organizations, which are infamous for providing generous honoraria to American political figures willing to offer endorsements. As recently as September 2011, Reiss declared at an MEK–affiliated conference that “we have stood with you yesterday, we are standing with you today, and we will stand with you tomorrow.” For Romney, who routinely condemns the current administration’s “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority” with respect to Iran, the association between a senior foreign-policy strategist and a discredited, cultish group that is officially labeled a terrorist organization raises troubling questions.
Conclusion: What to Do?
The next five years represent a decisive moment for international policy toward Iran. The pressure is on because of the advancements in the Iranian nuclear program, which has led to the sense of exigency that is now consuming America’s closest allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly vocal in his conviction that any aftereffects of military actions are preferable to the menace of a nuclear Iran. Israel’s anxieties are well founded. Iran has begun moving its enrichment activities into facilities buried deep underground, putting them out of the reach of even the most penetrating “bunker buster” bombs. The Israeli leadership has begun to frame its posture toward Iran as a now-or-never proposition, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggesting recently that if sanctions have not terminated Iran’s nuclear activities within the next few months, the country will launch a military strike. The United States and Israel share the same objective, and Israeli fears command widespread support on Capitol Hill. Should Israel decide to strike, particularly during the run-up to a closely contested presidential election, the Obama administration will find itself under tremendous pressure to support the effort.
What is clear is that the world needs a new direction on Iran. Neither the current approach of the Obama administration nor the Republican rejoinder offers a persuasive path forward: The former has become mired in self-perpetuating escalation; the latter trades future uncertainties for present catastrophes. If Obama’s diplomacy has failed, regime change is a pipe
Congress is mulling all kinds of legislation to defund the UN... there is a real convergence between Israeli populism and American populism, which if translated into policy could also have geostrategic implications.