international analysis and commentary

The Obama administration’s non-strategy over Iran


First, the good news. While the most recent spate of UN sanctions imposed on Iran for its recalcitrance regarding its nuclear program was predictably a damp squib, the individual follow-up sanctions by the US and many of its European allies have proven to be surprisingly effective. European companies that have long provided succor for President Ahmadinejad and company have been named and shamed into lessening their role developing Iran. In many cases, prodded by the extremely effective US Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Stuart Levy, individual companies have agreed to lessen investment in the Islamic Republic in the medium term.

Further, the Gulf States have made a pivotal decision to no longer play the role of leaky sieve for the sanctions regime. As the WikiLeaks documents dramatically affirmed, Saudi Arabia and members of the UAE have emerged as (if anything) greater hawks regarding Iran’s nuclear program than even the worried Western nations. As such, sanctions-busting goods are no longer flowing through the Arabian Peninsula on their way to Iran.

Even while sanctions are truly beginning to bite, Iran faces significant home grown economic problems of its own. After running the Iranian economy into a ditch, President Ahmadinejad has been forced to do away with the lavish bread and petrol subsidies that have sustained the lives of ordinary Iranians, and bought off social unrest. As of mid-December gas prices are set to rise by up to 400%, not a recipe for social stability. Inflation, perhaps uncontrollable, is bound to be the end result of such a program. At the very least, the timing of such a risky initiative, with the sanctions beginning to bite, could not be worse.

On the security front, things have been bleak for Tehran as well. The Russians, after much hemming and hawing, and under intense pressure from the White House to deliver (quite possibly in exchange for President Obama backing down over his original missile defense plans in Eastern Europe), backed off supplying Iran with advanced anti-aircraft missile defenses – exactly the sort of hardware which would make a bombing of Iran extremely difficult. Moreover, Russia has in general drifted into the Western camp over the nuclear crisis, coming to the conclusion that European investment and American goodwill mean more to the Kremlin than colluding with the mullahs.

Likewise, while it is hard to quantify there is no doubt the Stuxnet computer virus, probably a cyber war program launched by the US and/or Israel, has set back the Iranian nuclear program by at least months. By making subtle changes to the speeds of the nuclear centrifuges over several weeks (all the while displaying normal readings on monitoring computers) Stuxnet has played short-term havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program, reported that engineers at Iran’s Natanz plant stopped feeding uranium into the centrifuges after Stuxnet had been discovered, and that when they restarted the process a week later, refining was less productive. Likewise, the recent assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientists (such as Majid Shahriari) cannot be good for either internal esprit de corps or for the program’s continuity. So the economic, security, diplomatic and espionage/technical fronts have all recently seen genuine and significant setbacks for Iran at the expense of the Obama administration and its allies.

But at best all this supposed good news amounts to little more than fiddling at the margins; it does not remotely alter the fact that the Iran nuclear controversy has evolved into a slow-moving Cuban Missile Crisis, where all the policy options are bad and the diplomatic game is played for the highest and potentially calamitous stakes.

Refreshingly, CIA Director Leon Panetta, recently testifying before Congress, confirmed this. No, he did not think the improved sanctions have yet to change the minds of senior Iranian decision-makers over whether to move forward with a bomb or not. And without that alteration in calculation—and this must be the policy marker of success or failure-this game of nuclear chicken is set to lurch onwards.

If primary economic factors have so far failed to change the Iranian elite’s nuclear calculations, it is improbable to think that the Gulf States and Russia joining the Western coalition is likely to give them pause. And while Stuxnet has been invaluable in extending the timeline for Israel making a decision about a possible air strike, the clock has not stopped. At best, the Netanyahu government will have to make an existential decision about Iran acquiring nukes in early 2012, rather than mid 2011. So let’s keep those cheers muted.

When one talks to the Obama foreign policy team in private about all this, he or she is left with the uncomfortable feeling that rather than formulating a coherent strategy, all the administration can come up with is a desperate tactical gambit to keep kicking the can down the road. As such, they seem to be avoiding making the very unpalatable choices about what to do about Iran, instead hoping that the country’s serious internal problems will lead to a revolution that will take this poisoned chalice away from them. Like the disastrous Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield, they are merely hoping that something turns up.

But you cannot order a revolution like a pizza. Regime change tends to show up unannounced and when least expected. Timing has always been what has made the Iranian nuclear crisis so devilishly difficult. There is little doubt the Obama people are correct in that the Islamic Republic is ripe for revolution, with a huge (and generally pro-Western) Iranian youth demographic increasingly chafing at both the mullahs’ reactionary social restrictions as well as their inability to run a modern economy. The savage repression of the Green Revolution may have quelled immediate dissent, but it surely has not won the young over to the cause of their torturers.

It is also correct that a bombing of Iran would have disastrous internal consequences, making heroes of a presently vilified ruling elite. But even given all this, revolution could well be a decade or more away, well beyond when decisions will have to be made in Israel about what to do about Iran.

At the tactical level, the Obama administration should by all means kick the can, doing everything in its power to move the Iranian nuclear D-Day decisions back as far as the calendar will allow. But that is just tactics. What is genuinely called for is a strategy as to what to do, assuming history (as it so often does) does not bend so as to make American decision-makers’ lives easier.