The failure of the Green movement to destabilize the Iranian regime on Feb. 11 has removed the last excuse for delaying meaningful, sustained negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears trapped by the failures of the past and incapable of advancing U.S. interests.
Until the Iranian regime showed its ability to divide and control its opposition, there remained a remote hope that internal resistance might force changes in the government, easing the Obama administration’s task of coping with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now that this illusion has been shattered, the administration must recognize the futility of its current course. Should he continue to pursue the "pressure track," attempting to orchestrate international pressure against Iran, President Obama will only damage important relationships with Russia and China while achieving none of his objectives.
During the weeks leading up to Feb. 11, the anniversary of the triumph of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the administration had used increasingly harsh language towards Iran and its international supporters. The administration dismissed a new Iranian proposal for a nuclear fuel swap agreement, prompting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare that Iran would begin enriching uranium domestically. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then vainly threatened China with "diplomatic isolation" if Beijing didn’t support Washington’s demand for sanctions -- as if the White House could impose such isolation. Following the Iranian government’s successful suppression of protest on Feb. 11, Clinton said that Iran is becoming a "military dictatorship." That may be a fair description, but it is also a signal that the administration has abandoned diplomatic engagement and aims instead to isolate and vilify the regime.
It is remarkable how quickly the Obama administration has lost confidence in its signature agenda. After asserting its willingness to engage authoritarian governments, the administration gave engagement almost no time to work. Its fallback is to continue a policy of isolation and punitive harassment of Iran, despite that policy’s abject failure over three decades to yield the slightest change in regime behavior (all the while simultaneously depriving Washington of the influence it seeks in Iran). Stranger still, Obama appears to have abandoned engagement due to the regime’s authoritarianism, which was hardly a secret before now.
It seems Obama is set to continue a policy predicated on two obviously faulty assumptions.
First, Washington believes that the "international community" objects to Iran’s nuclear program and is prepared to punish Iran for it. The truth is, Iran is more economically and politically integrated around the world than it has ever been, and many of its trading partners are far more interested in Iranian business and energy than in lecturing Tehran about proliferation. In any case, the West’s anti-proliferation concerns are so obviously selective -- encouraging India while shrugging at Pakistan’s flagrant proliferation activities and Israel’s not-very-secret nuclear arsenal-- that they are not taken seriously, except by Westerners. Many rising powers in Asia and Latin America, including China and Brazil, not only do not view Iran’s program as a threat, they may even find it useful as a counterweight to U.S. power.
Second, the administration seems to have assumed that it need only make superficial gestures of goodwill in order for Tehran to reciprocate with genuine concessions on one of its most popular and important projects. The choices offered to Tehran have been few and unattractive: either they suspend enrichment or face additional sanctions. There is no reward for cooperation -- merely an absence of penalties. Even though Iran is permitted by international treaty to pursue enrichment for civilian purposes, Washington does not trust Iran’s government to resist the temptation of nuclear weapons. So the U.S. refuses to permit Iran to do even those things that international law allows. Iran is left to demonstrate -- somehow -- that it has no intention of developing weapons, despite its lack of technical capability and the absence of conclusive evidence that it even pursues this goal.
Iran’s situation is analogous to Iraq before the 2003 invasion: the weaker state must prove something to the satisfaction of the vastly stronger party, yet the latter has no interest in believing anything it hears. The Iranian government sees that the game is rigged, so it has no incentive to make concessions. Similarly, the increasingly combative nature of U.S. dealings with China resembles the deterioration of relations with France and Germany in the lead-up to war in Iraq. Once again, Washington insists on damaging valuable bilateral ties with major powers for the sake of an obsession in the Near East. Just as the Bush administration did seven years ago, the Obama White House is preparing to undermine U.S. interests in Asia in order to counter a threat that most of the world does not fear, if only because there is no proof it exists.