There has been a lot of discussion over the last several days about Iran, mostly prompted by President Obama’s outreach to the Iranian public on the Iranian New Year.
Most of the discussion, as far as I can tell fall into one of three camps:
Camp 1: Obama’s approach is a welcome change that seeks to jump start diplomacy with Iran, and it will hopefully lead to a productive discussion since Iran’s primary worry is about its own security.
Camp 2: Obama’s approach is pointless and a sign of weakness. The Iranians will never give up their nuclear weapons program. Diplomacy just distracts us from the necessity of working with the Israelis to develop a credible military option to prevent a rogue regime like Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Camp 3: Obama’s approach is a welcome change on its own, but is unlikely to achieve anything since Iran’s national interests will continue to push in the direction of developing nuclear weapons. Happily, Iran is a rational actor like any other, and as a result, even when Iran goes nuclear we can easily deter them. So, Obama is wasting his time, but in the end, we can live with a nuclear Iran.
The interesting part about all three major schools of thought is that all three assume that direct interaction with the Iranian leadership, in the short-term, is what Obama’s outreach is all about. I suspect that misses the broader strategic picture. In the broader strategic sense, what Obama seem to be doing is applying a classic “indirect strategy” to the Iran problem. Instead of focusing on the Iranian leadership directly, he is systematically taking steps to erode the conditions that are currently enabling the Iranian nuclear program.
First, Obama put a deal on the table to halt our deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe in return for Russian assistance in pressuring Iran. The Russian response has been lukewarm at this juncture. But this sort of approach requires significant bargaining to work out details. I suspect that ultimately, there may be a credible quid pro quo here. But even if there isn’t, it puts pressure on the Iranians since they now have to consider Russian assistance less certain.
Second, Obama’s message to Iran was really a message to the Iranian people. He’s looking to drive a wedge between the leadership and the public without making confrontation a center-piece of the approach. Again, it is unlikely to succeed in the short-run, but again it puts pressure on the Iranian leadership. One of the Iranian leadership’s greatest sources of weakness is some broad-based dissatisfaction with the regime in the general public, and especially among younger Iranian.
Third, Obama is seeking to convey a message of calm responsibility to our European allies. One of our great problems in putting real pressure on Iran through sanctions is that the international community remembers that the last time it agreed to a U.S. demand for greater sanctions, the United States took the fig-leave of international legitimacy to launch a preventive war against Iraq. We may have forgotten the Bush Administration’s abuse of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, but within the international community there remains a great deal of resentment over our failure to return to the U.N. to get a formal authorization to use force against Iraq. Until we demonstrate we can be trusted, it is unlikely that we will ever get a sanctions regime with teeth. Obama’s reassurances since taking office are designed to make such a sanctions regime possible.
In short, instead of conceiving of each part of this approach as an attempt at a silver bullet for the Iranian problem, we need to conceive of the administration’s policy as a multi-faceted initiative that is simultaneously putting pressure on Iran from at least three separate directions. This may not prove fruitful in the end, but the proof of the pudding will come over time not in the form of a sudden or immediate reversal from Iran. As a strategic matter, Obama’s Iran policy is imaginative and sophisticated and is clearly one of the high-points of the early days of his administration.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor,is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. An earlier version of this essay was published at ASP’s FlashPoint blog.