Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Is Washington's Iran policy "confused"

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Update from AIJAC

April 23, 2010
Number 04/10 #05


Much debate has been sparked by the revelation in the New York Times last weekend that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had written a secret memo stating that, in the paper's words, the US lacks "an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability." Much of that debate has echoed Gates' apparent criticism of Washington's approach to Iran, and some of the more interesting examples are collected in this Update.

First up is an editorial from the Washington Post, which labels the Obama Administration's Iran policy "confused". The paper says that Gates appears right, the Administration "lacks a clear back-up plan" if its current dual-track policy of engagement and sanctions does not succeed - which it currently shows no sign of doing. The paper is particularly critical of the Administration's apparent efforts to talk down the possibility of a future potential military strike, as well as rule out sanctions like a gasoline embargo, which might heighten domestic Iranian popular opposition to the regime. For the paper's full critique of the Obama Administration's current approach to Iran, CLICK HERE. Like the Post, Michael Totten particularly objects to the latest Administration statements to play down the possibility of future military action.

Following up on the Washington Post's questioning the seriousness of the Administration's sanctions policy, veteran European journalist John Vinocur unfavourably compares the US approach to sanctions to that favoured by France. He says it looks like US calls for crippling sanctions, later reduced to "sanctions that bite" and then "smart sanctions" look likely to end up with sanctions that "might not be hard-nosed enough to cost the mullahs a half-hour’s lost sleep." After also saying the US approach to sanctions "looks like incoherence," Vinocur argues that without sanctions on petroleum, favoured by the French and the US Congress, but rejected by the Administration, it is hard to take seriously the American insistence that Iranian nuclear weapons are genuinely "unacceptable." For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Another criticism of the Administration's approach is former CIA agent turned author specialising in Iran Bob Baer.

Finally, American analyst Stephen Hayes calls attention to a different element of the debate about Iran's nuclear program - the fact that the Obama Administration seems to avoid reference to Teheran's ongoing support for terrorism and the insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq. After documenting the extent to which this continues to go on, he argues that mentioning it complicates the Administration's  diplomacy, not because of how the Iranians might react, but because of what it says about Iranian intentions. He says Iranian anti-American and pro-terrorist behaviour seems to contradict the assumption behind the Adminstration approach to Iran that Iran can and will suddenly become a good-faith negotiating partner, willing to relinquish its nuclear weapons plans in return for suitable concessions. For the details of what Hayes has to say, CLICK HERE.

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Confused on Iran   

Washington Post, Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DEFENSE SECRETARY Robert M. Gates was the focus of one of those curious Washington kerfuffles over the weekend in which a senior official makes headlines by saying what everyone knows to be true. According to the New York Times, Mr. Gates dispatched a secret memo to the White House in January pointing out that the Obama administration does not have a well-prepared strategy in place for the likely eventuality that Iran will continue to pursue a nuclear weapon and will not be diverted by negotiations or sanctions. Mr. Gates quickly denied that his memo was intended as a "wake-up call," as one unnamed official quoted by the Times called it. And that's probably true: It is evident to any observer that the administration lacks a clear backup plan.

President Obama's official position is that "all options are on the table," including the use of force. But senior officials regularly talk down the military option in public -- thereby undermining its utility even as an instrument of intimidation. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered more reassurance to Iran on Sunday, saying in a forum at Columbia University that "I worry . . . about striking Iran. I've been very public about that because of the unintended consequences."

Adm. Mullen appeared to equate those consequences with those of Iran obtaining a weapon. "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome," he was quoted as saying. Yet Israel and other countries in the region would hardly regard those "outcomes" as similar.

We are not advocating strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. But the public signs of the administration's squishiness about military options are worrisome because of the lack of progress on its two-track strategy of offering negotiations and threatening sanctions. A year-long attempt at engagement failed; now the push for sanctions is proceeding at a snail's pace. Though administration officials say they have made progress in overcoming resistance from Russia and China, it appears a new U.N. sanctions resolution might require months more of dickering. Even then it might only be a shell intended to pave the way for ad hoc actions by the United States and European Union, which would require further diplomacy.

And what would sanctions accomplish? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Financial Times last week that "maybe . . . that would lead to the kind of good-faith negotiations that President Obama called for 15 months ago." Yet the notion that the hard-line Iranian clique now in power would ever negotiate in good faith is far-fetched. More likely -- and desirable -- would be a victory by the opposition Green movement in Iran's ongoing domestic power struggle. But the administration has so far shrunk from supporting sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo. that might heighten popular anger against the regime.

All this probably explains why Mr. Gates, in his own words, "presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."

"There should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries," he added, "that the United States is . . . prepared to act across a broad range of contingencies in support of our interests." If allies and adversaries are presently confused, that would be understandable.


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Waffling on Muzzling the Mullahs

By JOHN VINOCUR

New York Times, April 12, 2010

PARIS — The United States’ notions of U.N. sanctions on Iran have devolved over the past months from crippling ones to ones that bite to the currently described smart ones, which although packaged with the words tough and strong might not be hard-nosed enough to cost the mullahs a half-hour’s lost sleep.

Is this a descending spiral of resolve fated to result in sanctions that pinch, nip or tweak?

Over the long haul, if the United States acts alone or with a handful of Western friends to curb Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, perhaps not. But for now, as the administration tries in the manner of George W. Bush to haul Russia and China on board for their fourth set of Security Council sanctions since 2006 (grade them so far from ineffectual to meaningless), the answer became clearer in the margins of the meeting in Prague last week between President Barack Obama and Dmitri A. Medvedev, the president of Russia.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, offered it up three separate times, with minor changes in diction, at a news briefing. He said, “Sanctions that would cause grave humanitarian concerns to the Iranian people, we’re not interested in that.”

Which means the United States could seem to some of its allies to be shying away from pressing the United Nations to adopt extensive sanctions on the export of refined petroleum products to Iran.

That is exactly the opposite of the approach voted by the U.S. House of Representatives, 412 to 12, when it passed a bill that would authorize the president to penalize any company or body shipping gasoline to Iran. The bill was described by the House Democratic leadership as aiming at Iran’s “Achilles’ heel” because imports account for 40 percent of the fuel used by the country’s car and trucks.

As laid out by Mr. Rhodes, the American position sounded a lot like what Russia said about a “total embargo” — although no one ever called for one — on exports of refined petroleum products (read gasoline and diesel fuel) to Iran. In the great tradition of Russia’s never threatening cutoffs in supplies to its natural gas clients, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov explained that blocking deliveries would be “a huge shock” to Iranian society and is “something we are definitely not prepared to consider.”

Arguably, there’s no crippling blow or even a bite here. Instead, you get something that looks like incoherence.

And you can question what sense there is in preemptively disqualifying via dubious moralizing a type of sanction that both the House and, more recently, the Senate have suggested is the smartest way to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons plans. America’s allies could still consider restricting Iran’s supply of gasoline in following up on a new (although limited) Security Council resolution with harder European or ad hoc sanctions. But resistance to them will be greater because of the United States’ present contradictory take on gasoline supplies.

Besides, if we’re dealing in morality on serious methods for depriving Iran of nuclear weapons capability or a bomb, lowering the level of gasoline exports to Iran instead of carrying out airstrikes on presumed nuclear installations would seem to be a far preferable “humanitarian” approach (Mr. Rhodes’ word) for both Iranians and the U.S. military.

The French, who are pretty consistently tough on Iran, appeared truly irritated a few months back when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in moving away from her call for crippling sanctions, expressed a preference for sanctions that would “not contribute to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.”

Tactically, that may have been related to American intelligence findings leading Gen. David H. Petraeus to assure the world it would not encounter a nuclear-capable Iran “this calendar year.” But Le Monde reported that French diplomats, without referring to Mrs. Clinton, said concerns like those she expressed were “exaggerated or baseless.”

In the event, the French wound up putting gasoline export sanctions in a draft resolution they circulated for consideration in New York. An American draft did not include them, but the Americans acknowledged in Prague last week that energy issues were not off the table and came under discussion there with the Russians.

So, noting their humanitarian motivations on gasoline, what have the Russians, the mullahs’ main supplier of arms and nuclear wherewithal, given back in terms of help on Iran in exchange for Mr. Obama’s reset of relations?

A recent draft of new U.N. sanctions was initially reported to include a full ban on supplying arms to Iran and recommend a full inspection regime, but according to Reuters, the Russians stopped it short, while saying “they could live with a call for ‘vigilance’ over the weapons trade.”

Ah, vigilance. It’s also the word, open to a hundred interpretations, that has come under discussion as a substitute for U.N. sanctions banning transactions involving Iran’s central bank.

With all its vagueness, vigilance now has a place in the major league of fuzziness alongside “unacceptable,” the term used by the United States and its friends concerning Iran’s eventually achieving nuclear weapons status. No course in diplomatic exegesis is required to think that’s an awful long way from saying, “We won’t allow it.”

For Thérèse Delpech, the French Atomic Energy Commission’s director of strategic affairs, the circumstances show “the Russians are playing with Monopoly money on the subject of sanctions on banks or arms or gasoline while the Americans stand by and smile. If there are U.N. sanctions, they will be minimal.”

There’s not much of a leap — although Ms. Delpech did not say it — from this view on the likelihood of enacting punitive sanctions on a country that has spent billions on developing atomic weapons, and is on the edge of success, to a notion in the international foreign policy community that the Obama administration plans in the end to deal with a nuclear-capable or nuclear-armed Iran through a policy of containment.

Washington denies it.

But if you scorn the gasoline sanctions that look to many like the best nonbelligerent shot you’ve got to spook the mullahs (after all, they came to power after a strike closing gas pumps demonstrated the impotence of the shah’s regime), then Iran may well think it has scant reason to believe the United States’ still-official bottom line: that when it comes to stopping the Iranian nuclear drive, all of America’s options remain open.

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The Iran Pretense

Obama's diplomacy depends on Iran's goodwill

BY Stephen F. Hayes

The Weekly Standard Vol. 15, No. 30
April 26, 2010 edition

On March 31, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that the U.S. military had discovered a “significant shipment” of arms from Iran to Afghanistan. Responding to a question at a press conference in Kabul, Mullen, the nation’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, said he was disturbed by Iran’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. “I was advised last night about a significant shipment of weapons, you know, from Iran into Kandahar not too long ago, for example.” How significant was the shipment? “I was taken aback,” Mullen said.

Any shipment of arms from Iran to Afghanistan is worrisome. But the timing of this one, shortly before the surge fighting shifts to Kandahar this summer, is particularly troubling. Mullen added that the Iranians’ “desire to be influential is increasing.”

Indeed. A week earlier, CNN reported that Iran was training Taliban fighters—in Iran. “We’ve known for some time that Iran has been a source for both materiel and trained fighters for Taliban elements in Afghanistan,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sholtis.

Although the support from Iran is clearly growing, it is not new. Last fall, CBS reported that Iran had stepped up shipments of deadly EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) and armor-piercing bombs. “More worrying still,” the report continued, “U.S. intelligence believes Iran is supplying surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban—the very same weapon the United States supplied to the Afghan resistance to bring down the Russians.”

The level of Iranian support for the Afghan insurgency does not yet match the crucial support Iran has provided to Shiite militias and Sunni militant groups in Iraq. And the insurgency in Afghanistan would exist with or without Iranian backing. But Iran’s aggressive and deadly activity in Afghanistan is growing, and its support for insurgents in Iraq continues.

Iran is the only nation that is actively supporting the forces fighting against the United States in both places. This war—or proxy war—is not led by rogue elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or military. It is directed by the Iranian government and approved at the highest levels. It is regime policy.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Iran has been designated for years by the State Department as the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. Tehran doesn’t hide its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And it has long harboured senior al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden’s son.

All of which provokes two questions: Why doesn’t President Obama talk about Iran and terrorism? And why hasn’t this president, so quick to issue formal condemnations of Israeli apartment construction, ever once publicly rebuked Iran for arming and training those who are killing Americans?

Last week, world leaders gathered in Washington for a summit to address nuclear terrorism and proliferation.  President Obama told them that nuclear terrorism is “one of the greatest threats to global security.” Iran—an active sponsor of terror now racing toward nuclear weapons—should have dominated the agenda. It didn’t. In fact, the most serious discussion of Iran came at the closing press conference, when reporters asked why it had been overlooked.

Clearly, talking about Iran and terrorism complicates Obama’s diplomacy. Since the first moments of his administration the president has chosen to believe that the Iranian regime might voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. To a great extent, his approach depends on maintaining that assumption.

It is hard to understand how Iran, in the context of its quiet war with the United States, will suddenly become a good faith negotiating partner on its nuclear program. And it becomes more difficult to pretend that the same Iranian leaders responsible for this aggression might willingly abandon a weapon that would instantly make their nation a regional superpower.

For the past two months, administration officials have told reporters (on background) that China and Russia will eventually support sanctions. And each time, a representative of the Russians or the Chinese downplayed the claim and raised questions about the effectiveness or the desirability of tough sanctions. Or both. And two weeks ago, when reporters from the New York Times tried to get Obama to embrace Hillary Clinton’s description of the sanctions his administration was pursuing as “crippling,” he balked.

So the Obama administration, after allowing the mullahs to miss deadline after deadline while it waited for some sign of compromise, is no longer even pushing for tough sanctions. And Iran, its centrifuges spinning, continues to supply those who target Americans with impunity.

This is not going to end well.

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