Outplayed by Iran

Barry Rubin

Obama has stepped into trap laid by Ahmadinejad

US President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to understand how quickly and easily his diplomatic ‘generosity’ and readiness to make concessions becomes a trap and also how his self-professed reluctance to do anything tough turns into a terrible vulnerability. Now he faces being outmanoeuvred by Iran.

The Tehran regime has taken three of Mr Obama’s policies — engagement with enemies, global nuclear disarmament, and partnership over leadership — and turned them against the US Government. The score today is Iran: 3, United States: 0. And all three of Iran’s scores are actually America’s ‘self goals’.

First, Mr Obama has talked a great deal about engaging Iran, claiming this would show the world America’s good intentions and thus clear the way for tougher sanctions. By the time sanctions are imposed, if they are, the Obama Administration will have wasted all of 2009 on this process.

But guess what? The Iranians can play that game also. At the last minute, Iran has come up with an offer, obviously just a stalling tactic. Some in the American media have fallen for the trick, with the Los Angeles Times saying that it doesn’t matter if the offer is a trick; the US has to play along!

Second, the Iranian regime has said that it won’t talk about its own nuclear programme. Instead, it has proposed that all nuclear weapons in the world be eliminated.

Now where did they get this idea? Why, from Mr Obama of course! He proposed this in his Cairo speech (I had then warned that this would happen) and he is about to chair a UN session on this very point. In fact, at Mr Obama’s request, the session has been changed from a debate focussing on immediate nuclear weapons’ threats (Iran and North Korea) to a general one about ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The Iranians will have a field day.

And that’s not all! For this credibility through engagement thing works both ways. When Mr Obama says the US must show the world that it has tried to engage Iran, he’s being not just Eurocentric but Western Eurocentric. There’s a flip side. Now Iran is offering to talk and the US is refusing. This will make the US look hypocritical in the Muslim-majority world and other places outside of Western Europe.

Third, the Russians have accepted it. Jumping at the chance for an excuse not to impose sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said there won’t be any new sanctions because he thinks the Iranian proposals are just dandy and more time should be spent (wasted) on more meetings.

The Russians have been talking this way for months. Yet, while the danger was clear, the Obama Administration ignored it, pretending all was well with Moscow. There was never any chance of Russia, or China for that matter, supporting the US strategy. Isn’t Mr Obama going to look like a fool when his grand strategy on Iran is shown to be hollow?

In the end, though, the Obama Administration has decided to step into the trap and negotiate with Iran. Why? Here’s the key statement:

“Officials said their expectations were extremely low. They also said their willingness to proceed was based in part on a recognition that some form of talks had to take place before the US could make a case for imposing far stronger sanctions on Iran.”

But why do there have to be some kind of talks? Who is going to care? How long are these going to take, no doubt well into 2010. The Iranian regime will use all sorts of other issues as distractions.

the writer is director of the GLORIA Centre, Tel Aviv, and editor of the MERIA Journal.
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