Friday, September 27, 2013

Reflections on Obama and Negotiating with Iran

Not surprisingly, there has been a spate of criticism of late of President Barack Obama over the quality of his leadership in foreign affairs.  The claim is that "Obama is weak, he's unwilling to take strong action, and our adversaries know that about him and will humiliate him and run circles around him."  My view?  Poppycock.

I don't know whether a meaningful deal is possible with the Iranians.  No doubt President Hassan Rouhani is on a charm offensive.  A number of critics point out that he did this once before, with the Europeans, and succeeded in charming his adversaries into stepping back while Iran kept developing its centrifuges.  I don't pretend to know the full story but perhaps that is true.

I remain skeptical about a deal because I strongly believe that the Iranians in almost all quarters want nuclear weapons.  Not only do the hardliners want nuclear weapons, but I suspect even the youth of the country who may feel oppressed by the mullahs either want, or at least don't like the idea of being pressured by outsiders from building, nuclear weapons.  Having nuclear weapons is a sign of prestige and national pride, when Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, and a measure of 'equality' and deterrent vis-a-vis Israel, which is presumed by most to have them.

Does that mean that negotiations will fail or that any agreement will mean the United States and the West will be fooled because Iran will nonetheless continue to develop nuclear weapons?  We're told that is what North Korea appears to have done; that North Korea made deals but did not abide by them and now has nuclear weapons.  Will Iran follow North Korea's lead and, even if a deal is reached with the West, continue to develop nuclear weapons in violation of its terms?  Perhaps.  Obviously the only conceivable way that outcome may be avoided is if Iran’s nuclear activities are fully transparent and if verification of Iran's status is constant and intrusive, and those requirements are not easily met.

Hence the skepticism.  But does that mean Obama is a weak President and a poor negotiator?  No.  But critics point to the Syria situation, claiming Obama drew a bright red line a year ago over Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then proceeded to turn a blind eye for a year to Assad's use of chemical weapons, and then, following the extensive and deadly use of chemical weapons on August 21, 2013, Obama made threats of military action but continued to equivocate, seeking Congressional

Perhaps George W. Bush, had he still been President, would have attacked Syria regardless of the vote in the British Parliament, strong American public opinion against any military involvement, and a Congress very hesitant to support military action particularly in light of popular opinion.  But after his own disastrous Iraq War and the mess in Afghanistan he helped bring about, it isn't at all clear that George W would have disregarded these obstacles and launched an attack, despite the likelihood that Cheney would have been urging him to do so.  What does seem to be relatively clear is that Obama's threat to use military force against Syria finally spurred Russia into proposing to intervene and seek to persuade Assad to agree to relinquish his chemical weapons.  Perhaps that is nothing but a stalling tactic but it remains to be seen.  Syria has been providing some information required under the agreement and the United Nations Security Council has apparently approved a resolution that, while not promulgated under Article 7, nonetheless holds out the likelihood of sanctions under Article 7 if Syria fails to comply.

There is no question that Obama is slow moving and cautious when it comes to American military action abroad.  He spent an inordinate amount of time to decide whether or not to send more American troops to Afghanistan soon after he became President in response to a call by others for an Afghanistan surge.  He hesitated over involving the United States in Libya when the so-called Arab Spring reached its shores and then, when he finally decided to act, chose to provide limited military support and, in the words of his critics, "lead from behind."  He has held back during his Presidency from direct involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, only acting recently to encourage renewed negotiations as a result of Secretary Kerry's initiative.  This hesitancy seems not only to reflect his overall personality as one who acts cautiously only after careful consideration of a situation but also his awareness of America's intense fatigue with foreign military involvement following Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the limits of American military power in effectuating positive outcomes around the world.

But being slow moving and cautious, perhaps ultra-cautious at times, does not mean weakness.  Obama has taken risks and has made moves when he has decided such actions serve America's national interest.  He approved the daring mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.  While garnering criticism from some quarters, Obama has utilized drone attacks in foreign countries in pursuit of terrorist leaders.  And, while he sought Congressional approval for military action against Syria, it is far from clear that he would have taken no military action had Congress failed to support his request.

Obama knows that America does not want to go to war against Iran.  He knows that Iran is aware of American public opinion.  At the same time, the United States has tightened economic sanctions against Iran during Obama’s tenure in office and those sanctions seem to have succeeded at least in some measure in making life extremely difficult in Iran.  Israel has threatened to take military action against Iran at some point if its nuclear weapons program is not stopped.  And, despite reticence on the part of the American public and Obama himself, America has indicated the possibility that it will initiate military action against Iran to avoid Iran developing nuclear weapons.  These are not insignificant threats to Iran and there is reason to believe that Iran's leadership takes them as meaningful threats.

It is in this context, a strong desire among Americans and in the West against another Middle East war but strong concerns among Western powers about the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons, including concerns for the West’s Middle East Sunni Arab allies who will likely not stand idly by if Iran develops nuclear weapons but will seek to develop their own, as well as for Israel, that a possible deal between the United States and its allies and Iran may emerge.  Will Iran truly be willing to stop its nuclear weapons program and give sufficient access to international organizations and personnel to verify such an action in exchange for the ending of economic and other sanctions against Iran and the end to military threats against Iran?  Perhaps so.  But we won't know unless a full attempt to reach an accord is made, against a clock that continues to tick.  Is Obama strong enough to engage in intense negotiations to reach this outcome, which will require an ability to show a willingness to reach a compromise balanced by an ability to project a willingness to use military force if needed?  I believe the answer is Yes.