Obama's Iran Trap

Just because Iran got caught with its hands in the nuclear cookie-jar doesn't mean the U.S. president now has the advantage. If anything, his troubles have only begun.

The conventional wisdom on last week's astonishing revelations about Iran's secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

Current and former officials seem to think announcing the facility was a shrewd move. "We have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday. "I think this is actually healthy that this has broken," former President Bill Clinton chimed in.

Don't be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

For one thing, it's not clear that "the Russians" have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev's advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin's top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister's ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don't know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he's still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should "calm down" over Iran's latest missile test and "not give way to emotions.") And then there's China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

And let's also remember that the point of all this isn't the sanctions themselves -- it's getting the Iranians to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions. Now, put yourself in the minds of Iranian leaders. Despite some major remaining technical hurdles, you're inching closer to achieving your nuclear goals. You've been watching the North Koreans very closely, noticing  that even after they tested a nuclear device one, two times, the regime is still in power and, if anything, the carrots they've been offered have only become more generous. And you're willing to bet that once you've got The Bomb, you'll be able to sort out all those issues like your frozen bank accounts and airplane spare parts with The Great Satan.

Even living under tougher sanctions wouldn't be so bad. You've got oil, and other countries will still need to buy it. Cutting Iranians further off from the world is a good thing from your perspective, because you didn't like all those wicked, licentious foreign influences anyway and globalization only seems to strengthen moderate and liberal forces wherever it spreads. Plus, you've got a great safety valve in Dubai, where anything goes and thousands of Iranian expats will eagerly work around obstacles to get you whatever you need. They know how to work in the shadows.

The wild card here is Israel. Many experts say that the Israelis don't have the capability to wipe out Iran's nuclear facilities, that it will take hundreds of underequipped sorties over several days, flying thousands of miles across hostile airspace, to do the job. And even if Israeli airstrikes are tactically successful, they'll only delay Iran's nuclear program, not destroy it. After all, one can't bomb knowledge.

But the Israelis might make a different calculation. Their goal may not be to take out Iran's program altogether, but rather to dump a steaming mess into the arms of the international community (read: the United States), saying: "Now you deal with this." For a country that views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, all these other concerns that analysts rightly raise -- the likely prospect of Iranian retaliation in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf; skyrocketing oil prices; a swift end to the Iranian reform movement -- are decidedly secondary.

Before that happens, though, the Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It's going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's argument that Iran's nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It's going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn't buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions "time to work" -- and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

So, has Obama really put pressure on Iran? More likely, the pressure is going to be on him to get results that are beyond his ability to deliver. Sure, the U.S. disclosure makes Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who received the diplomatic equivalent of a good pantsing last week, look like a bunch of liars. Gotcha! But we already knew the Holocaust-denying, show-trial-staging, Mahdi-obsessed Iranian president wasn't really a credible fella. What remains to be seen is whether Obama, or anybody else, has a credible strategy for winning this diplomatic showdown without reaching for the F-15s.



A Deal with Moscow? Don't Bet on It

There's still good reason not to get excited about Russian cooperation on Iran.

U.S. officials were practically giddy when they heard Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Wednesday indicate possible Russian support for new sanctions against Iran. "We believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision," Medvedev said with President Barack Obama standing next to him. "Sanctions rarely lead to positive results, but in some cases, the use of sanctions is inevitable." Obama's chief Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, was "delighted," according to the New York Times. "I couldn't have said it any better myself," he said. You could almost hear the champagne corks popping in the American delegation's suites.

But will Medvedev's words actually translate into Russian actions when it comes time to draft a tough resolution and vote? The Obama team appears to expect the Russians to go along, especially after its decision last week to scrap Bush administration plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. McFaul and other senior officials have rejected the notion of such a deal. "Is it the case that it changes the climate? That's true, of course. But it's not cause-and-effect," McFaul argued.

Deal or no deal, Obama officials might want to recall that Russia has voted for U.N. resolutions against Iran in the past, but those texts were significantly watered down at Moscow's insistence. Russia has also defied the spirit of those resolutions by continuing a business-as-usual approach to Tehran, including continued sales of arms and nuclear reactors. And Russian support for a sanctions resolution is far from a fait accompli. Just last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced their opposition to new sanctions.

Still, the Obama administration seems determined to argue that its push for Iran sanctions has absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever to do with its missile defense decision. Said Obama:

"Russia had always been paranoid about this, but George Bush was right, this wasn't a threat to them. So my task here was not to negotiate with the Russians about what our defense posture is. ... If the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development ... then that's a bonus." 

Methinks thou doth protest too much. That the administration made its decision a week before Obama's meeting with Medvedev seems more than a coincidence. (That the Poles were informed of the decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their country was callous treatment of a loyal ally.) The administration needs Medvedev's support on possible new sanctions against Iran.  It also wants to remove a major obstacle to conclusion of a post-START arms control deal; the Russians threatened to scupper that accord if the United States went ahead with 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. And yet if the administration is to be believed, Russia wasn't a factor in the decision, and there was no deal. 

Then again, the positive reaction in Moscow to the president's decision last week may start to dissipate as Russian officials focus on the details of the new missile defense configuration.  Under phase two of the administration's plans, the United States will look to deploy land-based SM-3 missiles by 2015. A distinct candidate for hosting those missiles, according to officials, is Poland. The agreement signed last year between Washington and Warsaw would still cover deployment of the SM-3s, obviating the need to negotiate a new accord with another country. 

Despite being stiffed last week, some Polish officials seem interested in hosting the new system.  According to Reuters, Slawomir Nowak, a senior advisor to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, said, "If this system becomes reality in the shape Washington is now suggesting, it would actually be better for us than the original missile shield program." 

The possibility that Poland could wind up hosting U.S. missiles after all is not likely to go over well in Moscow. Indeed, it was the fact that the United States would be cooperating on missile defense with two states that the Russians used to control that was most disturbing to the Kremlin. Even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, certainly no hard-liner, hinted at this in his op-ed in the Sept. 25 New York Times. "A week ago, [Obama] announced that the United States will not deploy -- at least, not in the foreseeable future -- a missile defense site in Central Europe..." (emphasis added). 

Should the land-based phase of Obama's plans include stationing missiles in Poland, the Russian reaction is likely to turn very negative. They will feel tricked after initially thinking Obama's decision was a victory for them. If that's the case, the administration will have raised doubts in the minds of our Central European allies about our reliability while also pissing off the Russians.  That will be another reason to keep those champagne bottles on ice. 

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