Obama’s NDU Speech: Implications for Tehran

The major speech on counter-terrorism policy President Obama delivered last week at the National Defense University has generated a great deal of commentary about its implications for drone strikes and Guantanamo detainees.  Little noticed, however, is the underlying message it sends to Iran’s leaders.

Mr. Obama has made it a habit of talking tough to the Islamic Republic, regularly declaring that he is prepared, if necessary, to resort to military means to stop Tehran’s advancing nuclear weapons program.  But as I’ve argued in previous posts (here, here and here), the president’s own actions – from his frequently-stated eagerness to extricate the United States from a dozen years of war in the Greater Middle East to his determined focus on the domestic agenda – have undercut the power of his words.  As a number of analysts note (examples here and here), Iranian leaders appear to have concluded that Washington has little stomach for fighting another conflict in the region.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outgoing president, said as much in an interview last September.  And this assessment will only deepen if Saeed Jalili, the apparent front-runner and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wins the country’s presidential election on June 14.  The New York Times observes that Jalili, formerly the hard-line negotiator in the intermittent nuclear talks with the West, “seems set to further escalate the standoff with the United States and its allies if elected president.”

Mr. Obama’s address will do nothing to give Tehran pause – indeed, quite the opposite.  In it, he warned against being “drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight” and spoke about shifting the country from a “perpetual war footing.”*  And reminding all once again of the urgent need to address domestic challenges, he declared that the wars of 9/11 have cost “well over a trillion dollars, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.”

The same themes were sounded in the president’s inaugural address four months ago and they fast gaining intellectual currency.  Liberal hawks who pushed for U.S. intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Libya more recently are now mainly silent on the Syrian civil war.  Even conservatives advocating a more robust approach on Syria are keen to avoid getting mired in the Muslim world.  And as the new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, demonstrates, strategic retrenchment represents the prevailing wisdom in foreign policy circles.  This idea is even making headway within the Republican Party.

The leaders in Tehran seem to have it right: Mr. Obama is much more likely to accept an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli rather than make good on his repeated vows to use military force to prevent it.  And a new report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran underscores this point.  It notes that a policy of containment – something the Obama administration vociferously denies pursuing – “may eventually become the only path left.”  Significantly, the report’s co-author is Colin H. Kahl, who served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term.

*Interestingly, U.S. military leaders dissent from this view and argue that the coming era will be one of continuous conflict.

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North Korea, Iran and Obama’s Big Bluff

North Korea’s nuclear test this week, coming on the heels of last December’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile along with reports (here and here) that Pyongyang is developing a mobile missile launcher, underscores a point I’ve argued in earlier posts (here and here): It is exceedingly difficult for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities, especially if it located in a strategic part of the world, has powerful patrons, and is able to inflict retribution on important U.S. interests in the region.  This lesson is all the more poignant given the Obama administration’s contention that its policy of strategic patience actually represents a harder line vis-à-vis North Korea than what the George W. Bush administration pursued.  It also is one that gives Iranian leaders all the more reason to discount Mr. Obama’s tough talk regarding their own nuclear ambitions.* Continue reading

A Test of U.S. Credibility on Iran

Shifting red lines in Syria undermine the tough rhetoric toward Tehran

Obama Tough 2Many observers have connected the civil war raging in Syria to the broader U.S. standoff with Iran.  Critics of the Obama administration’s extremely cautious approach on Syria argue that pushing more forcefully for the demise of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Tehran’s main ally in the Arab world, would bring about Iran’s further strategic isolation.  But another link is less noticed: Washington’s shifting red lines on Assad’s use of chemical weapons is undermining President Obama’s tough talk on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In earlier posts (here and here), I argued that Mr. Obama is more likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli rather than make good on his repeated vows to use military force to prevent it.  My reasoning is two-fold: First, as the depressing track record with North Korea over the last two decades demonstrates, it is exceedingly difficult for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities.

A second reason is more specific to this White House: The Obama administration’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action has always an air of unreality.  After all, as I wrote earlier, “a president determined to wind down George Bush’s wars in the Greater Middle East is quite unlikely to initiate a third one.”  Continue reading

Obama is still bluffing on Iran

An unexpected shadow was cast over President Obama’s swing through Southeast Asia last week by the fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.  The diversion is interpreted by some as a sign of how the combustibility of the Middle East will undercut Washington’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” toward Asia.  As one commentator artfully puts it,

“Having [Secretary of State] Clinton fly directly from Asia to the fires in the Middle East reminds Asia that the conflict in Gaza and Middle East strife in general is like a jealous lover, always calling the U.S. high-level political focus away from Asia.”

This view is underscored in today’s Wall Street Journal, where columnist Gerald F. Seib writes that problems with Tehran will disrupt Mr. Obama’s entire second term agenda.  In his view, the intrusion on the presidential trip is “an apt metaphor for how hard it will be to execute the pivot toward Asia when Iran and the Islamists it inspires have the ability to create crises elsewhere.”

As many analysts see it, the monkey wrench Tehran wields is about to become a whole lot bigger in the months ahead as the showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions reaches a climax. Continue reading

Tougher than the Rest?

If history is any guide, Obama is bluffing on Iran

With President Obama describing them as Tehran’s “last chance” for a peaceful resolution, international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program started up again this past weekend.  Washington has been talking tough with Iran of late, insisting that it is prepared, if necessary, to use military force to stop the country’s atomic ambitions.

But how credible are these threats?  The question is all the more pertinent given the White House’s contention that it is actually pursuing a harder line vis-à-vis North Korea – Iran’s precursor as proliferation rogue – than the George W. Bush administration did.

Yet if the U.S. saga with Pyongyang is any guide, President Obama is more likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli.  Indeed, the rhetoric issuing from Washington nowadays is nearly a verbatim copy of the words Obama’s predecessors once directed at North Korea.  And we all know how well that turned out. Continue reading