15 November 2008

How will the Obama presidency deal with Iran?

By Liam Carroll

The Washington foreign policy community is awash with speculation as to how president elect Barak Obama is going to, in his own words, "stop Iran's uranium enrichment programme and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons". In contrast to president Bush who initially insisted that Iran renounce its nuclear program before talks could start, Barak Obama has said that "we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran."

Simply talking to Iran is hardly the issue though; while the Bush administration's opening diplomatic salvo may have been to put Iran on the Axis of Evil back in 2002, by 2008 the US had decided to sign up to a package of incentives that had been proposed by the Europeans and even sent a senior American envoy along to listen to the subsequent negotiations. The talks were unproductive and many have drawn the conclusion, therefore, that neither on-going anti-Iranian sanctions nor a set of incentives are likely to deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear warhead capability, sometime between late 2009 and 2015.

In this context Barak Obama, like the Bush administration, has stridently declared that "it is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy", and that "we must not rule out using military force" or indeed "the whole range of instruments of American power." If the nay-sayers of the diplomatic track are correct therefore, one cannot escape the conclusion that the great new liberal hope for the world will soon be contemplating a war with Iran; quite possibly within his first year.

There are however extremely good reasons why America has avoided the war option so far, and will continue to do so, with the prohibition on aggression even being extended, according to newspaper reports, to its middle east ally, Israel. Bloggers from Harvard's Middle East Strategy website explain: "an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program has the potential to erase many if not all of the hard-won gains in Iraq and to make the environment there and elsewhere in the region much more dangerous for US servicemen." Not just US servicemen either, British forces, Iraqi citizens and Iranians would all be caught up in any escalating conflict.

Furthermore, "this would not be a one-afternoon cakewalk as against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. This would have to be a massive and sustained air campaign the Israeli air force could not prosecute (though it is larger than the German or French air forces). And it would have to be flanked by a serious naval engagement, which only the United States can mount." Thus if the United States were to be "in on the crash", they would also "want to be in on the take-off," writes Josef Joffe.

Options for the new president appear to be somewhat limited therefore, although a few analysts, including those on the Harvard blog, have proffered some suggestions: "for the United States to successfully engage Iran, Washington will need leverage. That means consolidating its gains in Iraq while downgrading its military presence and getting the Europeans and Russia on board in imposing further sanctions on Iran."

Experienced US ambassador Dennis Ross echoes the sentiment elsewhere: "To gain the victory, Russia must join real economic sanctions against Iran and its energy sector." No small task of course, given the recent bitter exchanges over Georgia, however, as Ross and others observe, "while the Bush Administration has made developing and deploying US missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic a top priority, the next president could use these potential outposts as a bargaining chip with the Russians. After all, the Bush administration's main argument justifying the deployment of these ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe is the threat posed by Iranian missiles armed with nuclear weapons."

Chuck Freilich, another Harvard blogger, also thinks that the US could engage Russia "as a legitimate partner and address its concerns and interests, rather than trying to force it to swallow totally outdated and gratuitous acts - such as NATO expansion right on its borders and an anti-missile system that might be rendered unnecessary to begin with, were the United States to bring Russia on board the anti-Iran campaign." Additional voices for a new Russia policy include Europe's 27 foreign ministers who wrote to the president elect to express their view that the EU needs Russia as a partner. Such ruminations remain speculative for the time being, of course, but if we are going to see change, it may not be toward Iran.

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