The Coming Failure on Iran
The Obama administration's positive tone following its first diplomatic encounter with Iran covers a deep and growing gloom in Washington and European capitals. Seven hours of palaver in Geneva haven't altered an emerging conclusion: None of the steps the West is considering to stop the Iranian nuclear program is likely to work.
Not talks. Not sanctions, even of the "crippling" variety the Obama administration has spoken of. Not military strikes. And probably not support for regime change through the still-vibrant opposition.
For obvious reasons, senior officials won't state this broad conclusion out loud. But it's not hard to find pessimistic public statements about three of the four options. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the prospects for diplomacy "very doubtful." Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said military action will do no more than "buy time." Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, echoing private statements I've heard from the Obama administration, told me last week that a strategy of backing the Iranian opposition "would take too long" and might well produce a government with the same nuclear policy.
As for sanctions, Western officials rarely disparage them in public. They don't want to help spoilers in Russia and China who want to block U.N. action against Iran for their own reasons. But many are doubtful about them, and with good reason. Despite hints of cooperation by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the White House is pessimistic that Russia or China will agree to the sort of escalation in sanctions that would command Iran's attention, such as a ban on gasoline supplies or arms sales or new investments in oil and gas production.
The history of sanctions in the region also is not good: More than a decade of punishment, including regular airstrikes, had no positive impact on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Iran's current rulers, many of whom came of age in the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq war, sound convincing when they say they are ready for the country to suffer more austerity for the cause of Iranian greatness.
What of Thursday's talks in Geneva? Iran agreed to international inspections of its new nuclear facility and to ship out of the country some of the uranium it has enriched. Yet those modest concessions may complicate the negotiations and the prospects for sanctions. The headlines about them already obscured the fact that Tehran's negotiator declined to respond to the central Western demand: that Iran freeze its uranium enrichment work. Iran has rejected that idea repeatedly, and there is no reason to believe the hard-liners in power will change their position.
In the meantime, talks about the details of inspections and the uranium shipments could easily become protracted, buying the regime valuable time. (On Friday the Associated Press quoted a member of the Iranian delegation as saying it had not, in fact, agreed to the uranium deal.) Meanwhile, Tehran's tactical retreat has provided Russia and China with an excuse to veto new sanctions -- something they would have been hard-pressed to do had Iran struck an entirely defiant tone in Geneva.
The Obama administration and its allies have said repeatedly that they will pursue diplomacy until the end of the year and then seek sanctions if diplomacy hasn't worked. That sets up a foreseeable and very unpleasant crossroads. "If by early next year we are getting nothing through diplomacy and sanctions," says scholar Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, "the entire policy is going to be revealed as a charade."
What then? Pollack, a former Clinton administration official, says there is one obvious Plan B: "containment," a policy that got its name during the Cold War. The point would be to limit Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons or exercise its influence through the region by every means possible short of war -- and to be prepared to sustain the effort over years, maybe decades. It's an option that has been lurking at the back of the debate about Iran for years. "In their heart of hearts I think the Obama administration knows that this is where this is going," Pollack says.
I suspect he's right. I also don't expect Obama and his aides to begin talking about a policy shift anytime soon. For the next few months we'll keep hearing about negotiations, sanctions and possibly Israeli military action as ways to stop an Iranian bomb. By far the best chance for a breakthrough, as I see it, lies in a victory by the Iranian opposition over the current regime. If that doesn't happen, it may soon get harder to disguise the hollowness of Western policy.