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February 12, 2010

Three-Dimensional Chess With Iran (In Which I Agree, Mostly, With Peter Feaver)
Posted by David Shorr

In a very cogent post on Shadow Government, Peter Feaver lays out the basic policy and geopolitical challenges of dealing with Iran. At the heart of his analysis is a point I view as a basis for bipartisan consensus. Feaver critiques a certain attitude toward diplomacy that places a lot of hope in Iranian cooperativeness ("if only we gave them a chance"). He's right that unless it is confronted with incentives and disincentives from the outside, Iran will continue on a straight line toward (at least) virtual nuclear weapon capability. In other words, policy and diplomacy must take into account that Tehran's game is to run out the clock. As I say, this is a reasonable basis for bipartisanship.

Accordingly, Feaver calls out China for the pretense that a non-nuclear capable Iran can be attained free of any political or strategic cost to itself. You can find an even more pointed dissection of Chinese free-riding from Bill Powell in Time. I remain optimistic about Chinese support for new sanctions against Iran. Russia's backing of sanctions will shine a white-hot spotlight on China as the obstacle, and forced with the choice, I don't think they'll want to be Iran's sole defender -- or the United States' primary source of resistance on a top foreign policy priority.

A couple of Feaver's criticisms of Obama administration policy warrant response. I don't know whether the administration was "slow to capitalize on the domestic turmoil inside Iran" after last summer's fraudulent elections, but I do know that there were trade-offs associated with America offering itself as the target of demonization. I'm quite certain that the administration's "profound misstep" (as Feaver calls it) of delaying the pressure track until last fall was no such thing. In saying that sticks must come before carrots, Feaver has it backwards. The United States' ability to exert pressure and rally international support was strengthened by showing a degree of patience rather than haste. When Feaver claims that we're no further along than six months ago, he ignores the important October success of reaching an agreed plan to move Iranian uranium out of the country. That agreement was the result of the engagement approach and now, crucially, serves as the basis of the current pressure track.

Given that time is on Iran's side, the key thing now is to maintain some diplomatic momentum and a steady tempo of pressure. I assume that is the driving purpose of current administration efforts. Speaking of which, Josh Rogin's scorecard of Iran policy players in the administration is a good companion post to Feaver's.


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