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February 22, 2012

Today in Iran-Diplomacy-Will-Fail Fatalism
Posted by David Shorr

5+1When you boil it down, much of the recent right-wing commentary on Iran are variations on the theme of just how futile diplomacy is. President Obama's handling of Iran has been subject to intense cross-pressures --and plenty of second-guessing -- at every step along the way. And now, having painstakingly built an international coalition for economic sanctions far more stringent than ever before, the president's skeptics are no less impatient with him. Which leaves us with a policy / political debate skewed dangerously toward military confrontation.

Given this rush to war, kudos to the New York Times for today's piece by Scott Shane trying to separate the rhetoric from the facts of Iran's nuclear program. Shane gives the last word to Shadow Government's Peter Feaver, who situates President Obama at the midpoint of public sentiment on the issue and notes how election campaigns tend to distort policy debates. This is my exact question about Feaver's most recent post about Iran: which side of the line is he on, straight policy analysis or political maneuvering?

In comparison with the GOP candidates, who would have voters believe Obama is helping Iran get the bomb, Feaver does give a more sympathetic and realistic take on Obama administration policy. But then, that sets the level-of-discourse bar pretty low. Wrapped within the fair-mindedness, however, is a policy prescription that would more likely doom diplomatic efforts to failure than help them succeed. 

Feaver wrote in response to a Times op-ed by former architect of Obama policy Dennis Ross, who argues that the intensified pressure of recent sanctions could change how Iranian leaders calculate cooperation versus defiance toward the rest of the world. The moment could be ripe for a peaceful solution, and we must give diplomacy a chance. Now look at the way Feaver gives with one hand and takes away with the other: 

He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran's cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain.

...then a few sentences later...

All current sanctions must be maintained at the current level of pressure throughout, until a deal is struck that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

According to Feaver, the key to a diplomatic solution is to resist ratcheting the sanctions back even a single notch until a final deal is reached. The United States and the other nations imposing sanctions should not relent in the slightest until Iran's total cooperation has been pocketed. (Please note: the strongest current sanctions are those being imposed bilaterally by various countries, with the UN Security Council resolution merely providing a framework.) He is imagining a diplomatic process -- imagine being the operative verb -- in which all of the significant moves come from one side, while the other sits impassively until fully satisfied. This leads me to a critique I've made many times: the right wing's inability to make a crucial distinction between cooperation (or concessions) versus capitulation. In their imaginary diplomacy, you can insist on outcomes that meet your every wish and give the other guy nothing. But back here in the real world, negotiation is based on give-and-take, not take-and-take. 

At one point in his post, Feaver writes, "As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face." Feaver then goes on to note Iran's past success in blaming sanctions for undercutting diplomacy, which has indeed helped Iran fend off pressure and keep working on its nuclear program. 

But if Ross and presumably his former Obama administration colleagues "surely know" this, then what is Feaver's point? I really have to flag how brazen it is to tell President Obama how to manage the unprecedented set of sanctions that he's put together. Given that Feaver's been trying to argue that all of President Obama's policy successes stem from his adoption of Republican ideas, it's no surprise that Feaver would short-change the very un-Bushlike diplomacy needed to get the sanctions.

And oh by the way, I don't have much patience for critics who claim utmost concern about Iran while shrugging off the US-Russia reset; whatever else can be said about the reset, it had everything to do with the cooperation on Iran that Moscow has provided. Likewise it's totally hypocritical for Republicans to be staunch advocates of sanctions and then complain about high oil prices, which are being driven upward mainly by the Iran standoff. 

So even though Feaver didn't really mean it, yes, the Obama administration knows very well that Iran must be kept from wriggling out from under the international pressure. Let me remind everyone that President Obama pressed ahead with the pivotal UN sanctions resolution in June 2010 in rejection of a deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey, based precisely on the argument Feaver presents. The administration's policy for three years has put the clear burden of proof squarely on Iran, a strategy that Feaver acknowledges but can't quite affirm.

I'll conclude by focusing on what a ridiculous false choice Feaver presents, with his idea of keeping every sanction in place until Tehran capitulates. A fuller outline of the choices includes Feaver's prescription, his straw man, and the sensible approach:

A) refuse to reciprocate any Iranian moves short of a final agreement

B) trade significant elements of the sanctions in exchange for trivial Iranian concessions

C) gradually ease sanctions in response to any meaningful Iranian steps to prove the civilian nature of their activities (if and only if they materialize)

Contrary to the right wing's over-the-top alarmism, President Obama is not foolish enough to adopt approach B. Sadly, Republicans are too ideological to go for option C. And the ultimate irony is that option C was the key to President Bush's success in getting Ghaddafi to abandon his nuclear program. 


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