For Obama, Short-term Tactics, or Long-term Strategy on Iran?

Jul 20, 2010

This article by Claudia Antunes was first published on June 13, 2010, in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. For the original article in Portuguese, click here.

By insisting on votes on sanctions against Iran, Obama may have sacrificed his strategic objective—to prevent the development of the Iranian bomb—for an ephemeral victory in the UN Security Council.

This is the evaluation of David Speedie, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Relations, New York, where he directs the U.S. Global Engagement program and a project that examines the "rise of the rest," including middle powers such as Brazil and Turkey.

In an interview with Folha, Speedie, a native of Scotland, regrets that the White House has disregarded the agreement mediated by these two countries. He said the agreement is a confidence-building measure that could facilitate more comprehensive negotiations with Tehran.

He estimates that, by insisting that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for dialogue, Obama maintains the approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, which did not work.

"One of the criticisms of the Bush administration policy towards Iran was that he was willing to negotiate, but required that the final position of the Iranians had to be set before starting. This government has stated that this approach would change and that would they would undertake genuine negotiations. Unfortunately that policy was not sustained."

Speedie believes that negotiations can be resumed and that the Iranian bomb is not inevitable. "The religious leadership of the country and even [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad may be criticized for many things, but they are not suicidal."

Speedie is part of a community of American foreign policy experts who, in recent days, have published reports criticizing the government's position on Iran. Other names include Gary Sick, retired military and Columbia University professor, and Flynt Leverett, director of the Iran project of the New America Foundation in Washington.

Below are the main excerpts of his interview, conducted by telephone:

Folha: Why did the U.S. rush to vote on sanctions against Iran, in spite of the deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey in Tehran?

David Speedie: I regret to say that there was a degree of spite. The U.S. had taken the path of sanctions and therefore finds it would be difficult to change. Changing is not easy when a position has been stated. And this is becoming clear even to a government that has pledged to hear the views of others, at least in principle.

When they were able to obtain the support of Russia and China, with diluted sanctions, it was seen as a diplomatic victory. But I fear that this was just the triumph of a short-term tactic rather than a long-term strategy.

In other words, the advantage of attracting Russia and China to support sanctions is one thing, while the long-term strategy should be to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb.

Folha: The Brazilian government claims that the letter sent by Obama endorsed the mediation done by Brazil and Turkey. How so?

Speedie: In October of last year, the U.S. was ready to endorse an agreement very similar in spirit if not in every detail, to that achieved by Brazil and Turkey. Obama's letter to Lula talks about being open to negotiations, and this, in my opinion, encouraged Brazil and others. The letter does not mention the precondition of suspending [uranium] enrichment, which became the main point of objection to the agreement. That must have surprised President Lula, because it is not in the letter.

I can only assume that there were those within the administration who were focused on sanctions.

The administration says the difference between now and October 2009 is that Iran continued to enrich and what would be 70 percent of the stocks of enriched uranium are now only 55 percent. But as said the Brazilian ambassador to the UN and the former director general of IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, the ultimate goal is to ensure that Iran's program has peaceful purposes. What we have to do is negotiate and devote ourselves to building reliable measures.

What was proposed by Brazil and Turkey was at least a measure of confidence-building in which some concessions were made by Iran to go to the next step.

Folha: Until this episode, it was unclear whether Obama would insist on the precondition of suspending uranium enrichment by Iran. How do you see that?

Speedie: There are two things at play here. The first is that American domestic politics has great influence on foreign policy. This is the case for Cuba and Iran. The second is that Democratic governments cannot be seen as "soft" on military policy and security, which would be used by Republicans in election campaigns.

But whatever the reasons, one of the criticisms of the Bush administration policy towards Iran was that he was willing to negotiate, but required that the final position of the Iranians had to be set before starting. This government has stated that this approach would change and that would they would undertake genuine negotiations. Unfortunately that policy was not sustained.

Folha: One of the criticisms of the Brazilian government is that when they were a broker in a Middle East issue vital to the U.S., it was beyond the resources of power they have. How do you analyze this episode and how this may affect the external image of Brazil?

Speedie I do not agree with this criticism. In short, I can understand that there might have been embarrassment over the Brazilian position.

This is not the first time a country or a leader who acted thinking they were working with signals from Washington was disappointed. But I do not think this feeling of frustration can last, because there is an inevitable rise of the role of new actors in the international arena. President Obama himself acknowledged that.

Although there is no doubt that the U.S. remains the main military, economic, and political power in the world, there are new situations, including opportunities for negotiation of difficult issues like Iran, that the U.S. may not be able to resolve by itself. So in the long run, countries like Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and South Africa will have a significant role to play.

Folha: The editorials of the major U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times and Washington Post have been very critical of Brazil and Turkey. Do you think that this reflects the thinking the majority of the U.S. foreign policy community?

Speedie: To be honest, most Americans, and I suspect that is the same in your country, do not closely follow foreign policy. The newspapers of the establishment, as you mentioned, have been characterized by a willingness to give enough credit to the new president. He made the speech in Cairo [which promised a new era in relations with Muslim-majority countries] and last month spoke of diplomacy and negotiations at the Military Academy at West Point. He makes grand statements along those lines.

The problem is that implementation is spotty. But I think there is this willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt, and Iran is clearly an emotional subject for many Americans for 30 years [based on the taking of hostages at the embassy in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979].

However, there are many in the academic community and policy makers who try to present a more balanced view. We at the Carnegie Council respect the president and wish him well, but we reserve the right to be critical.

Folha: Even those who supported the sanctions concede that they will not work, at least in the short term. Some experts believe it is inevitable that Iran gets the bomb. Others say the country's religious leadership is not rational in their calculations about it. What is your prediction?

Speedie: First, I think the religious leadership of the country and Ahmadinejad himself can be criticized for many things, but they are not suicidal or self-destructive. Second, I do not think it's inevitable that Iran will develop the bomb. I think, unfortunately, there may be events that push things in the wrong direction.

The two key elements here are that we can implement measures to verify whether Iran is moving toward the militarization of its nuclear program, and we can support confidence-building measures to keep negotiating to prevent that. These are the two key factors that undermine the sanctions.

Folha: But with the sanctions, do you think they will harden their behavior?

Speedie: In the short term, yes. But the penalties were so diluted in order not to affect the Iranian oil industry activity in the long term. China, in my opinion, played a sophisticated game by keeping the U.S. happy and not undermining their business with Iran.

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