On March 24, Obama administration officials briefed reporters on what was described as a very positive development in the U.S. effort to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon: China had agreed to participate in a conference call to discuss sanctions.
Three weeks earlier, China had all but ruled out sanctions. “As everyone knows, pressure and sanctions are not the fundamental way forward to resolving the Iran nuclear issue and cannot fundamentally solve the issue,” said Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi on March 7. Just to persuade China to rejoin the discussions about sanctions, the United States further watered down the proposed language of a United Nations Security Council resolution.
In early February, the Obama administration had given reporters a similar update on its progress, this one about Russia. According to Jennifer Loven from the Associated Press, White House officials said Russia was on board with sanctions and was “not seen as a problem anymore in getting a tougher new sanctions package.”
But by the time the administration had convinced China to join the phone call, Russia was teetering. A spokesman for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin said only that Russian support for sanctions “was possible,” adding ominously that sanctions “do not always help to resolve such an issue” and are often “counterproductive.”
Even before they were weakened, there were already serious questions about whether the proposed sanctions would do anything at all to retard Iran’s nuclear progress. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not think so, and he is not alone. At a joint appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, took the unusual step of publicly disparaging the U.S. proposals. With Clinton at his side, he said: “Sanctions are a long-term solution. They may work, we can’t judge. But we see the issue in the shorter term maybe because we are closer to the threat. . . . So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution.”
So here we are. After 15 months of pleading with the mullahs and entreating our allies for help, Barack Obama’s Iran policy is such a dismal failure that administration flacks are left to tout as a breakthrough Chinese participation in a phone call to discuss watered-down U.N. sanctions that few believe will work.
And Iran’s enrichment proceeds apace.
In October 2009, Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton administration official and author of a first-rate history of U.S.-Iranian relations, said, “If by early next year we are getting nothing through diplomacy and sanctions, the entire policy is going to be revealed as a charade.” Plan B, Pollack noted, is “containment,” adding: “In their heart of hearts I think the Obama administration knows that this is where this is going.”
Senator John McCain agrees. Asked if the Obama administration’s policy on Iran was tantamount to containment, he agreed. “Yes, they’re leaking it out. You see it all over the place. I don’t know whether they’ve adopted it or not but it sure looks like it,” he said in an interview last week.
Indeed, several pro-Obama columnists and commentators have already floated “a robust containment strategy against Iran,” to use the words of Fareed Zakaria. Back in July 2009, Hillary Clinton was certainly using the language of containment when she raised the prospect of a “defense umbrella” in the region to protect U.S. allies from a nuclear Iran. The New York Times’s David Sanger, who writes frequently on nuclear issues, wrote in mid-March that “the administration is deep into containment now—though it insists its increases in defensive power in the Gulf are meant to deter a conventional attack by Iran.”
McCain read from a long list of administration statements warning Iran against nuclear weapons development: “There is a huge disconnect between what they are doing and how we are responding, and it reflects the wishful thinking that has characterized appeasement policies in the past.” McCain mentioned the famous photograph of Jimmy Carter kissing Leonid Brezhnev.
McCain then graduated to an even harsher comparison. He said he had been rereading William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and was struck by the similarities between the naïveté of Neville Chamberlain and the willingness of the Obama administration to accommodate the mullahs. “They’re just flailing. A few days ago the president said he wanted to talk some more,” McCain said, incredulous, referring to Obama’s message on Nowruz, the Iranian new year, which renewed the administration’s offer for negotiations. The overture, following Iran’s dismissal of several previous “final” deadlines for new talks, is “consistent with the thread of appeasement throughout history. It’s that same idea that if we’re nice to our enemies, they’ll do what we want.”
But even as Obama extends the deadlines, he talks tough. “It’s one of our highest priorities to make sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon,” he said on March 17, in an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News. The problem is that if keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is one of the highest priorities, the very highest priority seems to be avoiding military conflict at all cost.
“The last thing the Middle East needs now is another war,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the New York Times back in the spring of 2008. Gates noted that he had worked on a policy paper on Iran with Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004. Gates added: “Based on what I heard from every expert, then and now, I think there’s a risk that an attack would strengthen Ahmadinejad and solidify the Iranian people’s support for their regime.” (Brzezinski is one of those arguing strenuously for containment today.)
In a recent interview with al Arabiya, Hillary Clinton was twice asked directly whether “a military strike is off the table.” Clinton did not offer the standard everything-is-on-the-table caveat—a pointed omission—and went to great lengths to emphasize that military action is “not what the United States was planning to do.”
Gates and Clinton are the administration’s hawks.
The manufactured dispute with Israel may well be additional evidence of the president’s determination to avoid a military confrontation. The Obama administration took what was a minor misunderstanding about Jerusalem housing and made it a serious test of a longstanding alliance. This was no accident.
Senior officials in the Israeli government are perplexed. Some have speculated that Obama wants to weaken Israel before any serious Middle East peace talks. That’s possible. A more likely explanation is that the shabby treatment of Netanyahu grows out of Obama’s eagerness for a “new beginning” to America’s relationship with Muslims around the world.
But there is a third possibility. In private, the Obama administration has repeatedly warned Israel against a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Isolating Israel in this way sends the same message publicly; it says, in effect, “You think we overreacted to a housing spat in Jerusalem? Try bombing Iran.”
Obama officials are loath to talk about Israel, Iran, and the bomb in public. They offer platitudes, and they focus obsessively on diplomacy that virtually no one thinks will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter whether China participates in a conference call about weak U.N. sanctions that will have a negligible effect on Iran’s behavior. And containment, the de facto policy on Iran today, will become the acknowledged Obama administration approach to Iran.
Which means, of course, that Iran will have the bomb.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.