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A Stealth Engagement of Iran?

By Gary Sick

The past few weeks have made me scratch my head about the dramatically dissonant signals coming out of Washington about Iran. One possible conclusion is pure chaos and incompetence in the White House, with no one in control of the message.

But there is an alternative explanation that intrigues me. Perhaps messages are being delivered to multiple audiences more or less simultaneously, in a complicated effort to have your cake and eat it too. Or as I would like to believe, undertaking a new initiative with Iran while trying to disarm the political opposition.

In December, the action was entirely with Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense and former director of the CIA. On December 2, he gave a devastating appraisal of the negative consequences of a war with Iran. The Washington Post grumbled editorially that he should keep his opinions to himself, since he risked giving aid and comfort to Iran.  

Almost as if to apologize for his off-script remark, on Panetta’s next public outing to CBS Evening News on December 19, he speculated that Iran could hypothetically have a nuclear weapon in about a year. Then, on January 8, on “Face the Nation,”  Panetta declared: “Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” He quickly added, “our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.” The first comment got remarkably little attention, while the “red line” comment predictably became the headline.

Was this amazing zig-zag performance just incompetence (which is not a Panetta trademark)? Or was it evidence of two alternative policies fighting for position in the administration?

On January 10, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned Iran’s shift of enrichment activities to the deep underground Fordo facility outside Qom. But she coupled her statement with a strong pitch for a return to negotiations: “We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution that restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).” As usual, the condemnation was the lede.

At almost exactly the same time, the Obama administration dispatched Deputy Secretary Bill Burns to Istanbul to discuss issues relating to Iran. Although his visit was billed as an effort to persuade Turkey to join in the next round of sanctions against Iran, there was widespread speculation that he was actually laying the groundwork for a new round of negotiation with Iran.

On the following day, an Iranian scientist was murdered in Tehran. By accident or design, it seemed timed to interfere with the Istanbul initiative. Secretary Clinton responded personally in the strongest terms, asserting unequivocally that the United States had nothing to do with any “violent acts inside Iran” and condemning such actions. The U.S. government had made no such intervention in previous assassination cases. If the perpetrator was, as widely suspected, Israel, this was a serious warning not to interfere in U.S. diplomatic efforts. And, of course, it was a reassurance to Iran, whose top negotiator, Ali Larjani, a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was just arriving in Istanbul.

Three days later, Larijani announced that Iran was willing to return to serious negotiations. That suggests that U.S. messages to Iran via the Turks had been fairly constructive and even persuasive. However, the headline in the New York Times the day before Larijani’s announcement was that the United States had delivered a stern warning to Iran not to close the Strait of Hormuz. This, it was reported, was delivered via a special channel (some might suspect the Turkish intermediaries), yet this careful leak completely washed out any mention of the Turkish initiative.

Since that time, there has been a leak to the effect that Israeli intelligence has been recruiting Iranian dissidents while pretending to be CIA agents, what is known in the trade as a “false flag” operation. Is it entirely by chance that this information, which has been languishing in the files of the CIA since the days of George Bush and which casts doubt on the reliability of Israel as a strategic ally, suddenly appears in the midst of the current crisis? Subsequently, as reported by blogger Jim Lobe, a scheduled exercise between Israeli and U.S. missile forces has been cancelled, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been dispatched to Israel. 

If nothing else, the past month or so provides an extraordinary example of tergiversations in U.S. policy pronouncements. Why?

The Obama administration has three problems with the Iran issue.

First, it is an election year, and the Congress is determined to impose total sanctions against Iran’s petroleum sector. In a sense, this is the ultimate stage of the sanctions process. For 16 years, the United States and its allies have piled more and more sanctions on Iran for the avowed purpose of getting Iran to change course on its nuclear program. It didn’t work. When the sanctions started, Iran had zero centrifuges. Sixteen years and many sanctions later, Iran has about 8,000 operational centrifuges and a substantial stock of low enriched uranium.

In this process of ever-accelerating sanctions, we have arrived at a point where sanctions begin to blur into actual warfare. If the sanctions succeed in their purpose of cutting off nearly all oil exports from Iran, that is the equivalent of a blockade of Iran’s oil ports, an act of war.

It was always said that the failure of sanctions would leave nothing but war as an option. It was not always appreciated that, at a certain level, sanctions and warfare would converge. With the latest sanctions rider on the Defense Authorization Bill, reluctantly signed into law by President Obama, the Congress has maneuvered the executive branch into a tacit declaration of war.

Second, it is my judgment that the Obama administration has looked hard at the potential effects of getting dragged into a war with Iran and has decided that a return to the negotiating track is essential.

But third, the Netanyahu government distrusts the diplomatic track. Israel signals as strongly as possible that it is prepared to strike unilaterally if necessary; and it uses those threats as leverage to keep the situation at a constant crisis pitch, while pressing for the most extreme sanctions. Israel’s influence is not to be underestimated, particularly in an election year and with an Israeli prime minister who makes no attempt to conceal his disdain for President Obama. (Israel in fact may be more isolated on the Iran war issue than might be evident at first glance. Ron Paul has been outspoken in his opposition to war with Iran, and he has been pulling 20 percent or more of the Republican primary vote.)

So what does the U.S. administration do in those circumstances? If this analysis is correct, it opens lines of communication with Iran; it pairs every negotiating move with a tough statement on Iran, keeping the public focus on the unyielding opposition to Iranian nuclear advances and threats; and it tells Israel in no uncertain terms to back off 

That kind of three-dimensional chess is not only complicated; it is not normally regarded as a U.S. strong suit. Naturally, you cannot conduct major negotiations with Iran without attracting public attention, whether in the United States, in Israel, in the Arab Middle East states, or elsewhere. But if you throw enough anti-Iran dust in the air, you may defuse any concerted attack—figuratively or otherwise.

The new sanctions go into effect in six months, just before the political nominating conventions. President Obama will have to have something positive to show before that time if he is to justify putting the sanctions on hold. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a two-minute drill in football. It is a thing a beauty when it works, but it is not for the faint of heart.



Gary Sick is an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Columbia's School of International & Public Affairs. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. 

(Photo courtesy of Basheem)

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