(By Bret Stephens)
Obama's Obsolete Iran Policy
The audacity of hope gives way to the timidity of realism.
President Obama's Iran policy is incoherent and obsolete. Maybe David Axelrod should take note.
On Sunday, Mr. Obama's consigliore was asked about Iran by ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's David Gregory. Mr. Gregory asked whether there "should be consequences" for the regime's violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations. "The consequences, I think, will unfold over time in Iran," answered Mr. Axelrod.
Mr. Stephanopoulos quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying that "this time, the Iranian nation's reply will be harsh and more decisive to make the West regret its meddlesome stance." Said Mr. Axelrod, "I'm not going to entertain his bloviations that are politically motivated." As for whether the administration wasn't selling short the demonstrators, Mr. Axelrod could only say that "the president's sense of solicitude with those young people has been very, very clear."
Bottom line from Mr. Axelrod, and presumably Mr. Obama, too: "We are going to continue to work through . . . the multilateral group of nations that are engaging Iran, and they have to make a decision, George, whether they want to further isolate themselves in every way from the community of nations, or whether they are going to embrace that."
Translation: People of Iran -- best of luck!
For a president who came into office literally selling the Audacity of Hope -- not just for Americans but for all mankind -- his Iran policy can so far be summed up as the timidity of "realism." That's realism as a theory of international relations that prescribes a foreign policy based on ostensibly rational calculations of the national interest and assumes that other nations act in similarly rational fashion.
On this reasoning, it remains the American interest to reach a negotiated settlement with Tehran over its nuclear program, whether or not Ahmadinejad was fairly elected. Likewise, it is in Tehran's best interests to settle, assuming the benefits for doing so are sufficiently large.
If this view ever had its moment, it was in the months immediately after Mr. Obama's inauguration. The administration came to town thinking that America's problems with Iran were largely self-inflicted -- a combination of "Axis of Evil" and "regime change" rhetoric, an invasion that gave Iran a reasonable motive for wanting to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and an unwillingness to try to settle differences in face-to-face talks.
In other words, Mr. Obama seems to have thought that a considerable part of America's Iran problem was simply an America problem, to be addressed by various forms of conciliation: Mr. Obama's New Year's greetings to "the Islamic Republic of Iran"; the disavowal of regime change as a U.S. objective; the offer of direct talks without preconditions; withdrawal from Iraq; the insistence, following the election, that the U.S. would neither presume to judge the outcome nor otherwise "meddle" in an internal Iranian affair.
What did all this achieve? Iran's nuclear programs are accelerating. It is testing ballistic missiles of increasing range and sophistication. Its support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah is unabated. Ahmadinejad stole an election in broad daylight. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blessed the result. British Embassy staff are under siege. A campaign of mass arrests and intimidation is underway and a young woman named Neda Soltan was shot in the heart simply for choosing none of the above.
Oh, and Iran still accuses the U.S. of "meddling."
Now Mr. Obama is promising more of the same, plus the equivalent of a group hug for the demonstrators. Is this supposed to be "realism"?
A more common sense form of realism would reach different conclusions. One is that the "bloviations" of Ahmadinejad are not just politically motivated, but are also expressions of contempt for Mr. Obama. That contempt springs from a keen nose for weakness, honed by the habits of dictatorship and based on an estimate -- so far unrefuted -- of Mr. Obama's mettle.
Second, as long as Tehran can murder its own people, scoff at a U.S. president and flout U.N. resolutions without consequence, it will continue to do so.
Third is that the Achilles Heel of the Iranian regime isn't its "isolation." (What kind of isolation is it when Ahmadinejad's "election" was instantly ratified by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev?) Nor is it its vulnerability to a gasoline embargo, vulnerable though it is. Its real weakness is its own domestic unpopularity, which has at last found expression in a massive opposition movement.
The fourth is that Iran's nuclear programs have now reached the stage where they can only be stopped through military strikes -- probably Israeli -- or an internal political decision to abandon them. The prospect of another Mideast war can't exactly please the administration. So how about trying to achieve the same result by leveraging point No. 3?
Maybe ordinary Iranians welcome Mr. Obama's solicitude. What they need is Mr. Obama's spine. If that means "democracy promotion" and tough talk about "regime change," well, it wouldn't be the first time this president has made his predecessor's policy his own.
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Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13