by Avi Davis
Those who remember Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition for muscular state craft: ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ will also remember how boisterously and boldly he deployed it. At the turn of the 20th Century, Roosevelt projected an aura of strength for the United States, which, though not yet one of the Great Powers, felt sufficiently emboldened to advance its influence in both the Pacific and the Atlantic and cast a jealous gaze over the western hemisphere.
But it seems Roosevelt’s model has never been seriously considered by the Obama White House. And certainly not when it comes to dealing with an avowed enemy of the United States like the People’s Republic of Iran.
Iran, as I have commented before, has effectively run rings around the United States in its fourteen months of negotiation over its nuclear ambitions, using protracted talks to bide time to enrich uranium and build the centrifuges it might find necessary to fuel an atomic weapon. But more than this the negotiations have led to the Mullahs’ sense that the West is weak that it will never commit to backing up its sanctions regime with a credible threat of military force.
Now it may have reason to believe that it won’t even back up its present sanctions regime with the threat of even greater sanctions.
This became particularly relevant last week when Iranian leaders announced that they were building two new nuclear reactors -signaling that Iran’s intention to continue expanding, rather than dismantling, its nuclear infrastructure; and that it had advanced the case against imprisoned American journalist Jason Rezaian – using him as an obvious human pawn in the regime’s attempt to gain leverage in the negotiations.
A bi-partisan bill now before the Senate – the Menendez-Kirk Bill – which was presented last year but shelved under pressure from the White House, calls for increasing sanctions against the Iranian regime should negotiations fail by June 3o this year.
However, in a joint press conference with British prime minister David Cameron on Friday, Obama made clear his intent to veto the Menendez- Kirk Bill if it passes the Senate – which it is certain to do on Thursday. During question time he and Cameron spent nearly 35 minutes explaining why it was so important for Congress to delay the contingent imposition of new sanctions.
The reasoning of the President is obscure but worth examining.
It goes something like this: the initial agreement with the Iranians to enter negotiations, signed nearly 14 months ago, required that there would be no new sanctions imposed on the regime before negotiations conclude. If we now impose new sanctions, we may:
a) lose any leverage we have over the Iranians to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon
b) lose the support of our partners in this process (including both Russia and China) who will declare that it we, rather than the Iranians, who have subverted the process.
Both of which will make it increasingly difficult to bring Iran back to the negotiating table while giving the regime both the time and opportunity to construct heavy water reactors, underground bunkers and an accelerated weaponization program, making it extremely difficult to strike militarily.
The reasoning is flawed on several levels.
First, the entire drive of the Iranians for nuclear power contravenes international law – particularly United Nations resolutions which have repeatedly demanded Iranian compliance with IAEA regulations. How is it that Iran has acquired sufficient leverage in these endless negotiations that it can effectively cow the international community into believing that it is on the same moral playing field as its negotiating partners? Clearly, the negotiations themselves have created a framework by which Iran can see itself egarded with dignity and with its sovereign rights respected – rather than being treated as the serial violator of the norms of civilized conduct that it is.
Second, why has the support of countries such as China and Russia become so vital? Both are rogue regimes in their own separate ways – whose every effort in the United Nations is to thwart the United States and whose own self-aggrandizing behavior in recent years should win it no validation from us. The whole idea of the P5+1 negotiating alliance – being as it is a reflection of the President’s internationalist outlook – was fraught with compromise from the beginning and has now given regimes who have enjoyed playing the threat of a nuclear Iran against the United States far too much say and leverage in the process.
Third, the measure the Senate is likely to take up, sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican, would mandate new sanctions only if Iran failed to accept an agreement by the June 30 deadline established in the ongoing talks. Common sense suggests the certain prospect of more punishment for an already damaged economy would make the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei more, rather than less, likely to offer the concessions necessary for a deal.
But more important than any of these is the likelihood, admitted in the press conference by the President himself, of a less than 50/50 chance of the P5+1 negotiating team ever coming to terms with the Iranians. If the President is equivocal in his belief that the negotiations will succeed and yet remains adamant that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, then what contingency plan is he really presenting? Why can the Iranians not be put in absolute fear of an extremely heavy sanctions regime or else a combined military assault itself if they fail to come to terms? There can be no greater incentive than the potential destruction of one’s regime – or else its slow strangulation – to get a rogue motivated.
Teddy Roosevelt would have understood this. He would have demanded that the Iranians arrive at the negotiating table already shaking in their boots for fear of the reprisals which would be visited upon them should they not bow to our terms. The big stick would have been very much in evidence behind TR’s famously flashing smile.
Sadly his 21st Century counterpart has not learned this valuable lesson of statecraft, bearing not a stick, but little more than a twig as a weapon of intimidation. If you read between the lines of the President’s contorted logic the only conclusion that can reached is that his contingency plan for this very real threat to our national security is a future policy of containment of a nuclear armed Iran.