Lest anyone be fooled by what seems to be slight progress in the Obama Administration’s effort to impose new sanctions on Iran, the situation is rapidly slipping beyond Washington’s ability to influence, much less control it. In the 15 months since assuming power, President Obama has stood by as Iran has continued to enrich uranium, increased its number of centrifuges, broken ground in new underground enrichment sites, test fired a raft of ballistic missiles, expanded its fleet of attack boats in the Persian Gulf, given the Revolutionary Guard more power, rearmed Hezbollah, provided increased support to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and, according to new intelligence reports, made progress on development of an ICBM.
What has the Obama Administration accomplished? It cancelled the plan for a missile defense deployment in Europe in favor of a new program that will not provide an adequate defense for at least a decade. It managed to get crosswise with our closest ally in the region, Israel, while not advancing the prospects for peace by even an inch. It got China to agree to talk about sanctions, thereby reviving the hopes of some commentators that a new deal swapping enriched uranium for reactor fuel can be worked out, but not an actual agreement to impose sanctions. It announced a new nuclear strategy that can only add fuel to Iranian nuclear ambitions. It has been outmaneuvered by the Democrat-dominated House and Senate which are about to send the White House a veto-proof sanctions bill that will be far harsher than Iran’s friends such as China, Russia and even France will find acceptable. And finally, the Obama Administration has signaled in that oh-so-diffident way it has of addressing unpleasant topics that it is willing to accept a nuclear Iran rather than take the necessary measures to prevent such a dangerous outcome.
It is clear that the Obama Administration is losing control of the evolving security situation in the region as a whole, not just in the Persian Gulf. Further complicating the effort to manage Iranian behavior is the need to maintain a significant presence in or near Iraq for the foreseeable future and a war in Afghanistan that shows no real signs of being won. Compounding these problems is growing war weariness among U.S. allies, many of whom are making clear their intentions of folding their tents and going home in the next months and years regardless of the situation in the region.
What is not clear is whether the Obama Administration has the strategy or is willing to invest in the means needed to deter and, if necessary, defeat Iran. Current plans to deploy missile defenses will not provide adequate protection for the region, much less Europe, until the end of this decade, at best. The U.S. has not moved as aggressively as needed to arm its allies in the Gulf with the means to resist Iranian aggression. Nor has it pressured them to work more closely together, become more interoperable and conduct the kinds of collaborative exercises so as to meld themselves into a unified force.
Furthermore, even if it responded strongly to Iran, it is not certain that the United States would be any more successful at containing Iran than it has been — at least so far — at preventing it from developing a nuclear weapon. The reality is that no state has ever thought itself as having been rendered weaker by the acquisition of nuclear weapons. None have ever behaved in a more circumspect manner once in possession of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. It could even been argued that nuclear weapons embolden their possessors. In 1960, Khrushchev sought to play on Western fears of Soviet nuclear strength in his attempt to muscle the West out of Berlin. In 1998, Pakistan hoped that its newly-demonstrated nuclear capability would act as a shield beneath which it could conduct a conventional offensive in Kashmir. To what ends could an Iranian nuclear umbrella be put?
Ironically, measures intended to enhance deterrence may actually promote the very outcome they are intended to forestall. The U.S. effort in the late 1930s to influence Japan is illustrative in this regard. The U.S. oil and steel embargo on Japan fueled that country’s aggressive plans to acquire alternative sources of critical raw materials. The decision by President Roosevelt to move the Pacific Fleet from the West Coast to Hawaii as a deterrent to further Japanese aggression merely brought it into range of the Imperial Fleet. Teheran may well view U.S. efforts to bolster the defense of its interests and allies in the Persian Gulf as merely additional fuel for the fire of that regime’s nuclear ambitions.
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