March 9, 2010
Obama's Iran Policy Collapses to the Accompaniment of Mockery Around the GlobeBy Joel J. Sprayregen
Barack Obama, in his first press conference after his election, called Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons "unacceptable." He repetitively offered Iran "engagement." He set a deadline of year-end 2009 for Iranian compliance, now unilaterally extended another three months.
Iran contemptuously and repetitively responded that it had no intention of abandoning its nuclear program. Obama's Iran policy is collapsing to the accompaniment of open mockery around the globe. Obama assured us that his "engagement" would make it easier to enlist other countries to stop Iran. The result is the opposite: Virtually every country Obama approached has rebuffed him. Without a credible threat of force, it is now clear that "engagement" has no chance to stop Iran's military nuclear program. It is indisputable that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would destabilize the Mideast and gravely threaten world peace.
Let's leave China and Russia to the end on the grounds that it may be more difficult to persuade major powers. In recent weeks, the Obama administration launched a curious charm offensive with the announced purpose of weaning Syria -- Tehran's closest ally -- from Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Alawites -- a despised Muslim minority considered heretical -- since the French colonialists elevated them to military leadership. The country has since 1970 been the Mafia-like fiefdom of the Assad family, which murdered more than 15,000 of its own rebellious citizens in Hama in 1982.
Syria has been on the State Department's list of terrorist countries since 1979. Syria routinely dispatched terrorists into Iraq to kill American soldiers. Syria dominates Lebanon, from which it extorts wealth through violent means, including arming the Iranian proxy terrorist forces of Hezb'allah. The U.N. authorized an interminable tribunal to investigate charges that Syria murdered Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister, in 2005. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in protest of the Hariri assassination. I have personal insight into this tragic killing and farcical investigation because Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, desperately asked me in Riyadh in 1998 to pass on his fears that the Syrians would kill his father to preserve their hegemony in Lebanon. What a difference twelve years makes! Saad Hariri is now Lebanon's prime minister. Seeing the weakness of U.S. policy, he now embraces Hezbollah and the Syrian forces who killed his father.
Appeasing Syria Provokes Mockery from Assad and Ahmadinejad
The current Obama approach to Syria includes dispatching six high-level State Department delegations, announcing that our ambassador will return to Damascus, rescinding banned shipment of aircraft parts, and deals worth several billion dollars. Secretary of State Clinton purred over this "slight opening" with Syria and expressed hope that it would lead Syria to curb support for Iran as well as Hezb'allah and Hamas.
Syrian President Bashir Assad, responding instantly following departure of the U. S. Under-Secretary of State from Damascus, invited the Iranian president to his capital. The Assad-Ahmadinjead press conference can be described most tactfully as a roast of the Obama administration. The two presidents announced removal of travel visas, meaning that Iranian terrorists are free to travel to the borders of Europe and Israel. Assad, not ordinarily known for humor, said of U.S. hopes of separating Syria from Iran that "[w]e must have understood Clinton wrong because of bad translation." The Iranian president reliably played straight man: "The Americans are forced to leave the region, leaving their reputation, image, and power behind in order to escape. The U.S. has no influence to stop expansion of Iran-Syria, Syria-Turkey, and Iran-Turkey ties. God willing, Iraq too will join this circle."
The failure of Obama's appeasement was understood in the region. Editor Michael Young asked in his Beirut Star,
Rebuffed by Lebanon, Brazil and Turkey
Syria is not a member of the U.N. Security Council. But Lebanon, Brazil, and Turkey are among the nine non-permanent members. Since Obama has unwisely delegated to the Security Council power to defend American interests, their votes are important. It is clear from what is written above that Lebanon, until recently a U.S. ally with its large but no longer dominant Christian minority, will now vote as directed by Syria and Iran.
Mrs. Clinton made a pitiful visit to Brasilia last week. It is not far-fetched to presume that Brazilian leadership contrasted the empty words of Obama with the deeds of their neighbor, President Chávez of Venezuela, who is assiduously expanding the western hemisphere bridgehead of his Iranian ally. A weekly flight from Tehran to Caracas carries unregistered passengers who can infiltrate our porous southern borders. The president of Brazil told Mrs. Clinton that his country would not "bow" to demands for sanctions against Iran. He suggested that it would be "prudent" to instead pursue negotiations. As in the Middle East, Obama "provokes little confidence" among our traditional good-neighbor allies.
Even more ruinous is the state of Obama's relations with Turkey, a country he has fulsomely praised as a Muslim democracy, notwithstanding the apparent drive of its present government to create an Islamist police state. Last week, Obama did nothing to prevent a symbolic 23-to-22 vote in a House of Representatives committee for a resolution labeling as "genocide" Turkish massacres of Armenians during World War I. I have lobbied on this issue and understand its intractability. Most historians call the events genocide, but a minority say it occurred during the fog of a war of reciprocal massacres in which Armenians aided invading Russians. The resolution is driven by understandable pressure of Armenian-Americans on California congressmen. But analysts of U.S. foreign policy understand that passing the resolution would so alienate Turkish voters that vital U.S. interests would be undermined -- e.g., supply of U.S. forces in Iraq, our air base at Incirlik, and the role of Turkish military (NATO's second-largest) in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Ankara Decries America's "Lack of Strategic Vision"
The Turks did not distinguish themselves by the bullying tone of their comments on the vote, and Obama may feel hamstrung by campaign promises he made -- which he cannot conceivably honor -- to recognize the "genocide." Turkey has resisted sanctions against Iran because Ahmadinejad was correct when he boasted in Beirut of blossoming Turkish-Iranian ties. But if Obama thought he might get any help from Turkey, whose government he courted by visiting its capital on his first overseas trip, his inaction on the genocide resolution provoked this blast from Ankara:
Obama's difficulties in obtaining cooperation on sanctions from smaller countries underscore his better-known problems with veto-wielding Russia and China, whose interests are diverse from ours. These countries, in different ways, see themselves as rivals of the U.S. and have extensive commercial relations with Iran, by whom they do not feel threatened. Russia at times has indicated support for mild sanctions -- rather than the "biting" sanctions aimed at energy import/export (Iran is already rationing refined petroleum), insurance, and banking -- understood by many congressmen as the only method short of war to influence Iran.
There were reports at week's end that the administration would retreat to seeking diminished sanctions that exempt China and other permanent members of the Security Council from compliance. This would confirm the complete collapse of "engagement." One might call it "diss-engagement," warranting the mockery of Obama's policies echoing from Damascus, Beirut, Brasilia, and even Ankara.
Joel Sprayregen is associated with think-tanks dealing with issues of security and human rights in Washington, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Ankara.