Engagement Doesn’t Guarantee Results

The Obama administration’s outreach efforts — Russia here, Syria here, Iran in the works — are certainly a welcome corrective to the Bush administration’s insistence on isolation and conditioned negotiations. That doesn’t mean they’ll work any better. The problem in all three cases is that being a spoiler offers more leverage and influence than being part of the solution. So long as a stable and peaceful Middle East is a high priority for Washington, then Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can say things like, “If you want to talk about peace, you can’t advance without Syria.” But outside of a stable peace between Israel and its neighbors, what other subject can Assad say that about? For Russia and Iran, the difference is less drastic, but there are similarities.

All of which is to say, expectations management is in order, and according to Tom Barnett, the Obama administration might already be rolling it out.

On a related subject, Barnett has some high-profile quotes from a Danger Room interview making the rounds lately, to the effect that it’s too late for us to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. I argued as much in my analysis of last month’s IAEA report. But that’s not the same thing as saying that Iran will inevitably get a nuclear bomb. Barnett argues that we might as well learn to live with an Iranian bomb. But to date, there’s been no definitive indication from Tehran that Iran wants to live with an Iranian bomb.

A better way to approach the problem, as Peter Crail argues in his WPR Briefing today, is to shift our emphasis away from stopping Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which is a fait accompli, and towards making the rest of Iran’s nuclear program more transparent to IAEA inspection. The reason being that any push for weaponization, if Iran ultimately does make the political decision to pursue a bomb, will probably depend on a clandestine facility. That’s the next kill switch, if one exists, not the uranium enrichment we already know about and failed to stop.

Note: Updated for clarity.