The Modest Failure of Obama’s Iran Policy

As the push for a new round of sanctions against Iran falters, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the Obama administration’s game plan on Iran policy was long on tactics and short on strategy. We’ve heard a bit about how U.N sanctions are up against a “bad UNSC,” which currently includes Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon as non-permanent members. But that should come as no surprise, and the same goes for those three countries’ predictable resistance to getting vocally on board for stiff sanctions.

Now comes word that the administration is trying to carve out an exemption for China in unilateral U.S. sanctions making their way through Congress. Japan and South Korea, on the other hand get no such special attention, with the inescapable message being that friendship and solidarity don’t pay quite as well as obstructionism and a pile of U.S. debt.

This is a consequence of the administration’s failure of nerve — or lack of imagination — at the outset, when either a bold engagement with Iran or a bold engagement with Russia would have more likely delivered better long-term strategic results. Instead, we saw a tepid outstretched hand combined with a tepid reset, neither of which seems to have paid off. Instead of a shift in the underlying strategic logic of how to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Obama administration essentially tried to pass off a “new & improved” version of the Bush administration’s carrot and stick approach, or what Dennis Ross called “better carrot & better stick.”

Admittedly, the domestic politics of true engagement on either front would have been costly for President Barack Obama. There’s also no guarantee that either would have delivered better results, especially in light of Iran’s post-election turmoil. And as I have argued previously, even the administration’s lukewarm Iran engagement has made it clear that it is now the Iranians who are unwilling to take yes for an answer. But that’s little consolation if it comes up short of the desired strategic payoff.

As Bobby Z put it, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” In trying to avoid a spectacular failure, Obama has come away with a modest one instead.