Obama Iran Policy Both Hawkish and Flexible

On Friday, Joseph Sarkisian of PolicyMic reported that the Obama administration offered the Chinese government an exemption from sanctions against those who purchase oil from Iran. Monday, as the US built up its military presence in the Persian Gulf, Senator John Kerry asserted to the NYT the need to carefully calibrate U.S. messaging: “There are a lot of expectations to manage, people need to know you’re serious [about resorting to the military option], but you must also leave room for peaceful resolution. It’s very important not to take steps that send the wrong messages here.” Kerry’s comments beg the question: what message was Obama sending to Iran by allowing it to sell oil to the Chinese? 

The question plays into a debate between commentators across the blogosphere, but particularly at The Atlantic. In a blog post entitled “On Iranian Intransigence,” Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed and written for years about the possibility of an Israeli on Iran, cited Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign relations:

"Iranians came into these negotiations with some rather extraordinary demands, particularly [that] their right to uranium enrichment be officially recognized--which is impossible, given the fact that the enrichment stands in violation of Security Council resolutions and the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governor's injunctions."

According to Goldberg and Takeyh, the outcome of the negotiations hinges on the Iranians demands. Should Tehran drop its alleged right to enrich uranium, the negotiations might be able to proceed. If not, then meetings with the G5+1 just buy Iran time as it continues on the path towards nuclear weaponization.

While Goldberg sees the fate of negotiations hinging on Iran, commentators like Trita Parsi at Open Zion and Robert Wright at The Atlantic have pointed to electoral politics as a major stumbling-block. Wright, on his blog for The Atlantic, poked holes in Takeyh’s intransigence argument:

"Takeyh's formulation is potentially misleading. It's true that enrichment ‘stands in violation of Security Council resolutions’ in the sense that those resolutions call on Iran to suspend enrichment. But the word "suspend" was chosen carefully. The idea is that enrichment might resume once the international community is satisfied that any future enrichment won't be for military purposes."

If so, then the Iranian condition that their right to enrich be reaffirmed no longer seems so unfair. Instead, Obama’s unwillingness to meet the Iranians half way becomes a major stumbling block to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis. 

Wright argued in another post, “There are things Obama could do to greatly increase the chances of a negotiated solution…but he seems to have decided that doing them would bring political blowback that would reduce his chances of re-election.” These steps include recognition of Iran’s right to enrich non-weapons grade uranium, and a willingness to delay sanctions if Iran makes real, substantive concessions. But Obama, fearful of looking weak on radical Islam and Israel in an election year, has, according to Wright, adopted a position that Tehran is bound to reject, thereby pinning the onus for the failed talks there. 

If Wright’s analysis is correct, then Obama, if he wanted to give negotiations one last shot, would need a strategy that allowed him to project toughness at home while signaling abroad that he was in fact willing to make concessions. Exempting China might just fit into such a strategy. The exemption lets Obama publicly maintain a hard-line in negotiations while exercising a bureaucratic exception that allows Iran to continue to sell to one of its most important oil consumers.

The administration would claim that the sanctions were deactivated because China limited its purchase of Iranian oil. But as the WSJ pointed out in an editorial Monday, that decrease was the result of a pricing dispute between China and Iran—a dispute which has since been resolved. Exempting China from sanctions will prevent a more serious economic crisis in Iran. And while keeping tensions with China to a minimum certainly (perhaps even primarily) contributed to the decision to exempt, that does not preclude the possibility that the exemption also plays into Obama’s domestic and foreign political needs. In fact, the US’s complex relationship with China protected Obama from attacks for the exemption from his right flank, which is wary of China because of concerns grounded in realpolitick. 

So where does this leave us now? The new sanctions that, despite various exemptions, just became effective gave way to a three-day Iranian military drill intended to display Iran’s “resolve and readiness.” And fears about the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, coupled with the desire to evince credibility on the threat of military action, led the U.S. increase its military presence in the Persian Gulf. These developments suggest that, if the exemption was intended as a subtle olive branch to Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei either did not understand it or rebuffed it. Time will tell if subtle diplomacy can avert war. In the meantime, we can only hope that, in the indirect messaging of international diplomacy, Iran and America read each other’s language.