Asked how the United States ought to respond to last week's Iranian missile
tests, Barack Obama told CNN that it was important "we avoid
provocation." Just as last year, Obama criticized a Senate bill
designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization because
it was too "provocative." This has us wondering: Is the problem with
Iran that the United States seems provocative?
Iran revealed to the world in late 2002 that it had been conducting a secret
uranium enrichment program for 15 years. This was a violation of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. Uranium enrichment is
the first step on the road to building an atomic bomb. Most everyone seems to
agree that Iranian nukes would destabilize the Middle East. What to do?
Obama might not admit it, but for about five years now the Bush
administration has followed a course of action rather similar to his preferred
policy. Bush has pursued multilateral diplomacy through international
institutions (the U.N., the IAEA) and through an ad hoc coalition called the
P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the United States) in order
to induce Iran to suspend its enrichment activities. Obama's policy would be a
tad more unilateral, because he would prefer to have direct negotiations with
the Iranians and thus remove our allies from the equation altogether.
But does any serious person believe that an offer of direct negotiations
without preconditions would change the basic situation? Most reasonable
advocates of such talks advocate them just so the United States can say it has
"gone the extra mile" in trying to persuade Iran to give up its
Iran has been immune to peaceful persuasion. Since 2006, the Security
Council has adopted five resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its enrichment
activities and comply fully with the IAEA. And because those resolutions were
summarily ignored, the Security Council has also enacted four rounds of
punitive sanctions directed at the Iranian regime. No change.
Meanwhile, the P5+1 has made two direct offers to the Iranians, one in June
2006 and the other in June 2008, to lift sanctions and implement security guarantees
if Iran "suspends"--not ends--uranium enrichment. As the P5+1 foreign
ministers put it in their latest appeal to their Iranian counterpart, "We
are ready to work with Iran in order to find a way to address Iran's needs and
the international community's concerns, and reiterate that once the confidence
of the international community in the exclusively peaceful nature of your
nuclear programme is restored, it will be treated in the same manner as that of
any Non-Nuclear Weapon State party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty." This
isn't exactly what you would call provocative language.
You might call it, instead, a good-faith attempt to resolve an international
crisis. But the attempt is failing miserably. Iran has gone right along with
its enrichment activities. With each passing day it draws closer to developing
the technology and material necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. The latest
IAEA report on Iran, released on May 26, stated the obvious: The regime is in
continued defiance of the U.N. Security Council, it continues to develop
nuclear technology, and it denies international monitors its full cooperation.
The Iranian regime is increasingly confident and bellicose.
The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, openly pines for a world without America
and Israel. In 2007, the regime arrested American citizens, holding them in
captivity for months, and held 15 British sailors and marines hostage for
almost two weeks. Iran is funding, training, and in some cases providing direct
assistance to radical Shiite "special groups" killing American
soldiers in Iraq. In January of this year, five Iranian ships ran at U.S. naval
vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, breaking off moments before the Americans used
deadly force. Then last week's missile tests and fiery rhetoric.
And the frontrunner for the presidency of the United States fears his own
country may be too "provocative."
Iran has suffered no major consequences from the Bush administration--or
anyone else--for its reckless and belligerent actions. Quite the contrary: The
more irresponsible Iran's behavior has been, the more entreaties for diplomatic
rapprochement it has received. This is dangerous. History shows that conflict
is more likely when aggressors feel emboldened, when provocations go
unanswered. Only when America reestablishes a credible threat of the use of
force might Iran alter its behavior. When it comes to Iran, then, maybe it
really is time for a change we can believe in. Maybe it's time the Bush
administration--in response to the failure of its current policy--changed from
scared-to-provoke doves to scary-to-the-enemy hawks.