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Monday, 5 March 2012
Walter Russell Mead: The Usefulness Of Rumors Of War Bookmark and Share
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Obama’s Iran Dilemma: Threats of War As Means To Keep the Peace

Walter Russell Mead

President Obama’s policy of pressuring Iran through economic sanctions got a big boost over the weekend: India’s biggest oil importer announced plans to cut its Iranian crude purchases by 44 percent in 2012-13, Reuters reports. The cutbacks suggest that Indian imports from Iran will fall by about 20 percent overall, with much of the replacement supply coming from Iraq.

Clearly the impact of sanctions has something to do with this shift. There have been recent reports of Indian and Iranian firms using barter deals to avoid working through the banking system where sanctions have a real bite.

But Via Meadia thinks there is something more going on, something that points to the way in which President Obama is slowly losing his battle against war with Iran.

Even as India took a step that substantially increases pressure on Iraq, President Obama told AIPAC yesterday that loose talk about war with Iran is unhelpful.  As the New York Times reports, the President said:

“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Mr. Obama said. “Over the last few weeks such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.

“For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”

Via Meadia respectfully disagrees. The “loose talk” that the President deplores is what more than anything has made his policy successful so far.

Countries like India need a stable supply of oil. If you think there is a significant chance that some kind of war might make Iranian oil less available, you would logically look to diversify your supply. That is a business decision and has nothing to do with whether you believe in sanctions or support US policy goals.

The clear and present danger that Iran will be unable to fulfill its commercial commitments due to the consequences of military action (whether started by Iran, Israel or the United States) forces other countries, even those like India and China who are opposed to a boycott of Iran, to reduce their dependence on such an unpredictable supplier.

The dirty secret about President Obama’s generally successful effort to put more pressure on Iran through sanctions and diplomatic methods is that in the last resort its effectiveness depends on exactly the military threats that he would like to downplay.  If the European countries weren’t terrified that Israel would act unilaterally, they would not have moved nearly as far or as fast as they have to isolate Iran. Isolating Iran, they hope, will calm Israel down enough so as to postpone or perhaps avoid the danger of war.  If that threat disappeared, President Obama would not enjoy the kind of support for sanctions he has so far received.

It is paradoxical and a sign of how much trouble we are in that ‘loose talk about war’ is one of the principle methods we have at this moment for keeping the peace. President Obama, rightly in our opinion, wants to avoid making the ugly choice between an Iranian bomb and an Iranian war if he can. But to do this, he’s had to commit himself ever more definitely to war in the (likely) event that negotiations fail.

The President’s best hope for peace now is that sanctions will be so effective, and the threat of war so credible, that the Iranians will agree to settle for what they can get. But the effectiveness of sanctions and the credibility of war threat largely depend on the warlike rhetoric that narrows the President’s options.

It is true that talk of war raises the price of oil, and Iran (and the President’s Republican opponents) get some benefit from this. But fear of war is what makes sanctions effective. Iran is selling less oil (and at lower prices) because people think it is an unreliable supplier.

Meanwhile, the logic that the only way to avoid war is to threaten it continues to tangle the President in annoying and frightening knots. Already in the run-up to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit, President Obama had to give up a policy position that is dear to the doves in the administration: he has had to say flatly that the containment of a nuclear Iran is not an acceptable policy option for the United States. He is right, and he is also right that a nuclear Iran means an end to any hope for nonproliferation. But to say that in public has narrowed his room for maneuver; he is being pushed steadily into exactly the course of action he does not want to take.

India’s decision to cut its imports of Iranian oil is a boost for the President’s policy of pressuring Iran into significant concessions on the nuclear issue — but it is also another sign that thoughtful observers believe war in the Gulf is becoming more likely. President Obama has bought time for negotiations and sanctions to work at the cost of committing himself ever more definitely and explicitly to war if they fail. The tradeoffs did not seem so stark a couple of years ago, when the President still hoped the Iranians would respond to his overtures and when in any case he still had a lot of time. Now he has less time, the threats are more stark, and while hope is always an option, the mullahs have so far shown little sign that they are willing to cave.

The potential that the President’s tough stand on Iran will lead the Iranians to toughen their own stance in response looms ever larger. The overthrow of Gaddafi and the war against Assad — Libya gave up its nuclear program in response to western pressure and Syria watched Israel destroy its reactor — offer clear arguments to those in Iran who believe that nuclear weapons and only nuclear weapons can ensure the regime survives. Washington’s success in promoting international action against regimes it doesn’t like worries the Kremlin, Beijing and, surely, Iran.

To cave in to this pressure must look to many in Tehran like the first step on the slippery slope that leads to regime change.  The mounting pressure and global attention on this issue has transformed it into a zero sum contest so that if Iran backs down, its position is seriously undermined at home and abroad. With its ally in Syria under attack, and a resurgence of sectarian polarization that unites Sunni Turks and Arabs against Persian Shiites, Iran faces the comprehensive collapse of its regional position. A humiliating climbdown in the face of Israeli and American pressure would complete the disaster, and there must be those in Tehran who wonder how long the regime could survive this kind of defeat.

Here again, the tactical successes of the President’s Iran policy are pushing him towards exactly the outcome he most wanted to avoid. The very intensity of the pressure on Iran, its regional isolation and the force and determination of the coalition that has risen up against it may strengthen the hand of those in Iran who believe that nuclear weapons offer the regime its one hope of survival.

The President has kept the peace by moving toward war; he is hoping to avoid a war by promoting a crisis. It is a version of what John Foster Dulles once called ‘brinkmanship’. the art of going to the edge of the precipice in the hope that your adversary will blink. Of all the many paradoxes and ironies of this President’s foreign policy the reliance of “No Drama Obama” on fomenting a crisis to stave off a war is one of the strangest — and perhaps the most fateful.

Via Meadia doesn’t see that the President had many alternatives to the road he has taken; Tehran rejected his overtures when its position was stronger, and now it may reject them again because its position is weak. There is still some hope that a peaceful solution can be found, but that hope has been diminishing for some time now and the future looks dark.

The Indians are probably doing the smart thing in diversifying their oil supply.

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Posted on 03/05/2012 9:01 AM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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