How the GOP should criticize Obama on Iran
Mar 5, 2012

How the GOP should criticize Obama on Iran

Leaders of Brazil, Turkey & Iran
As the Republicans continue to escalate their misguided criticism of Obama and his handling of the issue of a nuclear Iran, they desperately need a brief history lesson. I am not talking about a history lesson that extends back to the days of a US backed, CIA installed, Iranian government that got its first taste for nuclear power directly from the US, I am talking about recalling the lost opportunities in the negotiations of 2010. For Obama does indeed deserve criticism over the direction of the Iranian nuclear program, but neither the Democrats or the Republicans are articulating it.

Shortly after Obama came to term, expectations for a peaceful world with less nukes were in sight. Obama won the Nobel peace prize. He pushed for the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. And most importantly, a serious set of multiilateral diplomatic relations were set up to prevent the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear weapon. The major premise of the negotiations - now nearly impossible to imagine occurring - was that Iran would be allowed to have a civilian nuclear program with its uranium processed in other countries and then shipped into Iran and that refined uranium currently in Iran would be shipped out. The details and incentives varied, but everyone was more or less on the same page.

Iran and the US, the two main parties in the UN based bargaining process, both remained reticent in their willingness to compromise and the negotiations stalled. Meanwhile, the US was pushing Russia and China heavily to be able to impose a fourth round of sanctions (principally on an expanded set of military hardware). The idea was that the existence of the sanctions would provide more motivation for Iran to come on board.

The Brazil-Turkey Deal:
At the last minute, two rising middle powers, Brazil and Turkey, managed to negotiate a deal with Iran that would see Iran ship its low enriched uranium to Turkey (instead of France and Russia under the UN plans) in exchanged for limited amounts of the more enriched uranium needed in its medical reactor. It was not exactly the deal the US would have wanted (it didn't rule out all Iranian enrichment) but it was something of a compromise between the two positions.

The deal was flatly and quickly refused by the US. The sanctions were imposed and the rest is history. Negotiations broke down. Iran became increasingly uncooperative. Further sanctons have been applied. Today, both the US and Israel opens threaten military attacks on Iran as well as ongoing covert and cyber attacks while negotiations seems like a distant memory.

The ostensible reason that the US rejected the Turkey-Brazil negotiated deal is that it didn't meet all the US demands in its details. Other factors, however, include the desire to put in place the hard fought for sanctions regardless of their efficacy. Just as Brazil and Turkey did this deal to represent and push their rising status of emerging powers, the P5 (for the others on the Security Council could have rejected sanctions given this deal as well) aim to preserve their top heavy world ordering and can hardly like the upstarts doing what they failed to do. There have been many more conspiratorial reasons postulated, but I think the rejection, especially given its speed, was an almost knee jerk reaction to de facto reject anything not brokered through the US.

Regardless, we have now seen that following this how things have spiraled out of control. The sanctions have achieved nothing in pushing Iran to the table, quite the opposite. We cannot know precisely how the counterfactual would have gone down had the deal been embraced by the US. But it is hard to imagine that if Iran was shipping its uranium to Turkey (and received the carrot of no new sanctions in exchange) that we would be in the situation we are now of possible military strikes.

For this, the Repulicans could rightly criticize Obama. They could blame the failed situation on Iran entirely on Obama's failure to embrace this deal and could paint a relatively convincing portrait of why that was the problem. Yet they don't. Neither, of course, do the Democrats as a matter of myopic loyalty.

The Republican's mindset:
Unfortunately, this does not fit into traditional Republican narratives on foreign policy. It does not touch on themes of American exceptionalism, power, and force projection. Standing aside to let middle powers negotiate a soft power diplomatic compromise is not sexy, it doesn't have any sabers to rattle and it makes us swallow our pride. The fact that it is the right criticism, in my view, does not mean that it fits into the GOP narrative well enough to be useful to them.

The GOP got decimated in 2006 and 2008 largely over failures in foreign policy. The neoconservative image of the world was flatly rejected by Americans after two prolonged wars. Conversely, rightly or wrongly, Obama is seen as a strong foreign policy president but a weak domestic president. As I have discussed before, aggressively attacking Obama on Iran is seen as a way to balance these scales. Personally, I think the GOP would find itself to be more electable - and certainly more correct - if it were to try and reject the neocon vision that failed it politically and adopt a more nuanced tone on foreign policy. Alas, this does not seem to be the case.

One final history point in the same vein: Shortly after 9/11, when it became clear that the US was going to attack Afghanistan, Iran bluntly offered intelligence and material assistance to the efforts in Afghanistan. There is a Shia minority called the Hazara in the largely Sunni Afghanistan that were brutally oppressed under the Taliban that Iran tried to some extent to support and would have liked to do more if it participated in some level in the war effort. There is good reason to believe their intelligence could have been useful (especially given the nearly complete intelligence vacuum that the US had at the start of the war). However, the Bush administration rebuffed Iran and excluded them.

Two years later, the US invaded Iraq, another Sunni country and long time adversary of Iran, on Iran's other border. The US squandered an opportunity to significantly increase its diplomatic and even military ties with Iran and turn it into a strategic partner in the region. The tragectory of Iran's actions following these events have led us inexorably to the situation of today. Just as in snubbing the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal, it is often somewhat benign sounding soft power mistakes that end up resulting in hard power conflicts. That is a lesson we have had to learn the hard way one too many times.

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