Questions remain about the Iranian government’s alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. Still, it clearly augurs even greater tension between Iran and the United States in the immediate future. But while the plot as described might create the illusion of an emboldened Iran, the reality is that Iran is much weaker and more isolated now than when President Barack Obama took office.
First, the administration’s successful efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear development are undeniable. According to an article in Tuesday’s Washington Post, “Iran’s nuclear program, which stumbled badly after a reported cyberattack last year, appears beset by poorly performing equipment, shortages of parts and other woes as global sanctions exert a mounting toll.”
This echoes the findings of a special panel of U. N. experts, which reported in May that the multilateral sanctions adopted under June 2010’s U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929—sanctions that the Obama administration worked hard to pass—were having a significant impact on Iran’s ability to proceed with its nuclear program.
According to the report, those measures were “constraining Iran’s procurement of items related to prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile activity and thus slowing development of these programs.”
This isn’t all, however. Last month, Reuters reported that China, one of Iran’s most important backers, “has put the brakes on oil and gas investments in Iran, drawing ire from Tehran over a pullback that officials and executives said reflected Beijing’s efforts to appease Washington and avoid U.S. sanctions on its big energy firms.”
Israeli Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar wrote, “The Chinese government has made it much more difficult and expensive for Iran to extract and export its oil and gas, meaning less of such commodities to sell at a higher production cost in the future.” This “should be particularly worrisome for Iran’s leaders.”
In addition to the costs to Iran’s economy and the significantly greater constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration’s diplomacy also resulted in increased international pressure over Iran’s human rights abuses, including the creation of a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. The Iranian regime itself certainly doesn’t regard these measures lightly as demonstrated both by their public statements and by their intensive U.N. lobbying efforts to defeat these efforts.
It’s worth remembering that Iran was on a roll when President Obama took office. This was thanks to precisely the sort of military solutions that many of the president’s conservative critics are now calling for again.
Iran was the biggest strategic beneficiary of the Iraq war. It capitalized effectively on the removal of its greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein, and it successfully exploited the massive anti-American sentiment that resulted in the Middle East from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Iran looks far worse two and a half years later. The Arab awakening sidelined Iran’s efforts to sell itself as the standard bearer of resistance against the West. Its key ally Syria is on the edge of collapse.
Iran itself is also in a state of significant internal turmoil. President Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Iranian people damaged the Iranian leadership’s ability to rally the country around the United States as an enemy, and it exposed the regime to popular protest and regime infighting.
But though the United States today faces a weaker Iran, the revelation last week predictably resulted in the usual calls for war against Iran—from the same people who brought us the war in Iraq.
Writing in the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol—who has been calling for war with Iran since 2006—wrote, “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force. And now we have an engraved invitation to do so.”
The neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative’s Jamie Fly also wrote in National Review that “Developments this week make abundantly clear, our disgraceful attempts to ‘engage’ the despotic regime in Tehran… have failed.”
Fly concluded, “It is time to take military action against the Iranian government elements that support terrorism and its nuclear program. More diplomacy is not an adequate response.”
Such calls for a military option may be emotionally satisfying to their authors and attractive as a quick fix to a complex problem. But they dramatically fail to understand the way the Obama administration successfully used diplomacy to isolate the Iranian government and undercut its influence.
This inability to understand American power in terms other than military strength is a key reason why conservative foreign policy is in such a shambles these days.
After surveying the foreign policy positions of the current Republican primary candidates, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin remarked, “We’re left with a GOP pack that insists on American superiority and saber-rattling while our country is crumbling internally. From such self-delusion, the next American century won’t grow.”
The impressively clumsy assassination plot—if in fact it did originate inside the Iranian regime—should be seen as a sign of just how much weaker and desperate Iran is today than it was in 2008. The Obama administration put Iran on its back foot, diminished its regional importance, and severely curtailed its options through the skillful and effective use of American diplomacy and leadership—not through saber rattling.
In conclusion, the revelation of the Iranian assassination plot should bolster the international consensus against Iran’s behavior rather than serve as an excuse for another needless war. And it should strengthen the U.S. effort to constrain and change that behavior through a variety of methods. Given that the American people clearly have no interest in undertaking yet another costly and counterproductive military adventure in the Middle East, the administration would be wise to ignore the calls for one.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.
- An Escalation by Iran? by Matthew Duss