Washington (The Weekly Standard) Vol. 013, Issue 42 - 7/21/2008 - 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 nuclear program.
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.