Same Old Policies: Obama on Iran Is Bush All Over Again

Aug 28, 2013 | Updated Oct 28, 2013

Reading the book Dispensable Nation, written by Vali Nasr, Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, helps us assess President Obama's first-term approach to the challenges the U.S. has faced regarding its relationship with Iran, particularly in light of the country's nuclear program.

Nasr, known as the George Kennan of U.S. policy in the Middle East, highly criticizes Obama's foreign policy toward the region in Dispensable Nation, published several months ago. Nasr targets the administration's many failures, highlighting the way diplomacy issues have been mishandled across the Middle East and South Asia, from Pakistan to Iran to revolutionary Egypt. Perhaps most significantly, Nasr asserts that by retreating from the Middle East and thus signaling a withdrawal from "the exuberant American desire to lead in the world," Obama has forfeited a strategic advantage to China, and this choice is one that Nasr predicts will cost the United States dearly in the future.

This deeply knowledgeable scholar and widely respected policy maker himself served two years as a senior adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was from this work that he gleaned the White House didn't truly believe in diplomacy regarding Middle Eastern countries like Iran or Afghanistan. In Nasr's insightful chapter, "Iran Between War and Containment," this distinguished expert contends that the President's position on Iran has only "steadily moved to the right," eventually becoming impossible to differentiate from the strategy employed by George W. Bush during his earlier political reign. In fact, Nasr explains, Obama eventually touted "Bush's policy in a new and improved version."

Despite trying his hand at diplomacy and attempting to tweak the dual-track approach that was in place before he took office, Obama managed only to impose more crippling sanctions on Iran and at an even faster pace than his predecessor. His supposed engagement in legitimate and productive diplomacy was little more than a cover for what will instead be known as a coercive campaign of sabotage, economic pressure, and cyber warfare -- like Bush's policy, but this time, "with more teeth."

For evidence of this, analysts need not look any further than at whom Obama selected to manage the United States' foreign policy with Iran. By appointing veteran diplomat Dennis Ross, the president signaled to Iran that he was not as genuinely committed to diplomacy as was earlier perceived, and it wasn't just Iran who noticed. One of the senior advisors to Erdoğan, Turkey's Prime Minister, was not afraid to chime in with his own opinion, "We are disappointed," he explained. "You judge a man by his advisors."Equally as telling was Obama's choice to retain Stuart Levey. Bush's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, Levey formerly rallied financial institutions across the globe to terminate their business with Iran, to much success. The Turkish senior advisor weighed in on this too: "Same people, same policy," he said.

Over the course of the last ten years, the often complicated relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted from one of tenuous cooperation in the days following 9/11 to one marked by increasingly strained tension that today threatens war. The talks of late 2001, in which even some Revolutionary Guard members joined Iranian diplomats in pledging aid to the United States to help confront the Taliban and bring a long-needed change in rule to Afghanistan, seem like a thing of a distant and hard to recognize past.

Not long after terrorist attacks devastated New York City, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signed off on Iran's choice to offer the United States use of their airbases, participate in the search and rescue of missing U.S. Military pilots, and aid in the surveillance and capture of al Qaeda leaders, all while working with the U.S. to foster a relationship with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Bowing to political pressure regarding a radicalized Middle East, then-President George W. Bush responded by including Iran in his "Axis of Evil," severing whatever good-will the two countries seemed to have been building.

Nasr reminds us that "the nuclear program is at the heart of the Iranian regime's survival strategy. The atom seems as if it can make any dictatorship untouchable. It was common wisdom in Iran in 2003 that big difference between North Korea and Iraq was that Kim Jong-il had nuclear arms and Saddam did not."

The reality is this: The economic sanctions and increased isolation imposed by the United States contributes to regime collapse, not to regime change. At the rate it's going, the current policy runs a very real risk of pushing Iran over the edge into failed statehood. In that condition, the nuclear problems that threaten the globe will only become worse, bringing with them a whole new set of security challenges and the potential for monumental global conflict. Even with his changes, the dual-track policy has not fared any better under Obama's implementation and will surely collapse Iran, as Nasr says, either into war or containment: Both would be a substantial defeat for Obama.

"Obama made the dual-track policy his own, fine-tuned it, and give it many more teeth," Nasr charges in his book, asserting that the President "moved Bush's red line back from no enrichment to no nuclear weapons, and still that red line may be breached." Perhaps even more troublesome, it forced America's hand by putting the global superpower in the uncomfortable position of either seriously contemplating war with Iran when its military resources are already spread thin or losing face by backing off of the hard-line approach and allowing Iran go nuclear without intervening after all. In the latter case, instead of denying Iran access to nuclear capability, "the U.S. will have created a North Korea smack in the middle of the Middle East."

Of course, the issue with North Korea isn't the country's nuclear capabilities. The country's conventional weapons alone pose a serious threat to Seoul and other neighboring cities. The problem is that the totalitarian North Korean dictatorship is struggling to thrive in a vital part of the globe, growing increasingly dangerous and disconnected in its desperation. North Korea should serve as a lesson to the West in the perils of isolating a country through economic sanctions. Currently, they are driving Iran to strengthen its dependence on China.

Already, China beats the United States in terms of how much it trades with the Middle East. While the United States trained its focus on a strong military presence in the region, the administration failed to notice that China's trade within the same geographic boundaries was increasing exponentially. Nasr's book makes clear that "China's trade with Iran has grown from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $45 billion in 2011, with Saudi Arabia from $4 billion in 2001 to $50 billion in 2011, and with Egypt from less than a billion in 2001 to $9 billion in 2011." And of course these countries have shifted away from the United States, instead aligning their own domestic and international policies with China. Nasr describes the key problem with the United States' Iran policy as one of misappropriated threats. He asks,

"Is Iran, a country whose economy is not all that much bigger than the state of Massachusetts, a larger threat to United States' interests than China or Russia? Is Iran so severe a danger that America should subsidize China's economic rise by pushing the Saudis with all their oil right into China's lap (where Iran already sits)? Does it make sense that America spends blood and treasure to keep the Persian Gulf secure while China gets cheap oil -- at our behest?"

And these are indeed questions that are difficult to ignore.

In exploring Dispensable Nation, readers would be wise to wonder whether or not it makes sense to spend our energy and resources worrying more about Iran developing nuclear independence instead of about Russia, who in recent years has busied itself with invasions of its own neighbors, its war cry growing ever louder. Nasr warns,

"The price for Russian cooperation from there on will likely be facilitating Russian domination over energy supplies to Europe - abandoning support for pipelines that will take Azerbaijani or Turkmen gas to Europe. For much of the Cold War we worked hard to keep Western Europe from becoming dependent on Russian energy; now we seem to be encouraging it, all to pressure Iran into submission."

The message Nasr drives home in Dispensable Nation is clear: The United States will be unable to avoid consequences for not better recognizing that the geopolitical power struggle with China looms a bit closer on the horizon than the current administration seems to think. If nothing else, this competition will undoubtedly find its way to the arena of the Middle East, and, Nasr tells us, "We had better be prepared for the global consequences when it does.