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Obama's Iran Bind

By John Martin - Posted on 29 September 2009

Assuming Iran doesn't back down from its nuclear program, and assuming the U.S. can't convince China and Russia to support meaningful sanctions, what's the administration's Plan B?  If you ask Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, the President should make like Nixon in China.  As the duo wrote in yesterday's New York Times:
Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.

Nixon was able to reach out to the Chinese because he was seen as an extreme anti-Communist.  Few American leaders could have engaged the Chinese the way Nixon did.  To suggest that Obama will similarly be able to reach out to Tehran, after the criticism Obama's received in the past for suggesting an Iran sit-down, and after the upcoming Geneva talks fail (should they), is to seriously misread how weak any such move would make the President look, both here and abroad.  The last thing this President needs is to look like Jimmy Carter, unable or unwilling to use force when necessary, and not to be taken seriously by the world's powers. 

I also don't see how an up-front capitulation to Iran could create a "realignment," as the Leveretts call it.  When Nixon engaged the Chinese, its effect was to bring them closer to us and further away from the U.S.S.R.— a clear show of strength by our team.  In the scenario that's playing out today, it's looking more and more like it's the Iranians who hold all the cards.  Any aggressive engagement by us at this point— after we've squandered most of our non-military options— would be seen as a clear win for those nations that dare challenge us.

If Obama fails at getting Russia and China to help bring Iran in line, the last thing he'll want to do is extend an olive branch to Tehran.  The Iranians wouldn't take us seriously at that point, and an increasing number of Americans will wonder if they can take the President seriously when it comes to standing up to rouge nations.

As much as I agree with John, I don't see any alternative plans that are much better. The Iraq War severely depleted us in terms of manpower and money, so an act of war like attacking their nuclear facilities is not a good idea (not to mention, Iran has Hezbollah and Hamas ready to cause trouble). I'd love the idea of covert sabotage or something, but that just means I've been playing too much Call of Duty.

But if anyone's in the hot seat right now, it's China. Iran is one of their customers for refined gas, Iran gives them petroleum, etc. But if they veto sanctions, they isolate themselves against the rest of the Security Council (not to mention, much of the UN), and risk being seen as aiding and abetting a rogue state about to acquire nukes. Hopefully they won't choose the veto to continue business and punk the US.

Ambassador Jon Huntsman on this topic from yesterday's All Things Considered.


It's sad that we've reached a point where 'government service' is a dirty word... If we're the greatest country on earth, maybe we can have the greatest government.

Lewis Black

Well, we'll see.  Ultimately, I think this is Israel's fish to fry.  One big military option would be to allow them to do whatever they feel is necessary-- or maybe just let the world know we wouldn't stand in their way.

It's been a while since I read up on the Cuban Missle Crisis, but another option might be some sort of blockade.  That could at least let them know we're willing to go beyond diplomacy.

Ultimately, I think this is Israel's fish to fry

Absolute agreement with this sentiment.  How Israel fries it though.... some of the options are kinda worrisome. 


Well that's true, but it's hard for me to feel too bad for them after they consistently go their own way with regard to their settlements.  We can only stick our necks out for them so many times.

  Excellent thread John. Great comments Magus!

 Im at a loss here. I feel we are in quite a pickle. I agree with your last statement John, we do need to let them, and the world, know we are willing to go beyond diplomacy. The million dollar question is "how?".

 Im with you Magus, I been playing a little too much call of duty myself. And having played the real thing at times in my life, it may be a little worse for me. But I know that isnt the answer either. Obama is no Nixon! (and in some ways, thats not a bad thing) Handling Iran in the manner in which Nixon handled China is impossible. Truth be told, there is no "blueprint" or magic formula on how to handle this situation. I am praying that Obama has the right people in place around him advising him on this situation. I hope he does the right thing! Whatever it may be.

"Government doesn't solve problems, it subsidizes them" ~ Ronald Reagan

Here's a link to the President's remarks today regarding the Geneva talks.

What stands out to me is that he's giving Iran a two week deadline.  I'm not sure if the group of 5 + 1 has enough glue to stick together for that long.  Just like with the failed deadlines with Iraq six years ago, I see the Chinese, the French and the Russians allowing the Iranian regime to mess with our heads over and over again, never fully complying.

"Earlier this month, we presented clear evidence that Iran has been building a covert nuclear facility in Qom. Since Iran has now agreed to cooperate fully and immediately with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it must grant unfettered access to IAEA inspectors within two weeks. I've been in close touch with the head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, who will be traveling to Tehran in the days ahead. He has my full support, and the Iranian government must grant the IAEA full access to the site in Qom."

Whether Israel likes it or not, they're going to have to behave themselves here.  China and Russia have alot at stake, and President Obama is going to have to show that he'll back them if they seriously make Iran comply with international nuclear regulations.

 To be fair to Iran, Israel has plenty of nukes and I can see why they'd want one.

Here's hoping that Obama doesn't have to stand alone to the Iranian government.  I want Russia, China, France and some other countries realize that they have to carry their fair share of the international load.

My fear is that Israel will decide to fry the fish!

With the underground facility, and the rumor of another one, followed by Iran's successful testing of both short and long range missiles capable of hitting Israel, it could get dangerous.  Israel could decide that they are threatened, and strike Iran's facilities, sparking open hostilities.

What would we do then?  What should we do then?   

From MSNBC First Read.

The Washington Post's take: "The sudden show of cooperation by Tehran reduces for now the threat of additional sanctions, which has been made repeatedly by the United States and others over the past week after the revelation of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The United States will need to keep the pressure on Iran to avoid being dragged into a process without end. "

The New York Daily News writes that “U.S. and Iranian officials met eyeball to eyeball for the time in 30 years on Thursday, and Iran blinked,” citing Iran’s agreement to allow inspectors access to a secret nuclear facility, and also that it “caved to the demands of the U.S. and its allies for open-ended future meetings on weapons programs and human rights after dramatic negotiations in Geneva.

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