BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

Incompetent, Schizophrenic or Shrewd?

Getting it half-right

On Wednesday April 1st, US General David Petraeus told Congress that when it comes to its nuclear activity, Teheran’s “obstinacy and obfuscation have forced Iran’s neighbors and the international community to conclude the worst about the regime’s intentions.” Petraeus got it partially right. Yes, the Iranian’s have deliberately pursued a policy of “obstinacy and obfuscation.” As for Iran’s neighbor’s, I’m not sure they are very concerned.

Does Afghanistan care? Not really: they are occupied by 20,000+ US and allied forces and in the midst of a civil war. Does Pakistan care? They already have nuclear weapons. Does Iraq care? They are in the same situation as the Afghans, albeit with more American troops on the ground. Does Turkey care? That’s a good question, as civilization theorists think that Turkey should be the natural “leader” of the various states in Central Asia. However, Turkey never really got its act together after the fall of the Soviet Union and that boat has sailed.

he international community is, depending on the cost of a gallon of gas, either very concerned or wondering what the entire hullabaloo is. After all, the French and the British have nukes. The Russians and Chinese do also. All of these nations have overcome various crises and wars over the last half century without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. And the Iranians pay cash on the barrel-head, so where’s the problem?

Talking the Israelis down?

The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Financial Times that Israel was not likely to launch a strike against Iran in 2009 to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons. “I guess I would say I would be surprised…if they did act this year,” Mr. Gates said in an interview. Gates, who was brought in by former President Bush to give credibility to the latter’s policies in Iraq and kept on by President Obama, appears incapable of bringing credibility to two subjects at the same time.

Asked whether, according to his assessment, the Islamic regime would cross “a red line” this year which would make the development of a bomb inevitable, Gates answered, “I don’t know, I would guess probably not”. He continued this policy tour d’force with the statement “I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don’t know.” Well, I for one feel greatly re-assured.

American Vice President Joe Biden added more seemingly incredulous statements on April 7th. In response to a question from CNN’s analyst Gloria Borger, asking if he was concerned about an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Biden stated, “I don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think he would be ill-advised to do that. And so my level of concern is no different than it was a year ago.”

A year ago, Iran barely had 3000 centrifuges in place and American intelligence estimates placed the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon at 3-4 years in the future, i.e., circa 2012. Mr. Biden should re-evaluate his level of concern.

All of these statements, along with those issued by staff officers, press officers and advisers are an attempt to “talk the Israelis down.” The fear or the perception is that Netanyahu will strike. Statements like these are intended to calm those fears, change perceptions and are a rather public request to Israel to not preemptively attack Iran and let American diplomacy work.

So what is American policy?
Why are Biden’s and Gates’ assessments so radically different from those of General Petraeus? Much has been made of the fact that the general is a military officer serving his country, whereas the other two are politicians. I think too much has been made of this. If the Obama administration had wanted to send a clear message – tilting one way on the issue or the other – it could have easily coordinated that statements of three senior officials.

Some of stated that the dichotomy of opinions is evidence of the schizophrenic nature of Obama’s administration and his own lack of foreign policy experience. This, too, is an oversimplification. While Biden does have a history of political gaffes and has been critical of Israel in the past, he now has access to the same intelligence briefings that President Obama receives. Unless he’s been dozing off during these meetings, he knows the latest intel. Gates has a reputation as a solid technocrat, not to mention access to the latest reports.

What is American Policy on Iranian nukes? It seems to boils down to one several viewpoints, each what of which has it own partisan coloring.
1. The Obama administration is indeed schizophrenic.
2. The Obama administration is inexperienced and groping for a way forward.
3. The Obama administration is a lot more savvy than you think.

Covering all the bases
Whatever you think of Obama, he is a politician par excellence. He out-Clintoned the Clintons in 2008, and there’s a lot to be said for that. He is an organizer and coalition builder. So, here’s what I think he’s trying to do. Whether it will work in time is another question.

By making several speeches proffering negotiations to the Iranians, having them attend the recent talks on Afghanistan and the US joining the so-called 5+1 talks, he has taken a “European” position, which cannot help but please the Europeans. They would be hard-pressed to move further left on the issue. In addition, Europe needs to have American support on economic matters at this time. The Europeans are also keenly aware of the fact that Russia has invaded one of its neighbors, cut-off gas and petroleum several times in trade disputes and threatened to put ballistic missiles into Eastern Russia.

Obama has said that the plans to base anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) in Poland and the Czech Republic could be shelved if there were no Iranian missile threat to Europe. It has also stated a willingness to start new talks on strategic arms limitations, including ABMs. The Russians hold these two areas dear. They also realize that a slumping world economy buys a lot less Russian oil, gas and other natural resources and nuclear sales to Iran cannot cover those lost revenues.

These same actions have also put the ball in the Iranians’ court. Finally, an American president is treating them with the respect they so desperately crave. They have been given a voice, albeit a limited one, on the issue of Afghanistan; Iraq too, for that matter. Now, they’ve been asked to negotiate over the nuclear development program.

The current regime knows that it is now in a tight race. Iran’s ability to become a nuclear power is being threatened, not by Israeli F-15s and F-16s, but by a convergence of American, European and Russian foreign policies. The question is, will this convergence come too late or just in time?
Or is the Obama administration truly a group of foreign policy greenhorns who are going to lead America into the worst series of foreign policy disasters since Jimmy Carter?

April 10, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment