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Tougher than the Rest?

If history is any guide, Obama is bluffing on Iran

Tougher than the Rest?With President Obama describing them as Tehran’s “last chance” for a peaceful resolution, international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program started up again this past weekend.  Washington has been talking tough with Iran of late, insisting that it is prepared, if necessary, to use military force to stop the country’s atomic ambitions.

But how credible are these threats?  The question is all the more pertinent given the White House’s contention this week that it is actually pursuing a harder line vis-à-vis North Korea – Iran’s precursor as proliferation rogue – than the George W. Bush administration did.

Yet if the U.S. saga with Pyongyang is any guide, President Obama is more likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli.  Indeed, the rhetoric issuing from Washington nowadays is nearly a verbatim copy of the words Obama’s predecessors once directed at North Korea.  And we all know how well that turned out.

Consider, for example, the Clinton administration’s declarations on Pyongyang’s proliferation. In late 1993, President Clinton signaled U.S. willingness to thwart North Korea’s nuclear activities by means of war, stating that it “cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.”  His defense secretary shortly thereafter termed the president’s statement an “ultimatum,” adding “we will not let the North Koreans become a nuclear power….nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea is not acceptable.”

George W. Bush, who framed the invasion of Iraq as an act of counter-proliferation, took a similar stance toward Pyongyang. He declared categorically in May 2003 that “we will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea.”  Like today, loose talk of military strikes filled the air but the lack of viable options ultimately stayed his hand.  When Pyongyang finally did explode a nuclear device in the fall of 2006, he could only repeat that the existence of its arsenal was “unacceptable.”

As the depressing track record with North Korea demonstrates, it is exceedingly difficult to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear capabilities, especially if it located in a strategic part of the world, has powerful patrons, and is able to inflict retribution on important U.S. interests in the region.  Still, this has not kept such important thought leaders from continuing to advocate for the use of military force in order to disrupt Pyongyang’s proliferation activities.  Bill Perry, who served as President Clinton’s second defense secretary, and Ashton Carter, currently the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, called for a strike to preempt the North’s missile test in June 2006.  Philip Zelikow, who was the State Department’s counselor in the George W. Bush administration, repeated the same recommendation three years ago.

President Obama ignored this advice in the run-up to Pyongyang’s failed rocket launch a few days ago and has issued no threats regarding rumors of an impending nuclear test by the North.  So it is all the more puzzling why the administration is borrowing freely from the vocabulary used by Clinton and Bush on North Korea.  In his first press conference as president-elect, Mr. Obama declared that “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable.”  In his State of the Union address earlier this year, he vowed that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”

In a media interview last month, he underscored that he is not bluffing when it comes to the possible use of military force and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”  He followed this up by asserting at a press conference that “we will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” and then delivering a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”

From the President to Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, and from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to White House press secretary Jay Carney, the Obama team has put out the word: the diplomatic “window of opportunity” is closing.

Yet the Obama administration’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action has always an air of unreality.  After all, a president determined to wind down George Bush’s wars in the Greater Middle East is quite unlikely to initiate a third one.  Ditto for the politician seeking re-election who justifies large-scale troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by declaring to a war-weary country that “it’s time to focus on nation-building here at home.” And not to mention the commander-in-chief who unveils the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance by announcing that “the tide of war is receding.”

Nor has it escaped notice in Tehran and elsewhere that for all of the tough-minded rhetoric, Mr. Obama was most reluctant to impose painful economic sanctions on Iran in the first place.  And even now, the administration is working to water down new sanctions legislation being drafted in the Senate.

Noteworthy, too, is how the Pentagon leadership is pouring cold water on the military option. Before his retirement last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the U.S. armed forces are “exhausted” and pointedly cautioned against launching any new conflicts in the Middle East.  His successor, Mr. Panetta, has warned that a military strike would have “unintended consequences,” touching off global economic instability and broader military hostilities. And the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff cautions against attacking Tehran and argues that the Iranian regime is a “rational actor,” suggesting that a nuclear-armed Tehran could be deterred from engaging in provocative actions.

Critics charge that Obama’s recent pronouncements are merely election-year palaver.  But it is also important to recognize that he is following a rhetorical playbook laid out by his predecessors.  Chances are, he will be no more successful in dealing with a Tehran determined to possess nuclear weapons than they were with Pyongyang.

This commentary was originally posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.