A meme is emerging from the Republican debates, that President Obama is not doing enough to confront Iran, that his policy has failed.
There may be an argument here that Obama could do more, for instance in accelerating the tools he has to shut out from the U.S. economy third parties that buy oil from Iran or deal with its central bank. The counter argument is that the White House wants to use those tools as leverage to get the third parties to shut out Iran, not as punishment which could alienate the international community and benefit Iran. (A third argument is that sanctions and isolation accomplish bupkis, but since the parameters of "Obama vs. GOP field on Iran" is whether he is doing enough to isolate Iran, we’ll stick to that.)
The candidates have, however, not limited themselves to the "he could do more" frame. Instead, they — well, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gigrich, among those still standing — have declared a failure Obama’s efforts to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
It’s worth examining that claim.
First, there have been reports that means aside from the sanctions — particularly the Stuxnet virus targeting centrifuges, whose origin is still unclear — have in fact hindered the program.
The sanctions are trickier. There are two measures of their success: Are they impacting the Iranian economy? And will they stop the suspected nuclear weapons program?
The first measure is showing signs of success.
The United Nations in 2010 authorized the strictest international sanctions yet, effectively protecting from legal repercussions nations that sanction Iran’s banking and energy sectors. This helped propel the European Union’s resolve yesterday to embargo Iran’s oil. The Iranian rial is plummeting just because the Obama administration has warned that it may use the banking sanctions provision in the law passed last month.
The sanctions, as explained to me by Obama administration officials, senior Israeli officials and Republican sponsors of the law like Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), are not aimed at shutting down Iran’s energy sector; this could backfire, set off a panic, and drive the price of oil up.
Instead, a delicate game is being played: The Western nations sanctioning Iran want to exert enough pressure on nations buying Iranian crude — China and India principally — to allow them the leverage to force Iran to discount its oil. Press too hard, and a crisis may be precipitated; don’t press hard enough and the efforts are for nought.
Call them the chiropractor sanctions. You don’t want your bones broken, but you don’t want to walk away feeling the same ache.
Less income for Iran means less cash for its suspected nuclear weapons program, and may also mean greater susceptibility within its ruling elites (which are simultaneously broad, diverse and opaque) to dealing with Western demands.
There are signs the pressure is working. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported last week that the Chinese are effectively holding out for a discount:
The payments haggle between Iran and China illustrates Tehran’s new vulnerability. According to Kern, the Chinese cut the 285,000 barrels when Iran refused a request for better credit terms. The difference amounted to just 50 cents a barrel, but the Iranians apparently feared that if they gave China a discount, other purchasers would want one, too.
We’re not in a position to decide "success" or "failure" yet. U.S. officials have told their Israeli counterparts that they expect to see results, in terms of Iran’s acquiescence on the nuclear issue, by March, in time for the next International Atomic Energy Agency report.
Another sub-argument, repeated last night by Newt Gingrich, is simply bizarre: That Obama canceled the joint exercise with Israel because he didn’t want to provoke Iran.
On the record, officials have said it was a joint decision, and I have been told point blank by Israeli and U.S. officials, on background, that it was initiated by Ehud Barak, the defense minister. (Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post and Sara Sorcher at National Journal make similar points.)
A more nuanced conservative argument was succinctly put in a tweet last night by the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka:
What’s with all the lefties proclaiming Obama’s toughness on #Iran? Thought we elected him to end stupid Bush Iran policy, not continue it.
Fair enough — well not so fair, because Obama has improved on the "stupid" policy to a degree — but what we need from the candidates is an acknowledgment of the failures of Obama’s predecessors, and not out of any vaunted desire for "fairness" (it’s an election year.)
The Iran tensions between Obama and Congress-plus-GOP-candidates are typical of those of the executive branch which must carry out policy, and legislators and candidates who have the relatively luxury of shaping its ideological parameters.
What the candidates need to tell us is how they would handle that tension better: How would they make sure that the oil Iran does not sell to Europe is sold at well below premium prices to others?
How would they not get into the position of the Bush administration in 2006, when Republicans in Congress stood silent while the White House gutted sanctions in deference to actors whose help it needed in Iraq and elsewhere?