The Japan Option
During his campaign, Barack Obama promised to talk with Iran – to open dialog with Tehran without preconditions, whether or not it’s met with bluster or deceipt on the part of the Mullahs. His critics, including then candidate John McCain scoffed at such an approach. What possible good could it do? Well, the other night Obama made preliminary moves to opening that dialog, addressing Tehran respectfully and putting as much distance between himself and the methods of his predecessors as possible.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also addressed the Iranians – though in quite another fashion altogether, pointedly directing his speech at the Iranian people rather than the government, and urging them to rise up against the mullahs.
MJ Rosenburg writes:
Yesterday, when the New York Times inexplicably gave Shimon Peres’ insulting message to Iran equal play with President Obama”s, I thought it might be no coincidence.
Peres, who is an uberhawk on Iran, suddenly sends “greetings” to the Iranian people urging them to rise up against their government at the same moment that Obama respectfully addressed the “Islamic Republic of Iran” with the most conciliatory US message in decades. Coincidence? Maybe.
Of course, the Iranians would not view it that way. They would see America and Israel playing “good cop, bad cop,” diminishing the effect of Obama’s remarkable overture.
I hear that the White House is furious.
Rachel Abrams has a very different opinion on the matter:
In his own Nowruz greeting to the people of Iran, Peres “heaped praise on the Iranian people and expressed his belief that they would eventually topple the regime because ‘leaders who do not serve their constituents are eventually removed.’” Now that’s how a president should be speaking to the prisoners of the Mullahcracy.
Now regardless of the merits of each individual approach, it is interesting that they coincided with one another, and it strikes me as a fairly obvious attempt on the part of Peres to counter Obama’s message. This is not at all surprising. I’m not sure I would go as far as Rosenburg and describe this as an intentional “undermining” of the President – after all, Israel has every right to present a counter offer to the Iranian people, whether or not it’s good policy or smart politics. There is every reason in the world to doubt the mullahs and the government in Tehran. Then again, whether an Israeli President calling for the uprising of the Iranian people makes even a sliver of sense is beyond me.
What seems obvious is that Israel is testing Obama’s mettle, and putting the fire to his feet as early on as possible. I don’t think that concerns over perceptions of Israel and the United States working to play “good cop, bad cop” are worth much, but this could be a critical moment in determining the foreward push of Obama’s foreign policy agenda. The move toward diplomacy with Iran was smart, but if that move is tempered with too much compromise for a military option, all could be for nothing.
As Stephen Walt points out:
This means that the Obama administration’s likely approach (“bigger carrots and bigger sticks,” as outlined by special envoy Dennis Ross) is wrong-headed. We may need to think up different inducements, but bigger sticks (e.g., stronger sanctions) sends the wrong message, and repeated statements that military force is still “on the table” only gives Tehran additional incentive to master the full fuel cycle and then proceed to weaponize. If we are serious about diplomacy (and not simply looking for a pretext to use force later), Step 1 has to be reducing Iran’s perceived need for a deterrent capability of its own. And as a number of Iran experts have already argued, the best way to do that is to pursue a comprehensive settlement of the key security issues that presently divide us.
The point is we can’t just continue down the path of empty words. Empty words, bigger carrots – none of it will matter if we maintain a damning policy of economic sanctions, brash rhetoric, and the very real threat of military action. The trajectory seems to be the more we threaten, the faster those we threaten move toward nuclear armament. It has been the only real deterrent to American intervention. If Saddam had had nuclear capabilities, our course in Iraq may have been very different, and Tehran knows this. The only thing that might, just might provide incentive to Tehran to foregoe their nuclear option is taking away the stick. Walt continues:
Thus, from a purely realist perspective, Iran might actually be better off with the “Japan option”: possessing the latent capability to build nuclear weapons if circumstances required, but avoiding the costs and risks by refraining from exercising that option. If we want to convince Tehran to forego nuclear weapons, therefore, our diplomatic efforts ought to focus on explaining this situation to our Iranian counterparts, instead of merely brandishing bigger sticks or waving bigger carrots.
For now expect to see a lot of back and forth in foreign policy circles. Israel’s new government is hawkish to a fault, and won’t give Obama an easy time of it, and from where I stand, Obama hasn’t quite made up his mind about the situation – either on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories, or over the question of Iran. We’re still very early on in the new administration, and it’s impossible to say what will happen. If Israel pushes hard enough, will Washington push back? If Obama caves now, will he ever find a himself in a position to put pressure on Israel’s settlements in the West Bank? The only thing we can count on is Tehran’s continued recalictrance in the face of any attempts at diplomacy. This can be used to our advantage, though, and it’s no reason for the United States to cease diplomatic efforts.