Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bracing for that 3 A.M. Call

Before too long, British bookies will be taking bets on which early-morning crisis call Barack Obama will take first. Experts are now warning that the president-elect is facing a veritable "hornet's nest" in the Middle East, led by the prospect that Iran will have a nuclear bomb within a year.

Interestingly, predictions of impending crises from the West Bank to the Persian Gulf came from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution--organizations that are anything but unfriendly to the next commander-in-chief. The think tanks outlined their concerns in a joint report entitled Restoring the Balance, which offered a blue print for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Gary Samore, one of the authors, said that the level of alarm over the “hornet’s nest” facing the President-elect in the Middle East, and the need for the swift adoption of previously untested approach, had inspired the decision to write policy for him. “New administrations can choose new policies but they can’t choose next contexts,” Mr Samore said.

The report paints a grim picture of the problems in the region but asserts that Mr Obama is still in a strong position. For the first time since the Iranian revolution the leadership in Tehran has endorsed the idea of talking directly with Washington, as Mr Obama has suggested. Falling oil prices also provide an opportunity, restricting Iran’s means to sponsor terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that act as its proxy in the region.

As you might expect, the smart folks at Brookings and the CFR like the idea of a new diplomatic offensive. They believe the time is right to engage Iran, Syria and other adversaries in the region, an idea that Mr. Obama has also endorsed.

Unfortunately, the report (or at least the U.K. Telegraph's article on it) ignores a rather important question: What exactly, does the U.S. hope to gain from new talks with Tehran and Damascus? Readers will recall that Washington fully endorsed years of negotiations between the so-called "EU-3" (Britain, France and Germany) and Iran.

To date, those conversations have produced no concessions from Tehran on its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran's efforts to acquire nukes have actually accelerated during that period, leading to the dire prediction in the think tank report.

Having cast its lot with Tehran, Syria also would seem to be a poor candidate for negotiations. Readers will recall that Damascus has also spurred various overtures in recent years, and even launched a covert nuclear program during that time. Like its Iranian allies, the Syrians also see their power on the ascendancy. At this juncture, they have little incentive for serious negotiations, with Iran about to achieve an over-arching goal--the development of nuclear weapons--and Damascus will reap the benefits of that acquisition.

The policy wonks at Brookings and CFR would counter that Tehran is now in a weakened position, thanks to the recent, dramatic drop in oil prices. And, since Damascus depends on Iran for political, economic and military support, the Syrians would have little choice but follow Tehran's lead.

There's an element of truth in that assessment, but it also ignores the game-changing impact of the Iranian nuclear program. So close to achieving its goal, Tehran has no incentive to abandon its weapons development efforts. Why give up a program that will forever alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and make Iran's position that much stronger?

That's the harsh reality facing the next administration. Diplomacy is fine, but so far, no one wants to talk about what happens when the talks fail. One of Mr. Obama's first early-morning calls may deliver the somber news that Iran has produced its first nuke, and is thumbing its nose at the global community. At that point, the time for negotiations is probably over. What comes next?


And, if that's not enough, a separate report warns that the U.S. should expect a nuclear or biological terrorist attack by 2013. The assessment, which will be published tomorrow, claims that the margin of safety in America is "shrinking, not growing," despite billions of dollars in new spending on homeland security. Produced by the bi-partisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, the report says that insurgents' deficiencies in those areas could be easily overcome, if they find scientists willing to share their expertise.

The document also describes Pakistan as the "intersection" of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist efforts to gain those capabilities.


Ed Rasimus said...

There is a certain perverse irony (is that redundant?) in the idea of liberals embracing the (temporary) collapse of oil prices as a driving force to compel Iran to act rationally and then by extension to have their Syrian client become some sort of diplomatic bridge between middle-East fundamentalists and western democratic semi-capitalists.

Ain't gonna happen.

Unknown said...

Ed--Very well said. And here's one more ironiic twist. When Iran and Syria fail to follow that script, the same "wise" men and women will reflect genuine surprise, and then blame their failure on the Bush Administration. After all, W destroyed our reputation in the world, and it's gonna take years to repair the damage--and get countries like Iran and Syria to come around to our way of thinking.

Keep dreaming, folks.

lgude said...

Having suffered through the intemperate and therefore pretty useless opposition to the Bush administration, it is wonderful to see balanced and thoughtful points raised that question what may very well be the new administrations' policy. What is particularly gratifying is that your questions are not driven by an overriding desire to see Obama fail - that is putting politics before country.

Your Correspondent said...

The US will probably have to use military action. The same question applies, though; What next?

If military action leaves Iran with a huge revenue stream from oil, uranium mines, and a useful navy, the problem is only delayed.

Even changing regimes is unreliable, the Shah was a US ally.

The only way to lasting peace is to seize the oil fields and the uranium mines, and destroy the Iranian military, including nuclear development. With no military, no money, and no nukes, we won't care about them. We won't care if they're stable and we won't care if they hate us. They'll be as influential as Malawi.

Anonymous said...


Military action, euhm, with what really? With troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan I don't think the US has enough left to also enter Iran.