Three Roads Diverge in an Iranian Wood

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China and Russia won’t play ball because they have no good strategic reason to help relieve America’s burden of global leadership. But it’s not so clear why the Obama administration is eager to participate in this charade.

There are two reasons, I think. The first is that acknowledging Russia and China’s unwillingness to help would strike the most powerful blow yet to Obama’s central foreign-policy message: that his personality and eagerness for engagement would open up doors for America that were slammed shut by the Bush administration’s alleged arrogance and quickness to go to war. Acknowledging that the Security Council will never allow strong sanctions would be tantamount to admitting that the very logic and premises of Obama’s foreign policy is flawed. Thus, this isn’t really about Iran. It’s about the politics of failure and Obama’s increasingly desperate attempt to shield his presidency from the hard realities of the world.

And there is a practical reason why Obama may never admit that the Security Council is a dead end: doing so would force him to move to a new strategy — and there is no new strategy. So instead of thinking seriously about a Plan B, the administration is simply burying Plan A in a process with no chance of success and no expiration date. This is passivity, and it puts Obama in the position of reacting to events instead of shaping them. - Noah Pollak

I think this is correct, but I think there's a different, slightly less partisan, way to understand the issue. There are basically three courses open to the Obama administration with respect to Iran. It can do the Full Leverett (drop all pretense of hostility toward Iran and engage them on all issues in the hopes of a grand bargain); it can pursue the course it's on now, a slow roll of diplomacy towards possible sanctions and international condemnation of Iran that probably won't alter their nuclear progress; or it can start a war with Iran, which may or may not fully stop their nuclear program but would open the door to a host of consequences, most of them negative.

In contrast to their neoconservative critics, the Obama administration, including senior figures in the military, apparently sees the "hard realities of the world" as mitigating against starting a third war in the Greater Middle East - even if it means conceding some nuclear weapons capability to Iran. Of course, the administration can't publicly acknowledge this, and so they have pursued the diplomatic and sanctions track, to demonstrate that they are least trying to address the problem (and sanctions could, in fact, slow down Iran's progress - as they have done with North Korea and Saddam's Iraq).

And so Pollak is right in the sense that the administration's determination to stay on the diplomatic path despite the long odds of it working is an admission that there is no Plan B - because Plan B in this view is a war with Iran. But he's wrong to suggest that the administration does not have a Plan B for when diplomacy fails (as I too expect it will). They are clearly signalling the beginning of a military containment regime for Iran.

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