Obama’s empty threats weaken US

The Guardian: The US’s inability to back threats with tangible actions in response to Iran’s nuclear trickery has cost America a key non-proliferation tool and suggested the waning of a global power. There is a glimmer of hope for President Barack Obama, but success over Iran’s nuclear programme will require quieter, closed-door diplomacy, both with Tehran and international partners.

Obama ascended to the presidency vowing to engage Iran in dialogue about its nuclear weapons programme. As president, he has also talked tough about his determination to work multilaterally to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished … The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons,” Obama said in Prague in April 2009. And yet, since his remarks, international non-proliferation rules have been circumvented, violations have gone unpunished and the world is divided over how to deal with Iran – a country widely accused of pursuing nuclear weapons.

The threat of increased pressure, such as sanctions, is as much a policy device as the sanctions themselves, and must only be used if the US can back it up with effective action. This has not been the case under Obama – and with unfortunate consequences. Inaction in the face of Iran’s defiance of US demands has weakened Washington’s foreign policy standing and caused the loss of a key non-proliferation instrument, namely having a credible, and therefore usable, threat against Iran.

Since credibility is crucial, the “threat tool” is now a significantly weakened aspect of the US non-proliferation portfolio in relation to Iran and future proliferators. In a world of mounting proliferation problems, losing a non-proliferation device is of serious concern.

Last May, Obama stated that Iran had until the end of 2009 to “change course” on its nuclear programme. Between then and now, Iran has defied three publicly established US deadlines – one in September, one in October, and one at the end of the year. Despite China’s outright opposition to another UN security council sanctions resolution, Obama said in his state of the union address that if “Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They … will face growing consequences. That is a promise.”

A promise that is yet to be transformed into action. Even if recent US-intensified efforts to pass a UN security council sanctions resolution bear fruit – and this is a big if, at least in the short term – the damage has already been done to an important aspect of US foreign policy. Obama said it himself in Prague: “Words must mean something.” Right now, words are empty threats.

This problem is not isolated to Iran. The Iranian nuclear conundrum has illuminated waning US power not only to influence Tehran’s behaviour, but that of the rest of the world. Granted, it is not easy to rally a broad coalition of states – including four other permanent UN security council members with veto power – to support further sanctions. The failed US effort to obtain Chinese support for a tougher line against Iran has showcased the limited influence Washington has over Beijing – or perhaps the increased power of China on the international arena.

Seemingly frustrated over China’s effective opposition to a key US foreign policy goal, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, recently berated the nation for refusing to support a stronger stance on Iran and on the same day announced a $6bn US arms deal with Taiwan. China responded by cancelling some military exchanges and threatened sanctions on some American companies.

Increased tension with China over Iran is simply bad policy, as the Asian country is currently bankrolling US domestic spending as well as playing a crucial role in Obama’s increased export plans. Beijing is also a key partner in addressing other international concerns, such as global warming.

Furthermore, increased US-China conflict plays to Iran’s advantage. Succeeding in dividing two major powers over its nuclear programme – which Iran seems to be doing quite well – merely strengthens Iran’s resolve to withstand outside pressure and continue on its course.

Moving forward, one option the US should pursue is diplomatic discretion. Creating a workable solution behind closed doors has the benefit of reducing the risk of the US being perceived as a state without power to deal effectively with what it considers one of the key threats to regional and international security.

The president should continue to offer dialogue with Tehran in the public domain, but pressure and incentives should be presented outside the public eye. Only in that forum is Obama protected from domestic and international petty politics and can offer a wider range of motivations for compliance, including assurances against military action and resumed full diplomatic relations – all without being accused of being weak on Iran. A broader political and diplomatic context between the US and Iran would be advantageous, since it seems that the relationship has once again fallen prey to the Iranian nuclear game.

If Iran continues to break international non-proliferation norms and rules, the US should refrain from using harsh words and unsubstantiated pressure until Washington has a firm commitment from the other key powers in the UN security council. Only then should Obama again openly threaten and impose deadlines on Iran.

That way, if Iran ignores another deadline, Obama will be able to act immediately with the backing of the international community and help restore the credibility that America needs to follow through on its stated stance against nuclear proliferation.