No one likes to be the skunk at the picnic but sometimes there’s no alternative: You just have to spray. That’s how I feel after reading a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, a generally smart and sophisticated member of the foreign-policy elite. Consider this excerpt:
President Obama is approaching one of those moments when a big turn in foreign policy is possible. . . . There’s no doubt that this is a time of opportunity.
The evidence for this optimism? Obama has “talked directly” with Hassan Rouhani “about quickly negotiating a deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program.” Well, yes, but in that brief telephonic conversation the new Iranian president offered not a single concession. Maybe he will, but, until and unless he does, how is it possible to conclude that everything is hunky-dory and, what’s more, about to get better? Ignatius adds:
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must communicate that the United States is reaching an inflection point: In the world that’s ahead, Iran must temper its revolutionary dreams of 1979, just as Saudi Arabia must stop hyperventilating about the “Shiite crescent.”
Imagine you’re Rouhani or his boss, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Surely you’d wonder: “This ‘inflection point’ that Obama is to communicate — what makes Mr. Ignatius think it is coming, and how will the United States be different after it has been reached? And in the ‘world that’s ahead’ why must we Iranians temper our revolutionary dreams? Why should we veer from the road paved by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of our Islamic Revolution and founder of our Islamic Republic?”
As for the Saudis, they are unlikely to be convinced that their concerns verge on the hysterical. They see abundant evidence that Iran (Persian- and Shiite-ruled) is determined to become the nuclear-armed hegemon of the Middle East, to the detriment — and possibly the destruction — of its neighbors (most of them Arab- and Sunni-ruled — and, of course, one that is Jewish).
The Ignatius column concludes:
What’s around the corner is a new regional framework that accommodates the security needs of Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Russians and Americans.
This is a great strategic opportunity, but it will require constant, skillful diplomatic guidance.
Seeing around corners requires an ability that few journalists — or political scientists or intelligence analysts — have successfully demonstrated in the past. And while it would be a “truly big deal” if Iran and Russia were willing to settle for the accommodation of their “security needs,” is it not apparent that they have set their sights considerably higher?
A fundamental principle of foreign policy is that if you will an end, you must will the means to that end. To achieve a “big turn in foreign policy” requires more than wishful thinking — it requires a strategy. In this case, it might begin with the recognition that, throughout recorded history, there have been nations committed to acquiring power over others. Iran today is self-evidently such a nation. Is there a way to persuade Iran’s rulers to constrain their ambitions?
Those who study Iran disagree on many points but there is broad consensus on this: Consistent with Khomeini’s teaching and practice, the regime has no higher priority than its own survival — because without revolutionary leaders no “revolutionary dreams” can be realized.
Rouhani has been projecting an aura of confidence. But his stated goal of reaching a negotiated settlement quickly — an adverb not emphasized in the past — suggests he may see Iran’s current economic situation as urgent.
Herein lies the logic behind the sanctions effort led by such members of Congress as Representatives Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, and Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez: Bring Iran to the brink of economic collapse and it is at least possible that the supreme leader will decide that strategic retreat is the least-bad option.
A new study released by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the think tank I head) and Roubini Global Economics (renowned numbers-crunchers) concludes that “Iran’s foreign currency reserves, which are critical to the Iranian government’s ability to withstand sanctions pressure, are being depleted and, in large part, impeded.”
The report goes on to detail specific measures that could be taken to ratchet up the pressure — to give American diplomats additional leverage so they can tell Rouhani: “We are offering you a way out of the economic quicksand now pulling you under. More than that: We’ll help you revitalize your economy. But here’s the minimum you must do in exchange: Stop violating Security Council resolutions and start abiding by the obligations you undertook when you signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Shut down the centrifuges, eliminate your nuclear stockpiles — dismantle all your illicit nuclear-weapons facilities. And cooperate with our efforts to verify that you have met these requirements.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism; a mass murderer of Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon; an egregious human-rights abuser at home; the enabler of ongoing butchery in Syria; and an inciter of genocide against Israel. A single phone call from Rouhani to Obama changes none of that.
Allowing the regime in Tehran to obtain a nuclear-weapons capability would indeed bring us to an inflection point — from that moment on, the probability of nuclear exchanges would increase dramatically. No security threat is more critical than this. The use of military force should be the last resort but, as history instructs, the more credible the threat of force, the less likely that its exercise will be necessary.
I take no pleasure in raining on what David Ignatius and others see as a parade. But when that parade includes missiles inscribed with “Death to America!” it’s hard to comprehend what all the cheering is about.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.