Jerusalem — The eureka moment in Obama’s Middle East policy, in the eyes of Israel and other U.S. allies in the region, came with the famous withdrawal of his red line over Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
From the vantage point of America’s strategic allies in the Middle East, Obama’s decision last September to recoil from lobbing some missiles at mass murderer Bashar Assad showed a backbone filled with jelly.
At the time, Assad agreed to eliminate his stockpile of chemical weapons in exchange for Obama’s decision to pull the plug on military strikes. How’s the strongman holding up his end of the bargain?
“Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction,” Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Just the night before, Obama claimed during his State of the Union address that “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”
What’s the effect of this disconnect? Assad views Obama’s rhetoric as largely meaningless.
And he’s not the only one. Syria’s principal partner, the Islamic Republic of Iran, appears to share Assad’s attitude toward Obama. And they aren’t mistaken: The most pressing security problem across the globe remains Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program, yet Obama is wedded to diplomacy without muscle.
The president promised in his State of the Union speech to veto any sanctions bill — even conditional and forward-looking — that he thinks ”threatens to derail” the talks with Iran.
While Obama stressed “that Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium,” there is no rigorous verification method in place. We simply don’t know whether it’s happening: The interim deal does not provide for access to all of Iran’s nuclear and military facilities. As Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, noted, “the inspections about which [Obama] is so proud actually don’t touch the facilities like Parchin in which Iran has previously done work on nuclear weapons design and components. “
It is worth noting that Iranian foreign-ministry spokesman Marzieh Afkham issued a rejoinder today to Obama, saying, “The delusion of sanctions having an effect on Iran’s motivation for nuclear negotiations is based on a false narration of history.”
Yet contrary to Iran’s position, there is a broad consensus that sanctions have produced a change in Iran’s behavior and forced the mullahs to the table.
Obama seems to know this, if he hasn’t backed it up with action: He assured Congress that if the talks with Iran collapse, he will move forward with new sanctions and retain “all options” to stop Iran’s nuke program.
Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who co-drafted the new Iran sanctions bill (which imposes sanctions in the event Iran violates the existing agreement), said, “The American people – Democrats and Republicans alike – overwhelmingly want Iran held accountable during any negotiations.”
To Iran’s radical Islamic leaders and leaders across the Middle East, Obama’s policies display the most pronounced form of weakness. We’ll see where that leads.
— Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.