Years from now, when the world knows how events have turned out, historians will inevitably ask: What unnecessary risks did our presidents foolishly run? President Obama’s Iran policy will be high on this list. His misconceptions about Iran will be judged to have stifled, in his first years, timely, non-violent methods that, by his own later assessments, had the best chance to head off the looming prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons. There is value in future historians’ holding leaders to account for failed policies, but the harsh, concrete consequences may be borne by many others much sooner.
It didn’t have to be this way. When candidate Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, there was a lively debate about Iran policy. Obama maintained that reaching out to Iran and acknowledging its interests was the best way to persuade it to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs, which he came to call an “unacceptable” and “hugely dangerous path.” In his inaugural address, the president offered his hand to those who would unclench their fist. In his first months in office, he acknowledged past wrongs done to Iran and declared his resolve “to overcome decades of mistrust” by moving forward “without preconditions.” He built our policy to meet his assessment of an Iran ready to abandon its nuclear program and embrace a new era.
Others warned Obama in 2008 and 2009 that no amount of bending to Iran would induce its hard-core leadership to abandon a nuclear program it considered so integral to its regional ambitions and its hold on power. Do not be deluded, these others warned, about the sincerity of Iranian hostility, the risks they will run to keep power, or the scope of their ambitions, for these things had lain close to the heart of Iran’s revolution since its inception. And so some urged the president: Aim for harsh, even crippling sanctions on Iran now, for even the best sanctions take years to grab hold of a regime. If there is any chance of a peaceful solution, these students of Iran asserted, it lies in a concerted, forceful policy implemented sooner, not later. If Iran gets close to having nuclear weapons, they argued, changing its course will only be harder.
Regional powers contested Obama’s assessment of Iran, too. They knew Iran well and saw no prospect that it could be easily deterred from its ambitions. Arab leaders enjoined us to take Iran’s ambitions seriously; the Israelis said they could not wait very long. When Obama claimed to see an Iran eager to respond to an open hand, our regional allies held their heads in disbelief.
Obama rejected these cautions. He claimed to know better. In the summer of 2009, Obama did his best to overlook a widespread rebellion in Iran and the regime’s brutal repression of it. In his quest to keep his policy of engagement on track, he downplayed Iranian provocations. Shocked by Obama’s efforts to minimize revelations about Iran’s nuclear duplicity, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was driven to say, “We live in the real world, not in a virtual one.” Sarkozy continued: “I support America’s ‘extended hand.’ But what have these proposals for dialogue produced for the international community? Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges. . . . What conclusions are we to draw? At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions.” Undeterred, Obama chased the Iranians to enter talks, then conceded critical points in advance and raised American hopes, only to find that the Iranians were somehow, mystifyingly to him and his diplomats, no closer to meaningful change.
Obama’s failures were both predictable and predicted. Yet, head down, he trudged forward.
Now even Obama declares that harsh economic measures are the only peaceful means that might deter Iran. He has abandoned his prior reliance on Iran’s good nature. But instead of seeking tough measures early in his administration, when their bite might have had years to work, he delayed to the point where his sanctions are only now becoming serious, with sterner measures still to be tried. Unfortunately, we are now by some estimates only a year or so from the time when Iran could have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. We have entered the phase where the taste of success is on Iranian lips. Iranian hard-liners have seen us vacillate in our demands, and now they need only hold out a little longer, not the years that might have faced them before weapons were within reach. We totter on the brink of the “hugely dangerous path” that Obama proclaimed.
Now President Obama fears that Israel, with its own, more acute sensitivity to the risks of a nuclear Iran, may act before sanctions can, in Obama’s eyes, succeed. But whose policies drove Israel to the edge of its tolerance? Had Obama listened to others years ago, Israel would have had that lost time as a margin of safety. Now those years are gone.
To shield his misconceptions from the glare of public rebuke, Obama’s defenders resort to arguing that the world would not have accepted harsh sanctions years ago. But the truth is different: When President Obama declared that Iran could be persuaded through reason to abandon its program, he sapped the strength from more pessimistic views and undercut any Iranians opposed to the hard-liners’ nuclear course. Just as his early pronouncements on Israeli settlements delayed prospects for progress in Palestinian-Israeli talks, his misconceptions about Iran delayed progress on nuclear arms. Had he pushed for sanctions earlier, we could have exposed the problems associated with that route and dealt with them earlier. Instead, we are dealing with them now, in the shadow of disaster.
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address. With responsibility comes accountability.
On the Iranian nuclear program, Obama did not lead from behind; he led in the wrong direction. That is clear from how completely his earlier policies are now acknowledged to have failed. He has piloted us into ever riskier waters. The only uncertainty is the price we will ultimately pay.
— Hillel Fradkin is director of the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute. Lewis Libby is senior vice president of the Hudson Institute and guides the Institute’s programs on national security and defense issues.