Just Which Major Power Faces “Diplomatic Isolation”?

Back in May 2009 — before the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election — we took a lot criticism for our view in a New York Times Op Ed that “President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed.”  In particular, we argued that Obama “has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran” and was already “backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran.”  We also identified the policies that would soon displace Obama’s rhetorical expressions of interest in “engaging” Iran — including a quixotic effort to rope other major international and regional powers into intensifying economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic and a delusional push to unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a U.S.-led coalition to contain a rising Iranian “threat.”

Notwithstanding the denials of “friends” of the Obama Administration at the time, we are now seeing public confirmation that U.S. policy is now going exactly in the direction we said it would.  On the sanctions front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a speech at the École Militaire in Paris late last week that China faces “diplomatic isolation” if it does not support the Obama Administration’s proposals for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.  We have argued for a long time that the Obama Administration’s approach to dealing with China regarding Iran is incoherent, divorced from Beijing’s interests, and grounded in an assessment of the balance of power between China and the United States that no longer reflects reality.  But Secretary Clinton’s speech put these deficiencies in the Administration’s approach in graphic relief, for all the world to see.

Secretary Clinton’s statement about China facing “diplomatic isolation” if it did not toe the American line on sanctions came during the same week that China’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, He Yafei, called in the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing, John Huntsman, to note that the Obama Administration’s decision to move forward with major new arms sales to Taiwan “constitutes a gross intervention into China’s internal affairs, seriously endangers China’s national security and harms China’s peaceful reunification efforts.”  Huntsman was told that the United States would be responsible for “serious repercussions” if it did not reverse the decision.  Additionally, China cancelled a number of planned military-to-military exchanges with the United States.  And, just in case the Obama Administration failed to pick up on those signals of Chinese unhappiness, Beijing also announced that it was considering imposing sanctions on the Chinese operations of American companies involved in supplying products for the arms sales to Taiwan.

The folly of Secretary Clinton’s proposition that China will face “diplomatic isolation” if it does not fall in line with American proposals for new sanctions against Iran — which include bans on new energy investments in and gasoline exports to the Islamic Republic — was demonstrated in her own comments following her speech in Paris.  Addressing the Chinese in absentia, she said

We understand that right now, that is something that seems counterproductive to you, sanction a country from which you get so much of the natural resources your growing economy needs. . . .  But think about the longer-term implications. 

In fact, the Chinese seem to take the longer-term implications of their decisions about relations with the United States and with the Islamic Republic very seriously, as we have explored in great depth both on this blog and in a longer monograph published by the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in September 2009.  Moreover, from a longer-term perspective, China’s economic and financial leverage over the United States is rapidly increasing.  Under these circumstances, why should Beijing feel compelled to support the imposition of sanctions on Iran — sanctions that would hurt Chinese interests — simply to isolate a country that Washington, some of its European allies, and Israel have, for their own reasons, declared to be an outlaw state?

This point was made extremely well in a blog post this weekend by Daniel Larison (who was himself commenting on an opinion piece in Newsweek by Nader Mousavizadeh).  Larison rightly expresses his dismay with what now “passes for a statement of administration policy towards Iran: making empty threats against a major power on which we have become financially and economically dependent.”  But he puts the problem in an even bigger and more strategic context:

Obama has followed his predecessors in continuing U.S. foreign policy much as it has been carried out since the end of the Cold War, but he is faced with a world that neither wants nor has to put up with it as often as it once did.  The best approach for a real, sustained engagement policy begins with recognition of the way the world is now.  There are multiple centers of power, their interests will sometimes diverge from ours, and the issues that we have declared to be global issues in which all states have common interests often do not matter to other major powers or these conflict with their interests in a significant way.  In the future, other powers will become even more capable of advancing their interests and ignoring our demands.  This means that Washington has to begin reassessing which interests are genuinely vital to U.S. security and prosperity, and which are extraneous or left over from the Cold War and the last twenty years of activist policy. . . .

Too many Americans in and outside the political class remain wedded to a model of global order in which Washington proposes and the rest of the world is supposed to fall in line.  Anything other than this is viewed as capitulation, weakness or appeasement.  Eventually, Washington will be unable to ignore that the world does not work this way, but that may not be before our government plunges into yet another disastrous conflict or embarks on dead-end policies that will continue to strengthen all the “rogue states” it is trying to punish.

This is an important insight, with profound implications for understanding the “race for Iran.”  Clearly, other power centers are competing for influence and to establish economically and strategically beneficial relationships with the Islamic Republic.  But the United States, in effect, continues to believe it can, in effect, refuse to take part in the race for Iran, because it does not view the Islamic Republic as an “acceptable” focus of geopolitical attention.  From the American perspective, Iran must be diplomatically isolated and pressured economically, until it is somehow transformed into a state that Washington might deem “worthy” of strategic engagement.  This is, truly, a perspective which could only be indulged by political elites in a declining “imperial” power, who resist seeing their country’s strategic situation as it really is.

Another increasingly important aspect of the Obama Administration’s evolving approach to Iran — a drive to forge an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition to “contain” the Islamic Republic — has also been on prominent display recently.  The Washington Post reported over the weekend that “the Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales” that it had inherited from the George W. Bush Administration “and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future military attacks by Iran.”  These initiatives are described as “part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between U.S. and Arab militaries.”  The Post story notes that “Gulf states fear retaliatory strikes by Iran or allied groups such as Hezbollah in the event of a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel.”

A similar story in the New York Times reported on the Obama Administration’s motives for these moves: “‘Our first goal is to deter the Iranians’, said one senior administration official.  ‘A second is to reassure the Arab states, so they don’t feel they have to go nuclear themselves.  But there is certainly an element of calming the Israelis as well’.”

Those officials in the Obama Administration who have struck us as being more forward-leaning than most of their colleagues in their understanding of the importance of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement for the American position in the Middle East have privately suggested that, if engagement “failed” and the policy debate came down to a choice between military action against Iranian nuclear targets and containment, they would push hard for the latter as a way of avoiding the former.  That seems to be precisely what is happening now.  But this approach ignores both the risks associated with a further military buildup in the Gulf and with the “opportunity costs” this imposes on American foreign policy in the region.  As we wrote last May,

The notion of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it would leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall.  These tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

And that is precisely what is happening — prospects for a resolution of the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict are now, indeed, in free fall.  As a result, the Obama Administration appears to have given up on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, just as they have preemptively surrendered on serious, strategically-grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic, because these challenges are now seen as “too hard.”  That is not how to serve American interests.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 31 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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