Washington: Candidate Barack Obama of 2008 who boldly talked of engaging Iran, shunning the institutionalised enmity, now only speaks and acts the language of sanctions against the country, as he hurtles into his re-election battle.
Republican presidential candidates have raised the pitch against Iran and its nuclear ambitions sky high, the Israelis keep working the US Congress to devise harsher measures, the Saudis add their own fuel and conservative commentators keep the pot boiling. Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists continue dying in mysterious attacks.
Obama is in a pressure cooker situation, no doubt. If Iran went nuclear on his watch, the Republicans would feast on him. But as he begins his fight to get a second presidential term, he must channel his old, inner self despite the war cries. He can remember the main recommendation of a 2006 bipartisan Congressional panel and a 2008 statement by five former secretaries of state – Talk to Iran.
The cost of not talking is simply too high. Sanctions have the potential of benefiting Washington’s competitors. Both China and Russia will gain, the former by buying more and the latter by selling more. Neither supports the American hardline policy on Iran. The European Union’s oil embargo announced last week would leave China as the only big customer for Iran’s 2.6 million barrels meant for export. As its share grows, China can negotiate cheaper prices. Russia would be able to sell more to the EU, increase its market share and gain strategic advantage.
For countries such as India, which gets 16 percent of Iran’s total production, the choice is stark – you can either do business with Iran or with the United States and the EU. The whole game just got serious, no matter what India may say about not being bound by US or EU sanctions. Methods of payment to Iran are drying up faster than you can say Ahmadinejad. Private Indian companies have already begun looking around for alternative sources for crude because they don’t want a wrangle with the American financial system.
The Americans are sympathetic to India’s dilemma but a nuclear-armed Iran must be prevented at all cost. They want the regime to hurt, its revenues to decline gradually and the slow strangle to force Teheran to the negotiating table. They don’t want a complete disruption or a drastic rise in oil prices, which would impact all countries. No, politics is not always local.
Some waivers might be given but benefiting from them will carry its own price in the charged atmosphere of Washington. The International Monetary Fund has already warned that oil prices could go up as much as 30 percent in this high-stakes game.
Interestingly, the Obama Administration doesn’t seek regime change in Iran because it would introduce new uncertainties into an already volatile and unpredictable Middle East. It understands that the most it can hope to achieve is for Iran to keep the technology but stop short of making a bomb while being transparent in doing so. Iran resists opening its nuclear cupboard fully but experts agree it is still some distance from making a weapon.
Such fine calibration of US policy and politics on the one hand and desired responses from Iran’s government on the other may be easier to discuss in meeting rooms than to implement in the real world. The hardliners, especially those in the Republican camp, hope the sanctions will bite so hard that people will come out in the streets and topple the regime.
But the Iranian people are more likely to rally behind their government because there is strong support for the nuclear programme. And Iran’s leaders could well gamble that racing on to become a nuclear power is the best option under the circumstances. After all, nuclear weapons have given Pakistan and North Korea a certain kind of immunity from western interference. The fear of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands has made their stability a paramount concern. Iran can also learn from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who must have cursed the day he decided to surrender his nuclear programme as he became the hunted.
Just a reminder: The United States doesn’t buy any Iranian oil and can pursue a belligerent sanctions policy. But rising oil prices will affect its fragile recovery. Over in Europe, Greece, Italy and Spain, which are already suffering, are Iran’s big customers. They are fighting for exceptions.
Even though a confrontational approach springs from a zone of comfort, developed over three decades, a new, admittedly more uncomfortable attempt to engage Iran will bring more gains. Three decades of active hostility have not strategically benefited Washington or Israel for that matter.