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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn

Posted: September 26, 2009 06:49 PM

Obama's Shrewd Iran Policy

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The good news is that President Obama has a brilliant strategy for dealing with Iran. The bad news is that brilliance may not be enough. In a few months he could face the most severe foreign policy crisis a young president has faced since John F. Kennedy stumbled into the Bay of Pigs.

Obama has taken several steps in the past few weeks that show he is thinking strategically about how to defang Iran's nuclear threat. For one thing, Obama is trying to bring Russia on board. By announcing that he has no intention of stationing a nuclear defense system in Eastern Europe, Obama removed a significant impediment to smoother relations with Moscow. In return, he needs Moscow's cooperation in confronting Iran. He already has the support of Britain and Germany. Constructing an alliance capable of implementing tough sanctions against Tehran is the kind of multilateral diplomacy that the Bush administration scorned. Obama doesn't.

Obama's call for a nuclear-free world is also a big plus, one that, among other things, further helps refurbish America's battered image in Europe. At an election rally in Germany, the head of the liberal party, Guido Westerwelle, announced Obama's call for a nuclear-free world almost as soon as he had made it. Obama's focus on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons further exposes Tehran as an anomalous, retrograde power. The regime is on the wrong side of history. It isn't a progressive power, but a backward one that is pursuing a dangerous course that will further isolate it. Obama, after all, wants to strip the mullahs of their moolah by pushing for punitive sanctions.

But if the hardline clerics are intent on obtaining the bomb -- as opposed to the knowledge of how to construct one -- then sanctions won't be enough. Then Obama will be confronted with an Israeli government determined to attack Iranian nuclear sites. And he'll be urged to do it himself by both liberal hawks and neocons back home.

Will Obama be able to carve out some face-saving deal with Iran? Or is he heading into a major crisis? Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be sideshows as Obama focuses on the threat from Tehran. But so far, Obama has handled Iran perfectly with a mixture of threats and promises of cooperation.