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Sigurd Neubauer

Sigurd Neubauer

Posted: November 9, 2010 12:55 PM

As Republicans are scheduled to resume control of the U.S. House of Representatives
this coming January, many Washington observers have begun speculating whether the new Congress will actively oppose the White House on a host on foreign affairs issues. In particular, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ever increasing defiance of the international community could encourage significant G.O.P. opposition to the U.S. President's stated objective of engaging Iran. Hence, just as taking on Obama's liberal domestic agenda proved successful in electoral politics for the self declared Tea-Party movement, so too could taking on/making an issue out of Obama's inability to stop Tehran's seemingly unstoppable march towards nuclear weapons provides an avenue for Republicans in 2012. Yet, while the debate over "how to stop Iran" continues to dominate headlines, few pundits seemed to have noticed how President Obama's "engagement policy" echoes those carried out by his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush.

How is that possible?

While the generally liberal-leaning U.S. foreign policy establishment was quick to equate Obama's ascent to the presidency with a "new area of international engagement," the realities of realpolitilk has not only forced the President into a "straightjacket" with limited policy options vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Additionally, as the Iranian regime responded to Obama's "open hand with a clenched fist," the American leader had no choice but to embark on the track laid out by his predecessor. Similarly, just as President Bush called on the EU- 3 (Britain, France and Germany) to negotiate with Iran on behalf of the U.S. and offered generous incentive packages, the current administration has relied heavily on its allies and the U.N. Security Council to levy a new series of punitive sanctions against the clerical regime.

As critics have rightfully argued, negotiations alone will not deter Iran from pursuing its regional aspirations. But, it is of note that months before leaving office, President Bush approved a new CIA program aiming to topple the Iranian nuclear program through covert operations. Obama has followed in lockstep with President Bush's policies, and it is possible that United States in concert with other western intelligence agencies, was behind what media described as the "Stuxnet operation,' which allegedly attacked the Iranian Bushehr nuclear facility.

According to foreign media reports, what appears to be a separate covert operation involved a series of mysterious explosions at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's (IRG) "Imam Ali" base, located near the western city of Khoramabad. While the regime blamed the three blasts on a fire at a nearby ammunition dump, the incident not only killed 18 soldiers and wounded dozens more, but the explosion was just the latest in a long series of setbacks and "accidents" that have all had the common ability to impact Iran's strategic and nuclear programs.

Air-strikes versus sanctions

As the Iranian crisis intensifies, and negotiations at the UNSC drag out, hawks have called for air-strikes targeting the regime's nuclear facilities. However, seven years after the Iraq invasion, the power dynamics of the Middle East have profoundly changed: the moderate pro-Western Sunni axes consisting of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi-Arabia are struggling to adjust to the Shiite regime exerting its influence not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Gaza. Given the new geopolitical reality, U.S. defense planners seem to have little appetite for another costly military operation in the Middle East. On the other hand, as late as on August 1 this year, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said: "military actions... remain on the table" as a contingency of dealing with Iran.

While U.S. air-strikes would set the regime's nuclear program back a couple of years, an attack would likely unify the Iranian people under the regime's cloak, a strategic option Washington can ill afford. Moreover, following Ahmadinejad's fraudulent election in June 2009, the regime is weaker than it has ever been since the 1979 Islamic revolution, as thousands of brave Iranian men and women continue to risk their lives and livelihood for greater freedoms. Admitting to that weakness, the hard-line fraction surrounding supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his protégé President are therefore likely to continue increasing its confrontational policies as part of an effort to redirect domestic anger directed away their regime.

By continuing the Bush legacy of actively supporting covert operations -- while implementing a new series of punitive sanctions -- U.S. influence on Iran is not as limited as some observers have argued. Instead, as the regime is further isolated internationally, Teheran is now increasingly struggling to allocate resources to fund its controversial nuclear program. Secondly, by increasing U.S. defense assistance to the gulf countries and Israel, Washington's hand vis-à-vis Teheran is as strong as it possibly could be, despite being bogged down in two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lastly, while the Tea Party movement may have brought positive contributions to American democracy and domestic politics, given the critical threat the Teheran regime poses to U.S. security interests, the new Congress should put partisanship aside and instead work with the president to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.