Iran can sometimes be very hard to read, but the announcement that even as talks approach it is installing advanced and more capable centrifuges at its nuclear facility in Natanz doesn’t need much interpreting: Iran isn’t afraid of Barack Obama. The Ayatollahs have looked at the clues, added up the numbers, and come to the conclusion that the President will not use military force as Iran presses forward with its nuclear plans.
One of the clues that lead them to this conclusion is the U.S. decision to cut back the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region. If Washington were serious, the Iranians believe, we would be building up our naval presence, not drawing it back.
President Obama’s choice of one of the most prominent “Iran doves” in American public life as his new Defense Secretary is also being read in Tehran as a sign of the President’s thinking. Surely, the mullahs appear to believe, if the President were really serious about using force to stop Iran’s nuclear program, he would be appointing someone who isn’t deeply opposed to it. In any case, this kind of appointment is what people overseas often see as a signal. The President may not have meant to send it, but he did.
The announcement of more troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in last night’s SOTU will confirm the already widespread view in Tehran that the U.S. is in retreat and that if Iran hangs tough it can get what it wants. If the U.S. really were gearing up for war, the mullahs would expect to see signs that American forces in the region were strengthening positions rather than standing down by land and by sea.
From Iran’s point of view the Administration also seems to be standing down in Syria. A year ago Washington was full of tough talk: demands that Assad relinquish power, unambiguous statements that he “must go.” America was huffing and puffing—but folded like a cheap suit when it came time to back words with deeds. From an Iranian point of view this sends two very clear signals. First, don’t worry about threats and rhetoric from this White House. When they utter threats, they are just making noise. Assad “must go,” Iran “must stop” its nuclear program. This is just chit-chat; it won’t be followed up by anything other than diplomatic notes.
Another signal our Syria policy inadvertently sends is that Iran still has power in the Middle East. The alliance with Assad and Hezbollah puts Iran at the center of the politics of the eastern Mediterranean. American passivity in Syria tells Iran that its “resistance” axis of anti-Israel, anti-U.S. forces isn’t on the verge of collapse; the Americans aren’t going to push Assad off the cliff and break Iran’s regional alliance system. Russia has also signaled that it won’t abandon Assad, adding to Iran’s determination to hang tough. It can deepen its alliance with an Iraq where American power is a fading memory, salvage something out of the Syria mess, and enhance its regional power in the face of ineffective and mostly verbal U.S. opposition. On Syria, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite of what Teddy Roosevelt proposed: we’ve been a loudmouthed blowhard with a handful of wet noodles instead of a big stick.
Some of the Iranian tea leaves are hard to read, and it’s clear that Iran isn’t ready to go for broke and rush to build a bomb. For one thing, the mullahs are worried about an Israeli attack, and they may well fear that too rapid and open a push toward nuclear capacity will awaken political forces in the United States that will stiffen the administration’s spine. Thus Iran continues to send mixed signals, balancing the news of new centrifuges with soothing talk of concessions.
But over time the conviction seems to be growing in Tehran that President Obama is unwilling to take Iran on, and the fact that the President didn’t make the confrontation with Iran a centerpiece of his State of the Union message will be read in Iran as yet another signal. Their nuclear program isn’t a high enough priority for this President to lead to war.
We aren’t saying the Iranians are right about President Obama. Kaiser Wilhelm once thought that Woodrow Wilson was so determined to stay out of war that he didn’t have to worry about U.S. intervention in Europe. After Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Germany tended to discount Wilson’s threats.
But while Germany misread Wilson, that misreading made war more likely. In the same way, if President Obama is serious about opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb with force if necessary (and we both hope and believe he is serious), then the signals the White House is sending to Iran are unintentionally making war more likely, not less. Right now, the administration is heading pretty rapidly to a point at which it will either suffer one of the greatest humiliations in the history of American foreign policy as Iran achieves a nuclear capability in defiance of years of American warnings, or it will face another armed conflict in the Middle East. If the President wants to avoid this choice, he needs to start sending signals that convince even the hardest-line mullahs that he really does mean it.
Syria is probably the best place to start. A hard-line speech from Secretary-designate Hagel might also help. Iran needs to fear the United States. The signs right now are that it doesn’t. President Obama’s chief goal in this dispute has always been to avoid the ultimate choice between two horrible alternatives: war with Iran or accepting a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, the mix of rhetoric and policy the U.S. has adopted is making this choice more imminent and less avoidable with every passing day.