President Obama's national security advisor, retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones, recently presented his views of the situation with Iran. I am sure the general was a fine Marine who has served his country long and well. While he may have felt at home on the battlefield, he is out of his league taking on the Iranians in the political arena. If he is the architect behind the President's Iran policy, it's time for the general to, in the words of General Douglas MacArthur, fade away.
Let's take a look at what General Jones proposed just this week. It seems that he agreed in principle to a face-to-face meeting between President Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Whether he meant to give that impression or not is hard to tell - which in itself is a problem, there should be no ambiguity about our position. It was couched in such vague terms that it is sure to be viewed as a foreign policy success in Tehran.
In a press interview, the general said "the door’s open" if the Iranians agree to resume talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Specifically he said, "Ultimately if we find a convergence of paths, all things are possible." I pretty much make my living with words, and that's pretty ambiguous to me.
He continued, "One thing they might do is return our three hikers. That would be an important gesture. It could lead to better relations."
Really - it could lead to better relations? How about demanding the immediate release of these three young people? Start acting like the superpower we still are and not some supplicant begging to be taken seriously. Every time we refuse to negotiate from strength, we lose a bit of stature in the eyes of the residents of the Middle East - they understand and respect power, and recognize and exploit weakness. See my earlier article, The three hikers in Iran - how's that "engagement" working?
The general went on, "There is no point in a theatrical meeting." Does he really think that a meeting with Ahmadinejad would be anything else? Let me review for the general. The Iranians are in the midst of an expensive, almost all-consuming maximum national effort to develop nuclear weapons. A meeting with President Obama will not change that. The only reason Ahmadinejad would sit down with President Obama is to advance his chosen agenda - the nuclear program. He would certainly agree to it, but it would only be a tactic to buy time for the nuclear program.
That brings us to sanctions. General Jones wants to give the sanctions more time to work. While there are indications that the 25 percent increase in the price of refined gasoline in Iran is having an effect, it does not seem to have slowed the nuclear program at all, which was after all the goal of the sanctions. Unfortunately, the United States and the Europeans may have overplayed the sanctions gambit by passing unilateral sanctions on top of the fairly weak United Nations sanctions protocols.
The only reason the United Nations was able to pass any sanctions at all was the acquiescence of the the Russians and Chinese, who were generally opposed to the idea. To gain the votes of these two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, there were a series of back room deals exempting Chinese and Russian companies from any future unilateral American sanctions. (See my earlier piece, Iran sanctions and the backroom deals....) When the Europeans passed their additional sanctions as well, the Chinese and Russians took offense.
During the campaign and first 18 months of the Obama Administration, we were promised "crippling and biting" sanctions on Iran. What we saw instead this week was the Russian oil company LUKOIL resuming gasoline sales to Iran. Not to be outdone, the Chinese state-run oil firm Zhuhai Zhenrong also entered into contracts with Tehran. Hardly crippling.
General, here is what you should not tell the Iranians: The United States has enough "wiggle room" - that must be the technical term - to give sanctions time to work against Iran before turning to the military option. This Administration just loves to tell other countries and adversaries when and when we will not conduct military operations. We've done it repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan - and always to our detriment.
It gets worse. General Jones reiterated the offers made by the President and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the United States was willing to return to negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. This is exactly the same mistake as suggesting the Iranians release the three hikers. It makes us look weak. Now is the time to tell the Iranians that they must comply or sanctions will continue. If that does not work, tell Ahmadinejad that there will be consequences. As I have said on several occasions, here is how to "negotiate" with the Iranians. Simply state, "We will not allow you to develop a nuclear weapons capability."
If what we read in the press this week is the type of Iran strategy General Jones is advising, then we should honor the general's 40 years of service to this country, but it is time for him to move on. The Iranians have outmaneuvered you, again.