August 1, 2010

The three hikers in Iran - how's that "engagement" working?

The three American hikers have been held by the Iranians for one year now. They were arrested for illegally entering the Islamic Republic in 2009 while on a hiking trip in northern Iraq - the Iranians claim that the trio intentionally crossed the border into Iran.

I have been in that area of northern Iraq, in fact, to that same spot where the incident took place. The border is clearly marked, and there are Iranian troops and guards present. We don't know exactly what happened, but the intentional entry into Iran is a bit far-fetched.

It must be a recurring problem for the Iranians - people wanting to move to an oppressive, Shi'a Islamist theocracy run by a arguably unbalanced leadership. In any case, the Iranians have stated their intention to put the three on trial, although not for espionage as earlier threatened.

The detention of the these three young Americans raises the question of just what their government is doing for them. It used to be that if you as an American citizen were improperly detained abroad, you could feel confident that the government would take whatever steps necessary to gain your release, or at least ensure that you are properly and legally treated. Today? Not so much.

Just what signals do we get from the current administration about this issue? President Obama strongly reiterated his previous statement that the three are "guilty of nothing, have never worked for the U.S. government and never had any quarrel with the Iranian government."

I know, you are shocked and surprised that the three are still in Iranian custody after that powerful statement. Candidate Obama campaigned for the presidency on his plan to "engage" unfriendly regimes, specifically Iran. Obama consistently uses the term "Islamic Republic" when referring to the country, something previously not done by American presidents. I use it in a pejorative manner; this administration does not.

So what is the problem? Obama is now the President, and he has a like-minded appeaser as his Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton campaigned in the presidential primary with the clever ad (although it backfired - she lost) asking who you would want to answer the phone at 3:00am when there is a crisis. Well, Mr President and Madame Secretary - the phone rang a year ago, and your answer was obviously unimpressive in Tehran. Three American citizens are still in peril at the hands of the Iranians.

I have to ask - how is that engagement with the Iranians working for you? Actually, the more important question is how is that engagement working for the country, how is it working for these three Americans? Call me skeptical, but I would assess it as not working at all. Engagement has failed, and the sanctions have only been moderately effective. The Chinese and Russians are basically ignoring them, and the Iranians continue to enrich uranium.

Perhaps had you been successful in imposing the "crippling and biting" sanctions that you promised, the Iranians would be at the table right now. Instead of holding three Americans as virtual hostages, they might be discussing their nuclear program rather than playing you for the patsies you appear to be. It has been over eighteen months since you took office and promised to do something about the Iranian nuclear program - of course you thought your diplomatic skills and reliance on your supposedly foreign-policy astute vice president would do the trick. Nothing has changed.

Well, that's not exactly correct. It is true that the Iranians are still promising to talk - that's all they ever do. What has changed is their nuclear program. Every day that you don't successfully convince them - via sanctions or force - to halt their uranium enrichment activities or open their program to international inspection, they are closer to having a nuclear weapon. It was refreshing to see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen admit that there is a plan for military action against Iran, albeit couched in the typical warnings against it.

These half-hearted acknowledgements don't fool the Iranians. They have assessed - probably correctly - that the current American administration is unlikely to do anything meaningful to stop them from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Why shouldn't they believe that - this administration can't even engineer the release of three innocent young hikers.