Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | September 29, 2009

It Ain’t All That

The Western media are dutifully plumping for President Obama’s Qom Gambit, unveiled this week in company with Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel, who was reportedly there in spirit for the Pittsburgh revelation.

Even The Washington Times has mounted the bandwagon and proclaimed Obama’s timing to be both premeditated and, in effect, preternatural.  It is, of course, an interesting study in contrasts, to see how the left and right react differently to the proposition that “Obama knew about this all along.”  The left:  impressed by his maintenance of a poker face.  The right:  disgusted by it.  What has gotten short shrift in political commentary is the objective nature of the card Obama is playing, and what his overall situation is.  When the Qom Gambit is put in realistic context, it doesn’t look nearly as clever.  What it will not do is galvanize or unify the world in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The Wrong Case

There are three essential perspectives on the Qom Gambit.  One is the nature of the case Obama is, in effect, building against Iran.  This case is actually a weak one, vulnerable to the exploitation of ambiguity.  It is unlikely to carry the day in terms of effective action against, or arm-twisting of, Iran.

The entire focus of Obama’s case is, effectively, on Iran having violated the terms of the Safeguards protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which became effective in 1974.  The point that Iran has violated its treaty obligations is what Obama has driven home.  Opponents of tough action against Iran are already building the counter-case that Iran never officially accepted or implemented the terms of the Safeguards, and in fact specifically repudiated them in 2007.  The counter-case can certainly be assailed as specious, but it introduces enough ambiguity to be latched onto by the opponents of tougher action – which will assuredly include dozens of nations in the UN.

This will matter, if a decision point is ever presented to either the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly.  (That’s a big “if.”)  Ahmadinejad’s public statement on the Qom facility made the case that Iran did, in fact, notify the IAEA of the site, more than 180 days prior to the site becoming operational, and that therefore Iran had fulfilled its NPT obligation.  The Obama case against Iran is not a “gotcha,” but a potential pretext for “enforcement”:  of some kind, and if there is agreement among the nations.  There is no “trigger” situation here:  no specific or automatic next step indicated by a potential, probable, or arguable treaty violation.  The UN response here is discretionary and inherently negotiable.

What Obama has not done is make the case that the Qom revelation demonstrates Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.  The implication has been read into the US-UK-France-Germany-in-spirit announcement, that if Iran is being secretive and deceptive, and the Qom site is not suited for supporting broad-scale, low-level uranium enrichment for reactor use, then – well, Iran needs to answer some questions and prove her bona fides.  This is a weak gambit.  Iran need not necessarily do very much to get herself out of this “box.”  She certainly need not give up any nuclear weapons development program she may have going on.  “Answer some questions,” or “come clean,” as Obama administration spokesmen have put it, is about as non-specific as it gets, in terms of what will satisfy the US, or the international community.

Concrete allegations that Iran’s actions look like the pursuit of nuclear weapons, along with a specific list of what demonstrations by Iran will satisfy our concern, would be a more hopeful start on achieving something real here.  Not only would that approach, however, come off too much like the “preconditions” Obama has assiduously disdained – his intelligence community has also, surreally, stepped up one more time to underscore its 2007 assessment that Iran suspended any weaponization effort in 2003.  While such analytical tenacity makes the IC appear increasingly irrelevant (not to mention obtuse), it also creates a back wall for Obama’s posture.  The deduction that Obama has no intention of making categorical accusations cannot be dismissed.

Obama has made his case in such a way that (a) its central premise can be undermined, enough to matter, with little effort; (b) its practical focus is the facility at Qom; that is what everyone will remember and regard as salient; and (c) Iran can wriggle out of major concessions by making minor ones.  Iran’s leaders already assuredly see the way ahead that is obvious to others:  throw the Qom facility open to inspection, agree to slightly more intrusive inspections than Iran has allowed since 2007, take as long as possible to do these things (that “December deadline” from Sarkozy can unquestionably be finessed with negotiation), and proceed more slowly and secretly with undeclared nuclear-related activities elsewhere in the country.

Any facility, especially one that has had no nuclear material introduced into it yet, can be “sanitized” for inspection.  IAEA inspectors finding “empty tunnels” outside Qom would be strongly reminiscent of the exact same development in North Korea in the late 1990s – a development which, we must note, did not prevent Pyongyang from later detonating a nuclear device.

The vulnerabilities of Obama’s position with the Qom Gambit are significant.  An arguable, but not slam-dunk, Safeguards violation is one thing; collective will among the nations to do anything about it quite another.  The inevitable diplomatic boresight on Qom is a vulnerability all its own.

What’s In a Qom?

There is not as much “there” there, Qom-wise, as the drama surrounding the unveiling of the intelligence suggests.  This is the second critical perspective on the Qom Gambit.  Yes, the Qom site is evidence that Iran has failed to disclose all her nuclear-related activities.  Yes, the character of the Qom site creates suspicion about its purpose:  it can probably house too few centrifuges to act as a main site for enriching reactor fuel.  But ultimately, Iran can give up this site, and even a handful of others there may be like it, without suffering a significant set-back to a nuclear weapons program.

Losing Qom would cost Iran time – time to complete, again, the technically simple acts of excavation and underground construction.  If it already had 3000 centrifuges in operation enriching uranium, Qom would be worth eliminating in an airstrike.  That said, it is still not one of the top three target complexes.  It remains substantially more important to hit Natanz, Esfahan, and Arak (where the plutonium reactor is being built) than to hit the Qom facility.  And it would still be so even if Qom were fully equipped and operational.

Qom is meaningless without Esfahan, and its significance would be degraded for several years without the enriched uranium inventory at Natanz, if the latter were eliminated by a kinetic strike.  Qom is also much more easily reproducible than Esfahan or Natanz, and has become more so over the several years Iran has been working on the facility there, since the Iranians have been gaining experience and skill with the project.  (See the ISIS Iran site for credible speculation as to which of the excavation sites visible to commercial imagery around Qom is probably the one referenced by Obama.  Of particular note is the pair of images from 2005 and 2009, of the site northeast of Qom.)

Qom is not the critical node that either Esfahan (initial uranium conversion) or Natanz (broad-scale enrichment) is, nor does it represent the unique capability being constructed at Arak, to produce plutonium.  (The plutonium reactor at Arak would perform a weapons-program function like that of North Korea’s plutonium reactor, or the one the Israelis struck while it was under construction in Syria, two years ago.)  If I were putting together an airstrike, I would put Qom at priority #4 behind these other three facilities; but that in itself is largely because of its location, which makes it conveniently accessible to a strike package that is concentrating on the other three target complexes.  If the centrifuge facility revealed at Qom were instead in the Tehran metro area, which has the country’s densest air defenses, or if it were located inconveniently far from the higher-priority targets, it would not be important enough to give up other targets for.  (See here and here for an assessment from several months ago of the airstrike factors and options for Israel and the US.)

Author annotation

Author annotation

The facility described at Qom would be able to turn out 1-2 weapons’ worth of weapons-grade uranium per year:  if it were enriching uranium hexafluoride (UF6) from Esfahan, taking it (through reprocessing multiple times, in the same centrifuge complex) from zero-enriched to high, weapons-grade enrichment.  (The assumption in this scenario is that Iran would not take already-enriched – low-enriched – uranium from Natanz, and process it into HEU at Qom, because doing that would be a very detectable move given the IAEA inspection regime at Natanz.  The possibility exists, of course, that at some point Iran could kick the IAEA inspectors out of Natanz, and begin producing HEU at both Natanz and Qom.  In that case, the theory would have been that Qom was a secret operation and less susceptible to foreign interdiction.)

This kind of facility is potentially, therefore, of serious concern.  But while Iran is on a learning curve, and before the facility at Qom has been fully fitted out and made operational, preventing this particular facility from becoming active is not nearly as important an achievement as it could be under other circumstances.  It would irritate Iran, but not permanently stymie her nuclear weapons program, to have to give up the plan to use the Qom underground facility for enrichment.  Iran is a large country; there are other potential underground sites.  Excavation and construction cost money and time, but are not beyond Iran’s capabilities – and indeed will go faster with each iteration.  It will be inconvenient to construct new sites more secretly, and in more remote areas, where Western intelligence would be less likely to find them.  But it is by no means an insuperable obstacle.

The timing and fanfare of Obama’s Qom Gambit have come off as sophomoric and unsophisticated.  The spectacle does not encourage the observer to imagine that negotiations will proceed on wiser lines.  We are told that the Obama administration originally planned to spring the Qom Gambit on Iran after the negotiations started this week, but moved up the announcement to last week because Iran had slid her notification letter to the IAEA in there on Monday, 21 September.  Reactionary negotiating maneuvers like this, we don’t need.  Now our team has allowed Iran to make the negotiations “about” the facility at Qom.

The broader perspective that the issue is all of Iran’s undeclared facilities, along with her deceptions and mendacious intransigence, is a stronger posture.  Frankly, what Obama should have done is let Iran’s IAEA notification about the Qom facility pass without public comment, and introduce a list of key suspect sites – we have been repeatedly informed that there is one – during the face-to-face negotiations.  The “football” being kicked around in the negotiations should not be “Qom,” but rather Iran’s suspicious opacity and the whole list of sites that require inspection and explanation.

There is no evidence that Obama intended to wield the whole list at any point; and it would be hard to do so now.  Now it’s all about Qom.  Just as Obama’s leverage with the UN stands or falls on how Iran’s obligations under the NPT are interpreted, so the focus on “Qom” gives Iran a way to avoid more extensive and intrusive set-backs.  Iran would prefer to not have to give up anything; but giving up Qom as a means of preserving some latitude for action elsewhere is still advantageous for Tehran.  If, of course, it comes to that.  It may not.

Loading Up the See-saw

The US, for its part, is starting out in a global position that, from everywhere except Washington, DC, looks like a weakening one.  This third critical perspective on the Qom Gambit may well be the most significant.  We have less leverage with the nations most important to enforcement of anything on Iran than we have had for some time.

The key nations are Russia, China, India, and Japan.  We may assume we have the EU-3 and Canada with us – although the extent of their commitment is untested – and may equally assume that there is no realistic hope of reliable support from Brazil.  Turning Russia’s and China’s reluctance into support for effective threats to Iran is a virtually foredoomed project, however; and Japan and India, never enthusiastic about even the minimal UN sanctions now imposed on Iran, are likely to peel off as well.  Three pervasive factors are at work:  economic considerations, Russia’s aspirations to global leadership, and Asian politics – the latter a set of dynamics into which Iran’s “issues” fit, rather than the reverse.

Key among the economic considerations are Chinese and Japanese ownership of US debt; the trading relations of China, India, and Japan with Iran; and the impact on Asia of the economic disruptions that would result from effective sanctions on Iran.  The vulnerability created by US debt is that China and Japan can menace our financial position by threatening measures that would undermine our currency.  One such measure, a potential “demand” by Japan that the US issue treasury securities denominated in yen, was a campaign issue in Japan’s 2009 election and a favorite talking point of legislators in the new ruling coalition of the Democratic Party of Japan.  Former Prime Minister Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership disavowed any interest in such a move, but with Yukio Hatoyama and the DPJ now in power, after a watershed election that saw the LDP’s first defeat in half a century, the threat may be more imminent.

A menace of this kind exerts prior constraint on American demands, rather than provoking pitched confrontations.  In this way it functions as a form of deterrent:  Beijing’s or Tokyo’s ability to wield this threat constrains us in terms of how much we are willing to ask of them.  Obviously there are untested quantities here, including how badly our currency and economy would really be damaged by such a move, and how much second-order pain China or Japan would be willing to absorb by actually taking this kind of action.  But most American presidents and foreign policy decisionmakers would rather avoid the test altogether, and instead find compromises that demand less of the nations that hold our debt.

Meanwhile, Iran’s top three oil and gas customers are China, Japan, and India.  Iran is the third-largest oil partner for each of these nations.  Japan and India have negotiated major oil and gas development contracts with Iran in the last decade, both of them in the teeth of objections from the US (because of Iran’s uncooperative nuclear posture).  India has been competing with China for infrastructure development projects in Iran – roads, electric power – and will not willingly abandon the contracts and concessions she has already won from this effort.  All three of these nations recognize the value, geographic as well as economic, of being invested in, and welcome in, Iran; particularly with Russia to the north seeking to exercise leadership, and to operate from a first-among-equals posture with Iran.

The current global economy is not a good one in which to ask nations to take economic hits, and the hits resulting from tough sanctions on Iran would go beyond any single nation’s contracts with her.  The global price of oil would inevitably be driven upward; and while the price now is not high, and a higher price would actually be welcome to oil producers, during a recession remains very poor timing for such an influence to break on global trade and production.  Iran’s equally inevitable determination to evade sanctions would portend difficult decisions for any nation that borders on Iran, and any of that nation’s trading partners – a list that quickly begins to lengthen.  Pure geography would make this a problem of confrontations and back-alley deals erupting in Asia, and that in turn would affect both existing above-board trade, and the prospects for trade negotiations and development.

The latter concern also entails, of course, the fear of sanctions being administered with military force.  Such an increase in armed tension in the Persian Gulf would drive up prices of all kinds, from commercial insurance to shipping, air traffic, and of course the oil trade.

Critics may point out the many ways in which consequences might not develop as expected or feared, in the cases of these economic considerations.  Some would come up with worse scenarios, and some with better ones.  But long series of if-then speculations are not the operative point.  That point is, rather, the following one:  the fears held by the various actors about such possibilities – fears that are predictable and well understood – act to undermine the credibility of threats against Iran.  Nations like Japan and India have ever-better reasons to self-deter in this matter:  to refrain from courting the consequences to themselves from actively supporting a tougher stance against Tehran.

Bear on the Move

Russia’s pursuit of leadership in a new world order, officially announced in precisely those terms in 2007, is the second major factor in the weakening US position.  We will look in a moment at how that plays out in Asian regional dynamics.  But in more general terms, what the Russian initiative does is give anti-US, and even less-than-pro-US, sentiment a natural leader to coalesce around.  Russia’s “new world order” initiative, actively pursued, generates the impression of a viable alternative to American leadership – and that impression has concrete implications for specific issues like a nuclearizing Iran.

Russia does not need to have her own proposal, or a better idea.  She merely needs to assert a leadership position in registering resistance to, or seeking to exploit, America’s proposals.  This passive-aggressive posture gives Russia a lot of room to maneuver, and is much easier and cheaper to maintain than the active postures with which the former USSR and the US competed during the Cold War.  Indeed, Russia can let America put together all the negotiations and frame all the proposals, and still reap the leadership rewards of spearheading the collective of nations that wish to resist, temper, or compromise.  From this position Moscow can also, of course, act as a go-between with the problem nation.

Russia gives form to this posture, in the case of Iran, by acting as Tehran’s principal patron.  Russia’s vision of a new world order is integrally linked with retaining influence in Tehran, and wise US negotiators would do well to keep this in mind.  Moscow will never, as long as Russia is under her perennial form of oligarchic government, cease seeking to wield a decisive hegemonic power over the Caucasus, Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf.  This does not mean Moscow can never be leveraged in any way, but it does mean that any attempt to do so that does not recognize Russian motives will fail.  (See here and here for earlier development of the theme of Russia’s geopolitical vision for this region.)

Russia’s motives in Asia change little over time; the self-conscious assumption by Moscow of a global leadership mantle will amplify their implications.  In the case of Iran, Russia wants three things, in the following order:  a decisive regional influence wielded through the relationship with Tehran; the use of the “Iran problem” as a bargaining chip in other matters (principally, but not solely, when dealing with the US); and a veto over Iran’s options with her nuclear weapons program.

Russia is not boresighted on Iran, however, and that too is to be kept in mind.  Iran is one interlocking element in Russia’s vision – not the whole picture.  Independently of Russia’s vision, Iran is also one among a set of interrelated elements preoccupying Asia.  These Asian dynamics are the third major factor functioning to weaken America’s hand in dealing with Iran.  Some of the longest-running and best known of these are Russia’s and China’s competing aspirations for the continent, and for the Eastern hemisphere in general.  The India-Pakistan conflict, and India’s security concerns about China, always figure in any Asian equation.  A key effect of these persistent dynamics is to drive all the major players to court Iran, not only for her oil but for her geographic position, a factor whose importance predated the use of petroleum products and in some ways transcends it.

A Japan that Can Say “Asia”

Two dynamics of special importance are unfolding in late 2009, however, and both are significant to America’s leverage with the Asian nations.  One is an apparent sea-change in the political atmosphere in Japan, evident with the recent election.  The other is the horse race breaking out to establish leadership of the international effort in Afghanistan.

As mentioned above, Japan’s ten-year-old Democratic Party finally broke the 50-year hold of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party on the Diet in the latest election, and put in power a prime minister and ruling coalition that campaigned on their determination to establish independence of US policies.  One of the measures envisioned by some DPJ lawmakers is, of course, restricting Japanese purchases of US Treasury securities to those denominated in yen.  Prime Minister Hatoyama has made waves with a 4 September editorial in which he makes it clear that Japan’s interests lie at least as much with Asian cooperative initiatives as with the American relationship, and decries US unilateralism, and “political and economic excesses,” while advocating currency integration for the Asian nations.

Hatoyama is being called the “Japanese Obama,” and not just because his wife has made her own headlines (although Mrs. Hatoyama’s unique relation of astral experiences – including a visit to Venus aboard a UFO – sets a standard Michelle Obama would have to go some distance to meet).  A close read of his 4 September opinion piece reveals the same kind of comfort with blunt radical language enjoyed by Obama; and there is no question Hatoyama is shaking things up.  Tellingly, as this Taiwan News item reports, a key difference between Hatoyama and his predecessor is

…Hatoyama’s establishment of a new “National Strategy Bureau” directly under the Office of the Prime Minister that will be responsible for budgetary affairs, diplomacy and national defense and entrusted with the task of promoting core Japanese national interests and attracting elite talent from all sectors of society to assist the DPJ’s governance.

Let the “what’s Japanese for ‘Czar’?” jokes begin.  Hatoyama’s Obama-like impatience with established channels of political action appears to be matched by his eagerness to put a new eye on the previous government’s foreign policies, and resolve longstanding territorial disputes with Russia and China.  It is possible that little more will come than usually does of joint pronouncements like this one, by Hatoyama and Medvedev, of their enthusiasm for resolving the Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and Russia.  But Hatoyama seems to convey an unusual urgency about, and priority for, the resolution of this dispute.  The sense of his communications suggests an unprecedented interest in putting the dispute behind the two nations.  Since, realistically, this will mean Japan accepting Russia’s occupation of the disputed islands, urgency on Hatoyama’s part carries implications about both his own political tendencies, and a change of Asian dynamics in Russia’s favor.

Hatoyama has also made an early point of resolving the dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over claims in the East China Sea.  The fate of the Senkaku (“Diaoyou”) Islands has significant import for claims to seabed resources and prospects for economic development, and it remains to be seen if eagerness can overcome the entrenched disparity of interests between the two nations.  Japan’s arrest in September of a Taiwanese fishing captain accused of operating unlawfully in Japanese-claimed waters off the Senkakus may or may not be related to any policy shifts; but if it is, this latest action might have been undertaken by Tokyo to discourage Taipei – which also advances claims in the Senkaku area – from complicating the negotiating picture with Beijing.

America can only applaud the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes between other nations, and consider such developments a boon for international amity.  But we must also recognize that Russia and China with fewer border tensions on their plates will gain confidence and operate from increasingly favorable regional positions.  We likewise cannot grudge Japan the benefits she may reap from this evolving situation.  But we must, again, recognize the additional context being generated by this and other Hatoyama policies.

His government is, for example, terminating the naval refueling mission for US forces supporting the Afghanistan operations.  In fact, this review is part of a major shift percolating up in Japanese policy, away from supporting combat in Afghanistan – the offensive against the Taliban – and toward a narrower concept of multinational peacekeeping there.  Japan accepted Russia’s invitation to attend the Afghanistan conference in Moscow sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in March, and is hosting an Afghanistan conference of her own in November, at which the Hatoyama government will advocate its proposal to transition to peacekeeping.  Even without other policy perturbations it would be clear that the pins are unsteady under US leadership of the international effort in Afghanistan.  This is not a self-consciously non-aligned nation proposing – negotiating for – a different path in a major US foreign policy campaign, but one of our core allies of longest standing.

But other perturbations are present.  Previously-agreed US basing arrangements and plans on Japanese territory are under reconsideration by the new government in Tokyo, a shake-up that cannot be spun as “minor.”  It is not to decry or express alarm about these events that I list them here:  Japan’s sovereign right to pursue her own, independent policies is unquestioned, and need not necessarily menace US security.  The importance of these factors for the main topic – Iran – is that they portend a major reordering of Asian relations, and hence an adjustment of the relative positions of Russia, China, and the US, as well as Japan.

This reordering will inevitably affect the leverage America has with any of the Asian actors individually, as well as with all of them collectively.  The intersection of Japan’s new initiatives with the Afghanistan problem underscores the significance of the latter – the second of the emerging Asian dynamics – to America’s overall bargaining position.

Afghan Musical Chairs

The short story on Afghanistan is that the US is losing the appearance of effective leadership there.  Asians are aware, as Americans are not, that Russia has been positioning herself for some time to spearhead “the solution” in Afghanistan, by bolstering Hamid Karzai and seeking to benefit from, but not materially promote, the pacification of as much of Afghanistan as possible by US and NATO forces.  Russia does not want an American-led armed presence in Central Asia, but is in the fortunate position of benefiting from it, for now, at virtually no cost to her.  What Moscow gets out of it is, of course, a fight against Central Asian Islamic radicals that is undertaken and paid for by someone else.

The more the situation looks insoluble by American strategy, however, the better Russia’s position to assume leadership of the “next step.”  Russia is preparing the way through diplomatic mechanisms, reassertions of military power, and patronage of Mr. Karzai – the latter emerging just as the US is reevaluating our own support of him.  Karzai’s pointed and enthusiastic participation lent weight to Moscow’s SCO conference on Afghanistan – to which the US was invited, along with other NATO allies, but at which we were not the initiator or leader.  Pundits have busied themselves since with the warm relations between Karzai and Moscow, which include a defense cooperation deal reported in January.

(An interesting rumor, promptly denied by the Afghan authorities, surfaced in August, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret visit to Moscow, that Israel had concluded an arms deal with Kabul.  The report of this deal was made in Pakistani press.  Although nothing else confirms this rumor, such a deal would represent an obvious quid pro quo – brokered by Moscow – for Russian guarantees to Israel about slow-rolling Iran on the S-300 air defense system, and on Russian aid to her nuclear program.)

Russia continued cultivating her leadership role, and other nations’ appreciation of it, by hosting the annual SCO summit in June (attended by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, three days into the protest demonstrations raging across Iran), and hosting a “BRIC” nations summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China) immediately afterward.  More on that can be found here.  But Russia has also been busy reestablishing military bases on her southern frontier, alongside her successful effort to deny America the GWOT base we contracted for separately with Kyrgyzstan.  (Uzbekistan, under Russian pressure, withdrew our basing privileges there in 2005, although limited passage of non-military goods was reauthorized in 2008.)

In the past year, besides getting US basing privileges withdrawn in the “Stans,” Moscow has established the second of two bases in Kyrgyzstan:  the first is a fighter aircraft base, and the second, agreed to in August 2009, will host Russian ground forces (a battalion-size unit, to begin with).  The overarching mechanism for Russia’s newer initiatives in this regard is the decision by Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in November 2008, to develop a rapid reaction force.  (Members of the CSTO are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, along with Russia.)

The bases in Kyrgyzstan add to the base established at Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, in 2004, as well as to the military bases established further west, in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after the August 2008 invasion.  Moscow has, meanwhile, spent 2009 conducting a series of the “largest joint-force military exercises since the Cold War,” in the Caucasus and Russia’s southwest border as well as in Belarus, the Arctic precincts, and the Far East.  An unprecedented naval exercise with Iran, held in the Caspian Sea in July, has added to the impression of reemerging Russian military dominance of the region.

Which brings us back to Iran.  As Obama’s indecision on US policy in Afghanistan reinforces the impression of American weakness, in terms of Asian influence, the position from which we may seek to strong-arm Iran deteriorates.  With our staunchest Asian ally prioritizing her Asian ties, and proposing an Afghan solution independently of our policies; and with Russia harnessing horses to the regional-action bandwagons, and readying them for Asian passengers – the conditions are emerging for the US to be sidelined on Asian issues in general.

The flurry of global activity since our November election suggests foreign leaders took Obama’s measure well before many Americans did.  The question here is not one of like or dislike, ideological affinity or repulsion, but of how Obama could be expected to behave in the realm of international leadership and the use of power.  The series of regional conferences, agreements, proposals, and emerging policy changes, particularly across Asia and Latin America, indicate that much of the world recognized, early on, that an Obama tenure in Washington would widen the global leadership vacuum that began to expand with George W. Bush’s boresight on the GWOT.  Russia’s gratification at the latest NATO proposal for joint NATO-Russian strategic initiatives should be informative for us, as should the unprecedented parade of Israeli officials to Moscow in the last six months.  As the US becomes a less reliable patron and ally, Russia’s star ascends in the Eastern hemisphere.

Obama’s America does not occupy the position he was so determined to relinquish – and apologize for – in his UN speech last week.  That position was beginning to erode, and rapidly, the day after he was elected.  The position was never his to give up, like abdication from a throne:  it is one that is either maintained or not.  Obama will not have to worry about approaching the Iran problem from the position of exceptionalism and leadership he disdains.  He will have to see what he can achieve from the position of nothing-special equality that he claims to prefer.  If it suits Russia, Obama may achieve a cosmetic victory by obtaining superficial concessions from Iran.  But with a weak case, a weak basis for negotiation, and a weakening leadership position, particularly in Asia, the one thing we can count on is that he will not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


  1. Obama has no intention of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He merely expresses lip service, as political cover, to the concept.

    So the Qom ‘gambit’ has accomplished all he needs, ‘credible deniability’. He’s expressed ‘serious concern’ and on the world stage. Politically, he merely needs to be seen by the public as trying to do something about it.

    He’s an appeaser and therefore is ready to “throw as many as needed to the crocodile”. First Israel, then Europe, then perhaps Australia and Canada… and, if it should come to it, there’s always dhimmitude.

    The man has no intention of defending America much less an ‘outdated’ Constitution.

  2. GB — I’m mostly in agreement with you. The following things are important, however, in my opinion.

    First, Obama will not stumble on success by having been handed the “Qom card.” It’s a low, unworthy card, and it’s important for people to understand that. It will take time for the patina of newness to wear off the whole “Qom” thing, but when it does, it will help to understand that Obama wasn’t starting this process with large-caliber ammo.

    I know you aren’t deceived about this, but a lot of people — even people who see through Obama — will be. The global reaction to the Qom revelation (such as it is) doesn’t come from its shocking significance. Israel has obviously known about it for some time. The reaction has been generated by the implication that the US actually intends to do something now.

    That appearance will be evanescent — unless you’re drinking the Obama Koolaid. The Obama Koolaid will be out there all candy-colored and sparkling, and it will help people avoid confusion to understand, in advance, that the starting position here is not strong enough for Obama to win any useful concessions from Iran. Can’t happen. Whatever concessions are won will be spurious and insignificant.

    We can just say that, without justification, or we can make the case for the assertion. The TOC “mission” is to make the case. 🙂

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