There have been consistent assertions from conservatives and from the mainstream media that the Administration’s strategy of engagement was “naïve” and had “failed.” A new meme is now emerging that the Administration is shifting to Hillary Clinton’s hard nosed pressure approach. All of this overlooks the fact that the engagement policy is playing out just as Obama described. There are in fact increasing signs that UN security council sanctions, once seen as improbable, are becoming increasingly possible.
What naysayers don’t seem to understand is that sanctions are a byproduct of engagement. For engagement to work, Iran and the US did not have to become best buddies. While constructive talks that led to Iran renouncing nukes would have been ideal, engagement was just as much about building an international consensus and demonstrating to our allies and the world that Iran was the problem not America’s refusal to talk. During the first 2008 presidential debate against Senator McCain, Obama argued this point:
I do not agree with Senator McCain that we’re going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies, but have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon. But we are also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough direct diplomacy with Iran. … Again, it may not work, but if it doesn’t work, then we have strengthened our ability to form alliances to impose the tough sanctions that Senator McCain just mentioned.
This is playing out just Obama said it would. The Administration appears to be closing in on the votes at the UN. European powers, France, Germany, and the UK, after clashing and working off different playbooks during the Bush administration are firmly supportive of UN sanctions. The Administration’s effort to reset relations with Russia is paying dividends, as Russia is now seemingly in near lockstep with the Administration on Iran. If Russia does end up supporting security sanctions, this will be quite a feat for the Administration given that some experienced Iran hands dismissed the notion that Russia would support sanctions.
China has been a much trickier case. Despite extensive US outreach to China last year, China pushed back against the move toward sanctions earlier this year. However, China has now gone silent – a sign that it may be recalibrating. The Israeli Ambassador has said that it is a “mystery” what China will do. US-Sino relations have gotten a bit pricklier and China has tremendous economic interests in its relations with Iran, as it has overtaken Europe as Iran’s largest trading partner and is dependent on Iranian oil. However, as Roger Cohen noted, “I expect China, averse to conspicuous isolation, will eventually abstain on a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran.” The International Crisis Group similarly concluded in a recent report, “if Russia finally supports sanctions, China will likely come on board to avoid diplomatic isolation.”
UN security sanctions would put significant additional pressure on the Iranian regime, as it would highlight their international isolation and would clear the way for coordinated targeted sanctions against the regime. It would also be a big win for the Administration and would vindicate, not contradict, their strategy of engagement. As General Petraeus said on Meet the Press on Sunday engagement has laid the groundwork for greater pressure.
PETRAEUS: We have over the last year of course pursued the engagement track, I think no one over the course of this time can say that the United States has not given Iran every opportunity to resolve the issues diplomatically, that puts us on a solid foundation to go on what is termed the pressure track.