What Do The Cables Tell Us About Obama’s Iran Policy?

As Laura Rozen notes, there’s a real concentration of Iran-related materials in the first batch of WikiLeaks. I’m curious what the thinking was behind releasing these specific cables first, or if there was any thinking. I guess we’ll know soon.

In regard to what the leaked cables tell us about the administration’s own policies (as opposed to what they tell us about what other leaders are saying or what our diplomats think about what those leaders are saying), one of the biggest takeaways thus far is, not only is Obama administration’s Iran policy very much the same in private as it is in public, this administration, unlike its predecessor, actually has an Iran policy.

As the New York Times report, the cables “show how President George W. Bush, hamstrung by the complexities of Iraq and suspicions that he might attack Iran, struggled to put together even modest sanctions“:

They also offer new insights into how President Obama, determined to merge his promise of “engagement” with his vow to raise the pressure on the Iranians, assembled a coalition that agreed to impose an array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

That last point is key, as some have tried to argue that Obama only turned to the pressure track after the engagement track failed. The truth about Obama’s Iran policy, and this is something Obama was quite clear about even during the presidential campaign, is that not only do engagement and pressure work together, engagement itself can be a form of pressure, as it has been with Iran.

In regard to Arab leaders’ demands for action against Iran, which has thus far dominated the coverage of the leaks, certainly it was no secret that Arab regimes are deeply concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the region, fear that it would be greatly enhanced by Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon, and want the U.S. to take care of the problem for them. But even I’m a bit surprised at the persistence with these leaders have apparently been asking the U.S. to carry out a strike. (And what of the likely regional fallout of such a strike? They’ll want us to take care of that for them too.)

While it’s obviously important to take the concerns of our allies and partners seriously, U.S. officials, analysts, and military leaders have repeatedly made clear that a strike on Iran would be, at best, a short-term solution that would actually make an Iranian nuclear weapon more likely, not less, while carrying a host of other highly negative consequences for U.S. goals and interests. That’s, of course, the key question U.S. foreign policy should be concerned with.