Hey, wait, Fridays are supposed to be slow news days. You know, things wind down, everyone heads home. But this was interesting:
President Obama and his allies raced Friday to use their revelation of a secret Iranian nuclear enrichment plant as long-sought leverage against Tehran, demanding that the country allow highly intrusive international inspections and propelling the confrontation with Tehran to a new and volatile pitch.
In a day of high drama at an economic summit meeting, American, British and French officials declassified some of their most closely held intelligence and scrambled to describe a multiyear Iranian effort, tracked by spies on the ground and satellites above, to build a secret uranium enrichment plant deep inside a mountain.
It was an out of the blue, we-know-what-you’ve-been-doing thing, sprung on a Friday. But it wasn’t just us. We actually had France with us on this one. That’s something Bush never managed.
And we’re not saying this is the apocalypse:
The new plant, which Iran strongly denied was intended to be kept secret or used for making weapons, is months away from completion and does nothing to shorten intelligence estimates of how long it would take Iran to produce a bomb. American intelligence officials say it will take at least a year, perhaps five, for Iran to develop the full ability to make a nuclear weapon.
But the finding so cemented a sense of what Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain called “the serial deception of many years” that it led to a rare Russian rebuke of Iran, and a milder warning from China, two countries crucial to Mr. Obama’s efforts to back up diplomacy with far tougher sanctions.
What – Russia and China too? Is George Bush taking notes? This is how you do these things. You lay out that “the small, hidden plant was unsuitable for producing reactor fuel that might be used in a peaceful nuclear program.” And it seems to be deep inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base, about twenty miles from the religious center of Qum, and deep inside a mountain. What is going on is pretty obvious.
So our nuclear negotiations with these guys are set to begin the next week, the first direct talks in thirty years, and we go in with the upper hand. Obama – “Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice.” Either give up their program, or “continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation.” Deal with it.
But this New York Times account adds this:
It seemed unlikely that by “confrontation” Mr. Obama meant military action. While the president said that option was still on the table, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said on CNN on Friday that “the reality is that there is no military option that does anything more than buy time – the estimates are three years or so.”
Yep, we can bomb the crap out of them, and hit all the sites, but that doesn’t fix things.
On the other hand, we won’t make mistakes we made before:
Mr. Obama said he had withheld making the intelligence public for months because it “is very important in these kind of high-stakes situations to make sure the intelligence is right” – a clear allusion to former President George W. Bush’s release of intelligence on Iraq seven years ago this month that proved baseless. Mr. Obama’s hand was forced, however, after Iran, apparently learning that the site had been discovered by Western intelligence, delivered a vague, terse letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday disclosing that it was building a second plant, one that it had never mentioned during years of inspections.
This is something different – we have the goods on these guys, and somehow let them know exactly what it was we knew, and forced their hand. They had to admit they built this new site – busted. They still say that the plant is a “semi-industrial fuel enrichment facility” and that they had “voluntarily” made its existence public, but that seemed a bit lame. And the West in general was all over them:
“They have cheated three times,” one senior administration official said of the Iranians. “And they have now been caught three times.” The official was referring to information unearthed by an Iranian dissident group that led to the discovery of the underground plant at Natanz in 2002, and evidence developed two years ago – after Iran’s computer networks were infiltrated by American intelligence agencies – that the country had sought to design a nuclear warhead. American officials believe that effort was halted in late 2003.
Mr. Obama said the secret plant “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was more blunt, giving Iran two months to meet international demands, and Mr. Brown said, “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
So Obama promised in his campaign to engage with these folks, and now, if Iran blocks inspectors or refuses to halt its nuclear program, we’ve got them by the balls, and everyone is with us on that.
This is how it’s done. You might recall that long ago Hillary Clinton said that she and John McCain were the only ones qualified to be president – Obama made one lucky speech in 2002 and knew nothing of such matters. McCain smiled. He used her remarks in his campaign. Obama didn’t meet the “presidential foreign policy experience threshold” or some such thing – you had to have something more than good judgment now and then. It seems they were wrong.
Andrew Sullivan sees it that way:
And so you see the Obama mojo again. Look at the moves of the last month. He scraps the missile defense in Eastern Europe, pleasing Russia, and moves the focus of defense to the Mediterranean, pleasing Israel.
He pawns Ahmadinejad at the UN by being the first president of the US to preside over the resolution to enforce nuclear non-proliferation.
He corrals the rhetorical support of the developing world, isolating Tehran still further. He hangs back a little and allows Brown and Sarkozy to do the heavy hitting on North Korea and Iran this past week, again revealing that the desire to curtail Ahmadinejad’s nukes is not only an American project.
And then, this morning … kapow!
Obama sprung a trap:
He busts Ahmadinejad in an air-tight case that focuses on active Iranian deception. All this, of course, may still not be enough. Putin’s position remains opaque; and China is still not on the full wagon. But can anyone say that the isolation of Iran has weakened under Obama?
If you add to the mix the critical factor of the Green Revolution, then the West’s position vis-a-vis Iran has improved immensely in the last eight months. And if you believe that Obama’s Cairo speech was at least a positive factor in helping bring that about – then the promise of the Obama era in American foreign policy begins to take shape.
Anticipating that Obama will now be called weak and foolish, Sullivan adds this – “There is sometimes more strength in projecting confidence rather than bluster, and seeking cooperation rather than ultimatums.”
And then there was a statement from the Moscow government:
Iran’s construction of a uranium enrichment plant violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council. The International Atomic Energy Agency must investigate this site immediately, and Iran must cooperate with this investigation. Russia will assist in this investigation by any available means. Russia remains committed to a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, and urges Iran to provide proof of its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program by the October 1 meeting of the P5-plus-1.
And this is curious – “Mr. Obama is planning to visit Beijing and Shanghai in early November, just around the same time that a sanctions resolution is expected to be introduced at the Security Council.” China may still be reluctant to sign any UN sanctions resolution, but it’s a chess game. You get the right piece in the right place at just the right time. You think twenty moves ahead. That is what that Beijing trip seems to be about.
Sullivan notes those two items and links to an old Warner Bros. Roadrunner cartoon and offers only two words – Beep. Beep.
More seriously, in Foreign Policy, Mark Lynch offers this:
According to the New York Times, the administration went public because the Iranians had discovered that Western intelligence had “breached the secrecy surrounding the project.” Perhaps. But it seems rather more likely that the administration chose to go public as part of a calculated effort to ratchet up the credibility of the threat of tough sanctions ahead of the October 1 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva.
The public disclosure puts Iran on the back foot ahead of those talks and demonstrates to the Iranians the quality of Western intelligence and the difficulty of deception and denial – especially in the atmosphere of (quite warranted) mistrust of their intentions. That may reduce their reasons to oppose the intrusive inspections and monitoring regime… Such an outcome would be far more in the interests of the U.S., Iran, and Iran’s neighbors than any plausible outcome of a military strike.
Yep, bombing isn’t always the answer, and one reader at Sullivan’s site offers this:
Also consider the shrewdness of having the announcement made by the U.S., Britain, and France.
In 2002, when the U.S. tried to confront Iraq at the U.N. about its supposed WMD programs, remember it was France who led the charge against us, splintering the West and greatly undermining the international legitimacy of any future action against Iraq. I remember watching Dominique de Villepin responding to Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe” comment with his disquisition on France’s hard-earned wisdom and why the American position was impetuous and wrong. I also remember Jacques Chirac playing the reticent statesman while we were reduced to the appearance of foot stomping children (which, in fact, we kinda were).
This time things are, somehow, completely different:
France is right there with us, in the same room as 2002, but this time confronting Iran’s activities. That has a meaning of its own. Combine that with the credibility Obama has accumulated through his outreach to both allies and non-allies, and it sends a much more convincing message that these charges need to be taken with utmost seriousness.
It also reminds me of the Cairo speech. I read a commentary yesterday from a Syrian Muslim scholar who noted the important symbolism of the fact that Obama had visited Saudi Arabia the day before the Cairo speech, then gave the actual speech in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The home countries of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. A sort of subtle confrontation in that.
I’m thinking that when we look back on Obama’s tenure as president, we will not be so swept up in the mystique of his oratory or the fascinating impact he has as the first black president. I think what will have greater staying power is the basic fact that the guy is just really, really smart as hell and shrewd.
Of course Sullivan here makes a key observation – “If you believe that the only strategy America can have is bombing, invading and torturing, today’s events must be a little disorienting.”
Yep, this didn’t go down well in some quarters. In the Weekly Standard, there’s Michael Goldfarb saying Americans are fed up with the idea of now even talking with Iran and real conservatives will embarrass Obama and cut to the chase, and, even if no one in the world agrees with us, impose American sanctions right now:
There seems to be real bipartisan support in both the House and Senate for Congressionally-mandated sanctions that are not held hostage to this president’s naive focus on diplomatic engagement and the faith this president obviously has in his own powers of persuasion.
And in National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg loves how one of his readers puts it in an email:
So let me get this straight, our crack intelligence community knew about this second Iranian nuke plant a year ago (so it couldn’t have been that big of secret to begin with) which means our Wonderful and Gracious Dear Leader knew about this second facility and STILL felt the need to reach out to the Iranians as if they were rational actors who could be trusted, along with canceling the missile defense site in Europe?
Sullivan argues back:
The sheer simple-minded dumbness of these people never ceases to amaze. Obama has maneuvered these past few months to isolate Iran without seeming to bully or dominate. Because of that, he has a decent chance of getting real sanctions approved by Russia and maybe even China. But this delicate piece of diplomacy and public relations infuriates the un-chastened neocon right. They like their foreign policy crude and simplistic and … well, Cheneyesque. Even after such an approach failed to provide any real results except the occupation of two countries and the nuclear empowerment of North Korea and Iran. Ideology remains entrenched, immune as ever to the facts on the ground.
Obama is more the conservative than they will ever be.
One of his readers piles on:
It must drive them nuts to see a clear, if limited, victory for a strategy that is diametrically opposed to their own. Their ideology being discredited by events, and so they characteristically fall back into blind fits of intransigence, like screaming, foot-stomping children.
The person who emailed Goldberg just doesn’t get it:
Obama has known about this facility from day one. At Cairo, he reached out the Muslim world, undermining the Iranian regime’s ability to engage in arm-waving, fear-mongering anti-Americanism. He built himself a triumvirate with Brown and Sarkozy, who actually have an intelligence presence in Iran. He used that presence to build an airtight case. He cut a deal with the Russians. He reached out to Iran, knowing that they would likely reject or ignore his overtures. Then, when Ahmadinejad comes to New York, having to face Western journalists, Obama announces the existence of the Qom facility, turning the spotlight on Iran when they are unable to hide behind state-controlled media. Obama, cool and calm, pulled off a near-perfect diplomatic pincer.
Finally, after years, we’re starting to get somewhere with no threats and no bombs. Like I said, it must drive the neocons nuts. Obama did in eight months what George Bush couldn’t do in eight years. How long do you think it will take for Krauthammer to find a way to twist this victory into an accusation of naiveté?
We know where the naiveté exists: among the neocons who predicted an easy, quick victory in Iraq, a country they assured us had no real sectarian tension. I take full responsibility for believing them. But I learned something which they apparently haven’t: their claims of hard-headedness are delusional. They don’t actually know how the world works. Obama, it seems, may have a better grip.
And in the Washington Post, David Ignatius offers a different historical perspective:
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who is one of America’s leading security strategists, likes to speak of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear confrontation as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” Well, on Friday morning, that slow-mo process started moving a little faster, as President Obama issued a stark warning about a secret Iranian project that poses a “direct challenge” to the international order. …
Allison’s Cuban analogy may strike some people as alarmist, but it seems more and more apt to me. The United States and its allies have caught Iran cheating, again, on International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards – this time by building a second undeclared enrichment facility in a mountain near Qom. It was an Iranian effort to gain leverage, reminiscent of Moscow’s moves in Cuba in 1962 as described by Allison in his classic book, “Essence of Decision.”
The Iranians outed their covert project in a lame, obtuse letter to the IAEA last Monday. But they must have suspected that the U.S., which has covertly monitored this breakout since the Bush administration, was about to blow the whistle.
Well, it does take you back. And back then, with the whole of the military telling JFK he had to invade Cuba, and with Curtis Lemay arguing it was time for a preemptive full nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, to obliterate all their cities, wipe out their military and leave them no infrastructure, just glowing radioactive ruins, JFK worked out something better. Of course some still believe global thermonuclear war would have been better – that would have settled matters. As for invading Cuba, we haven’t been that good at what you do after you invade and occupy, although some might argue Cuba might have been the one exception, had we tried. We’ll never know. But yes, this may be the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion, as the dynamics are the same. Obama may, in this case, be JFK. And JFK was assassinated the next year. Funny how that happens…
But don’t worry about it. You know what matters. Watch the new Birther infomercial running on a CBS affiliate in Texas and elsewhere around the country. For thirty dollars you can buy the bumper sticker – “Got a Birth Certificate?” Well, Billy May is dead. What did you expect?
But things are moving our way again, after eight long years of nonsense. The Obama guy’s got game.