The American people have spoken, and the next president of the United States will be Barack Obama. Running on a platform of change, the president-elect will be severely tested early in his administration by a host of challenges, be they economic, military, environmental or diplomatic in nature. How Obama handles these issues will define his tenure as America’s chief executive, and there will not—nor should there be—a honeymoon period. The challenges of these times do not permit such a luxury, something the president-elect had to know and comprehend when he chose to run for office. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Obama’s defeated rivals, were both correct when they noted that the next president would need to be ready to govern on day one. Barack Obama has until the 20th of January to get his policies in order, because at one minute past noon on that day, he becomes the most powerful man in a volatile world. While the problems he will face are many, I will focus on what I believe are the four most critical issues that will need to be addressed in the first weeks and months of the Obama administration: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Russia. This will be done in a series of articles, the first of which will deal with Iran.
Barack Obama, the candidate, said many things about Iran, some of which were inherently contradictory. In this he is not unique, since the reality of the rough-and-tumble world of American presidential politics requires any given candidate to show extreme flexibility in defining solutions to complex problems, oftentimes based not on the facts as they exist, but rather the fiction of domestic political imperative. Sometimes initial positions are staked out based upon fact-based analysis, only to be corrected as a given domestic constituency expresses unease and imposes its own fantasy-based worldview on the candidate. Nowhere is this process of the fictionalization of fact more prevalent than on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. One year ago, in an interview with The New York Times, Obama demonstrated a level-headed approach toward Iran, expressing “serious concern” over the country’s nuclear program and its support for what he termed “terrorist organizations.” He grounded his comments in an appreciation for the cause-and-effect relationship between Iran’s involvement in Iraq and the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of that country. Obama also expressed the need for “aggressive diplomacy” with Iran at the highest levels and emphasized the importance of economic incentives and security assurances when it came to compelling Iran to change course on its nuclear program.
But many months on the campaign trail, fighting a determined Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and a critical Republican Party, compelled the thoughtful Harvard-educated foreign policy neophyte to buckle under the pressure of needing to be seen as “strong” and “determined” in the face of continued Iranian intransigence. In July of 2008, following a series of Iranian ballistic missile tests, which included the Shahib-3 long-range missile, Obama seemed to retreat from diplomacy, noting aggressively that “Iran is a great threat.” Instead of trying to balance the Iranian decision to test its missiles with ongoing militaristic rhetoric from both the United States and Israel (including a large-scale Israeli air force exercise that simulated a strike on Iran), Obama undertook a single-dimension approach toward the problem and predictably came up with an equally simplistic solution: “We have to make sure we are working with our allies to apply tightened pressure on Iran,” including tighter economic sanctions. Obama noted that there was a “need for us to create a kind of policy that is putting the burden on Iran to change behavior, and frankly we just have not been able to do that over the last several years.” Gone was any notion of understanding the cause-and-effect relationships that may have influenced Iran’s actions, or the notion that wrongheaded American policy (such as continued economic sanctions) may in fact have contributed to Iran’s behavior.
If one was hoping that Obama’s sweeping electoral victory in the 2008 presidential election might have liberated him from the need to assume a “tough guy” pose, the recent press conference given by the president-elect set the record straight. “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon,” Obama stated, “ … is unacceptable. And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.” Perhaps Obama received some new insight into Iran from his recent access to top-secret CIA intelligence briefings that prompted him to unilaterally declare as fact the existence of an Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons. There is, of course, no substantive data to sustain such an assertion. As a critic of the U.S. intelligence failure concerning Iraq’s WMD programs in the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of that country, as well as the Bush administration’s politicization of intelligence for ideological motives, Obama would do well to take any intelligence briefing on Iran, void of incontrovertible evidence, with much-warranted skepticism.
The president-elect went on to state, “Iran’s support of terrorist organizations I think is something that has to cease.” It would be nice to know more about how he defines “terrorist organizations.” Is he speaking about Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine or Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq? The last time I looked, Hezbollah was democratically elected to Lebanon’s parliament, representing a significant percentage of the Shiite population of southern Lebanon. And Hamas became a significant player in Palestine’s budding democracy by appealing to the legitimate needs and desires of a growing number of Palestinians unimpressed by the corruption and undemocratic principles of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.