Sanctions against Iran represent a failure of Obama’s foreign policy

Iran fails to comply with the International community.  The West condemns the Islamic Republic’s inability to cooperate with nuclear non-proliferation.  The UN Security Council imposes new sanctions on Iran.  This familiar narrative was reaffirmed as the Security Council voted 12 to 2 (with Lebanon abstaining) in favour of new sanctions.  President Obama said that the vote sends an “unmistakable message” to Iran.  Indeed it does; for all the oratory, US foreign policy has changed little since the dark days of the Bush years.

After Obama’s failure to condemn Israel for its massacre of 9 civilians aboard a flotilla carrying aid to besieged Gaza, yesterday’s action from the US demonstrates that the lofty rhetoric of the president’s Cairo speech is as distant a reality as ever.  The progressive foreign policy needed to match Obama’s domestic reforms remains elusive.

The unilateral mentality is still there. The vote’s notable naysayers (Turkey and Brazil) have attempted to pursue their own negotiations with Tehran.  By forcing through these sanctions the Obama administration has clearly shown it will not support this direction; the EU is to be the only legitimate partner in any uranium enrichment deal.  Yet the unilateral moment is in its twilight and these watered-down sanctions betray America’s need to rely on Sino-Russian approval in dealing with Iran. 

There is still an abject failure to recognise what Iran’s international policy, which clearly includes its nuclear programme, is fundamentally about.  That is, a desire for recognition from the international community that Iran is an independent sovereign polity.  Iran has decided that nuclear weapons help to reaffirm this status yet so does diplomacy.  Witness the way the regime engineered a major diplomatic incident in 2007 by taking 15 British sailors hostage in the Gulf, almost entirely choreographed in order for Ahmadinejad to present himself as an international statesman. 

Treating Iran like one of Bush’s rogue states is a fruitless and unrealistic policy.  Does the alternative involve our complicity in legitimising a regime which so brutally punished genuine democratic stirrings amongst its people in last year’s election?  Far from it.  That movement was a reaction to the style of politics Obama had flaunted throughout his meteoric rise to the presidency.  In contrast this recent display of threatening behaviour from the administration merely enables Ahmadinejad and the theocrats above him to construct America as an enemy of Iran, an enemy of Islam etc.

The current policy is dangerously out of touch with reality; sanctions are normally a bad idea, but especially so when they are as impotent as the ones proposed in resolution 1929.  As James Lindsay of the influential Council on Foreign Relations remarks, ‘The expectation that the new sanctions can be beat make it likely that Tehran will respond to the resolution’s passage with more defiance and bluster’. Taking a superior stance will enflame the situation yet the Obama administration appears to be trapped by the same delusions of imperium that informed Bush’s foreign policy.  Potential adversaries are seen as absolute ideological competitors; potential allies as simply vehicles for conferring legitimacy on US decisions (Britain, as sycophantic as ever, may continue to indulge America in this fantasy but as Brazil and Turkey’s proactive approach and the material growth of China shows, it is a dying breed).  Until the Obama administration appreciates why Bush’s foreign policy was so disastrous and starts to take multilateralism seriously it will fail to find a successful solution to the Iran problem.

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