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.

The myth of the national interest in the Cameron coalition narrative

The launch of the Lib-Con’s ‘Programme for Government’ saw Prime Minister Cameron appeal not for the first time to the ‘national interest’, a concept that seems to be gaining increasing currency in anticipation of the possibility that established party differences might create embarrassing obstacles in the era of the ‘new politics’.  You will have noticed, and will continue to experience, the authoritative invocation of this handy phrase from the leaders of the government.  I would advise any optimistic Coalitionists out there that ‘the national interest’ does not lend itself to much objective usage.

It is establishing itself in Cameron and Clegg’s vocabulary with good reason too.  While the Coalition will continue to portray a convergence of values based on a thoroughly legitimate concern for the ex-government’s erosion of civil liberties, Labour’s statism will become a bit of a straw man after a while.  Obvious ideological differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories will be exploited to full effect by Labour in opposition and the media, and the idea that these can be rendered benign by a higher cause has obvious appeal to both sides of the Coalition.  

Putting aside party interests’ is a particularly banal tautology; at what point would the Conservative Party concede that their principles do not reflect what’s best for Britain?  Are we to assume that the past two weeks have revealed some happy coincidence between Tory fiscal policy and the national interest?  If we had a Labour government right now, the national interest would be defined as maintaining fiscal stimulus, and protecting the recovery.  Instead Britain’s interests are best served by immediate cuts.  The pliability of the term exposes the absurdity of any attempt to use it seriously.

The Coalition, existential proof of the diversity and representativeness of British politics, rests on the fiction that Cameron will objectively defend the national interest, which logically implies that the national interest must be seen as threatened.  Immediately after the scale of the Conservatives’ underachievement in the election had been recognised, Cameron began the public rationalisation of a deal with the Lib Dems. His post-election speech, ‘National interest first’ will be remembered for its ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to Clegg.  But it is also indicative of the kind of alarmist, apocalyptic rhetoric which will be essential to the success of the Coalition government:

‘[Britain] did not vote for party political bickering, grandstanding and point scoring – our country’s problems are too serious, they are too urgent, for that…We must sort things out, as quickly as possible, for the good of the country’

So Cameron dutifully assumes the traditional paternal vestige of his party, clearing up Labour’s mess and administering the painful but necessary policies that serve the interests not of a self-serving elite but of the nation.  I’m not saying this sort of negative cohesion is anything new in politics – it is as old as the hills. This makes its usage by Cameron in suggesting that we have entered the ‘new politics’ even more nauseating.