Rosen observed that, "This was the first presidential election, since Reagan vs. Carter in 1980, where Iran policy played a central role." As a candidate, Obama repeatedly assailed the Bush administration for what he depicted as a refusal to talk to Iran. He promised to pursue a different policy toward Iran, one that would begin with direct engagement guided by the president himself.
But, Rosen predicted, Obama "will be surprised when he opens the files and looks at the actual record of recent diplomacy. He will discover that the Bush administration was deeply engaged in communication and dialogue with Iran for the entire eight years it was in power." Rosen distributed a list of more than twenty-eight meetings where Bush administration officials with the rank of ambassador or above, sat down directly with Iranian leaders, from the first to the last years of the Bush administration. In addition, there were numerous meetings conducted by European officials, in close consultation with the Bush administration. "Obama will see that there has not, in fact, been any lack of contact between American and Iranian officials. Obama is going to find it more difficult to do something new in this area than he thinks."
Rosen predicted that there will be constraints on Obama's freedom of action, as he looks for a new approach. There is already a package on the table—the so called EU-3 initiative, led by the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany. Will Obama want to push aside the European foreign ministers and pursue a unilateralist U.S. policy toward Iran? This is the opposite of what he has led the world to expect. Will he abandon the central precondition on which the Europeans have insisted in their dealings with Iran: the demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment while the talks proceed? This would be a unilateral concession, undermining the credibility of the entire effort to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. The hard-liners in Teheran would take it as proof that, if the Islamic Republic has the courage to remain steadfast, the West will capitulate.
Obama will also be constrained by a desire not to alarm Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And he will not want to undermine the confidence of the Israelis.
So what will Obama be able to do that is new?
Rosen predicted that Obama will review five distinct strategic options, three of which he will take off the table immediately. Regime change—aiding internal groups to overthrow the Iranian government—was never fully embraced by the Bush administration nor any government of Israel. In both countries, there were a handful of advisers who thought regime change could succeed, but they failed to convince Bush, Sharon or Olmert that it was an achievable goal. Therefore, Rosen predicted that Obama would take regime change off the table altogether, and in a forceful way. In fact, Rosen asserted that explicitly repudiating regime change as an option might be one of the dramatic steps Obama can take to distinguish his policy from that of Bush, without undermining the Europeans, the Arabs, or the Israelis.
At the opposite extreme, Obama will be told by some of his advisers that a nuclear Iran is inevitable, and that the United States should learn to live with it. They will argue for a strategy of deterrence and containment. Rosen, however, reasoned that the nuclearization of Iran would profoundly destabilize the region, undermining the confidence of our Arab allies on the Arabian Peninsula as well as Jordan and Israel. It would provoke further nuclear proliferation, as states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt would seek nuclear capabilities of their own to deter a rising Iran. Already, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey have announced their intention of building nuclear power plants. Nuclearization would greatly increase the danger of Iranian aggression and subversion at the subnuclear level, pursued under the nuclear umbrella. Obama has expressed these concerns in private discussions with Israeli leaders and in public speeches, and Rosen believes that Obama will take the idea of living with a nuclear Iran off the table, along with regime change.
A third option that will be presented to Obama is military preemption by surgical air strikes and special-operations, to destroy major elements of Iran's nuclear program and set it back five to ten years. Rosen believes that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and other advisers will warn Obama that Iran could respond to preemptive strikes with a daunting array of countermeasures that could be destabilizing and costly to the United States and its allies. Rosen predicted that these advisers will succeed in convincing Obama that the risks and costs are too great, and he will therefore take preemption off the table.
This will leave Obama with the remaining two options: a strategy of pressure on Iran to change its behavior, and the pursuit of a "grand bargain," by offering Iran additional concessions if it will suspend or end its enrichment program. Rosen predicted that these two options— sometimes called "bigger carrots and bigger sticks"—are likely to dominate the real policy debate about Iran in the first phase of the Obama administration.
Rosen opined that the Obama administration is likely to turn to the carrot first, because "they believe that the previous administration had an excessive faith in the use of force, and insufficient faith in talking to people - dialogue, communication, engagement." Obama is likely to offer more inducements, both economic and political, toward softening Iran's position.
Obama will also be advised that bigger carrots are a precondition for bigger sticks. "Obama's advisers think that the last administration failed to get allied cooperation on sticks, because our side was unwilling to put on the table American carrots…And that had the last administration been willing to do that, they would have gotten more cooperation from the other major powers. The remaining unused sticks belong to the allies, while the unused carrots belong to the United States. Except for military force, the U.S. has used just about all of its pressure points against Iran. But the Europeans, Japanese, and certainly the Russians and Chinese have not used all the pressure points that they could use. On the other hand, most of the positive benefits that could be given to Iran if it changed, are cards in the hand of the United States."
Strategies designed to seduce Iran have a long history of failure. Rosen quoted a recent speech by Robert Gates, who Obama apparently plans to keep as secretary of defense: "I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979. Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. The Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship."
Rosen predicted that an Obama strategy of bigger carrots and bigger sticks will fail too. In the 1990s, Rosen was one of the earliest advocates of economic pressure on Iran, and he still believes that, had the allies cooperated, sanctions could have been effective five or ten years ago. But he has come to the conclusion that it is now too late. Moreover, Rosen does not believe that other major powers, notably Russia and China, but also some of the Europeans, will in fact match bigger U.S. carrots with their own bigger sticks. And, most importantly, he does not believe that Iran will change its behavior.
Instead, Rosen expects that further time will be lost, and the West's own wishful thinking will allow Iran to "string us along while it builds a stockpile of fissionable material." Although Obama takes office January 20, the new strategy is not likely to begin until next summer. Iran has a presidential election on June 10, and advocates of the "grand bargain" theory will be drawn to the idea of waiting for a new Iranian president so we can "test his intentions." Many now believe that Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larjani will defeat Ahmedinijad, and they see Larjani as more reasonable. The skeptics, with whom Rosen agrees, say the difference is cosmetic. "Ahmedinijad spits in your eye; Larjani blows smoke in your eye."
Rosen believes that it will then take some time for the Obama administration to concede that they have failed. It could be the end of 2009, more than twelve months from now, before the Obama team recognizes what Rosen sees as the new reality. "The easy options are gone. We are down to a stark choice: the use of force, or the Ayatollahs with the A-Bomb." When disillusionment sets in, Obama will be forced to reconsider two of the options he had initially took off the table: military preemption, or living with a nuclear Iran.
Rosen predicted that Obama's advisers will try to prevent the use of force, by putting before him a parade of horribles that they believe will ensue if he strikes Iran: attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; subversion on the Arabian peninsula; Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere; disruption of oil supply and prices; a weakening of democracy forces in Iran and strengthening of the regime; Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; a crash program to fulfill Iran's nuclear ambitions; an end to allied cooperation; and more.
Obama said very forcefully during the campaign, in his AIPAC speech, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon." He added, "Everything in my power. Everything."
But actually deciding on the use of force, against what Rosen thinks will be the advice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, is a different matter. Obama will still have large forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and telling the American people that he has decided to launch what some will call a "third war" may be simply too much.
Rosen fears that Israel will then be all alone, and will have to consider its own destiny. A unilateral Israeli strike would have all the problems that the U.S. faces, and more. The number of sorties that the Israeli Air Force can mount against Iran in a single wave is a small fraction of what the U.S. could do. Israel is much further away, and must overfly third countries. Israel has smaller payloads, and fewer weaponeering choices. Israel can strike Iran, but under much more difficult circumstances and not as well as could the Americans.
The biggest disincentive for Israel may be the United States itself, and Israel's desire to avoid conflict with its most important ally. In 1981, Israel could enter Iraqi airspace to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor without American involvement. Today, the United States, in effect, controls the airspace near and even over Iran. Israel cannot get there without being detected by American sensors, and before launching a preemptive strike, the Israeli Air Force will have to deconflict with the United States Air Force and Navy. The Iranians, and most of the world, will not believe that Israel could have acted without an American green light, even if this is a fiction.
Will Israel have the guts to do it anyway? Rosen believes that this option cannot be taken for granted. Everything may depend on the new prime minister of Israel, which will be decided when Israel has its own election on February 10.
Summary account by Eric Bergel