With the 2012 election looming, it is not surprising that the bulk of President Obama’s State of the Union address was focused on the U.S. economy and job creation. But the focus on domestic issues was underscored by a strong defense of the President’s record on foreign policy, in particular his decision to order the mission that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Apart from the killing of bin Laden, the only foreign policy issue that merited its own paragraph was Iran.
President Obama’s critics have accused him of being weak on Iran. During the Republican debate on Monday night, Rick Santorum even went so far as to say that, “Obama’s Iran policy has been a colossal failure.”
The President countered this criticism on Tuesday, saying, “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
He then added a vitally important caveat, “But a peaceful resolution is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”
Although Obama is not ruling out the possibility of a military strike, at least rhetorically, it is clear that he will not consider it until all other options have definitively failed. Indeed, many in Washington, both in and out of government, have highlighted the dangers of military action in Iran. In fact, several Iran experts argue that that a military strike in Iran will virtually guarantee that Iran continues to pursue, and eventually obtains, nuclear weapons.
And it is not only the civilians in Washington who believe that military action in Iran would be detrimental to regional and global security. In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, argued for greater engagement with Iran, saying, “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days…of the Cold War we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran so we don’t understand each other.”
For an excellent primer on how a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear challenge might be achieved, see Arms Control Association analyst Peter Crail’s important analysis here.
Currently, Obama’s Iran policy has been dominated by economic sanctions. The United States-led multilateral sanctions effort has been joined by many other key nations, including Russia and China. And on Monday, the European Union tightened its existing sanctions against Iran, just in time for the State of the Union.
Thanks in part to these sanctions, Iran has become increasingly isolated over the past year. In the words of Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East:
One year after the Egyptian revolution began, Khamenei’s hopes — and Western analysts’ fears — have not materialized, and are not likely to. Although it has been fashionable to describe Iran’s growing power in the Middle East, actual events suggest the opposite. Iran’s economy is reeling under sanctions, and the regime’s nuclear activities and saber-rattling increasingly mark it as a pariah state. And as the Arab Spring marches on, Iran will find itself falling further behind.
Whether this will still be the case a year from now remains to be seen. Sanctions alone are unlikely to force Iran to rethink its nuclear program. It’s up to the administration to ensure that economic pressure is paired with the aggressive pursuit of a diplomatic solution.