The danger of enabling Iran

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One of the ironies of international politics is that the best way to ensure war is to prepare for peace. Nations that have attempted to achieve peace through noble sentiments (or Nobel Prizes) can count on their enemies disregarding these naive hopes.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has employed a policy of weakness in regard to Iran, a nation not only committed to developing nuclear weapons but to claiming what it sees as its rightful dominance throughout the Middle East. Since President Obama took office in 2009, he has adopted policies that must leave the leaders of Iran astonished at their good fortune.

The first sign that President Obama would not take seriously the threat from Iran was his failure to support the Iranian democracy movement in summer 2009.

Almost 18 months before the Arab Spring, Iranians began a mass protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after he fraudulently ensured his own re-election. The movement quickly spread from Tehran to other cities, with demonstrators calling for real democracy, a weakening of clerical rule and a less combative foreign policy.

For critical days, the White House issued not much more than tepid calls for the Iranians to settle their differences "peacefully," as if Ahmadinejad, his brutal Basej militia and Iran's riot police would sit down for chai with the protesters. Unlike in the Arab Spring, where Islamist movements were part of the uprisings, in Iran the protests were against an explicitly Islamist state, thus making it even more disappointing that Obama seemed indifferent to the events.

The next major failure by President Obama was his unwillingness to negotiate a continued military presence of the United States in Iraq, after the success of the Bush administration's surge.

All Iraqi political parties, except the pro-Iranian Sadr movement, committed to considering U.S. proposals. Two of the largest parliamentary groups, the Kurds and Al Iraqiya, openly advocated for ongoing basing of U.S. military personnel after Dec. 31, 2011, when our previous agreement with Iraq expired.

Even with this opportunity, President Obama did not contact Iraq's prime minister to make the case, despite signs that this personal engagement could have made the difference. As a result, Iraq is now empty of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, with Iran rushing to fill the gap with aid, technical assistance and other forms of collaboration.

Finally, the Obama administration has announced $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. With major reductions projected in the active duty Army, surface warships and tactical and strategic air assets, the president is gutting our ability to project power in the Persian Gulf.

While the U.S. is reducing its military, our adversaries and rivals, including Iran, continue to build conventional strength. Russia, an ally of Iran, recently announced plans to spend an additional $770 billion over the next 10 years; Iran will increase the budget of its armed forces by 127 percent over the same period, while China continues annual double digit increases in military spending.

While the U.S. still outspends its rivals in absolute dollars, this straight comparison does not factor in dramatically lower salary, benefit and pension expenses for these nations, which pay their military personnel a fraction of what U.S. service members earn.

The sum of these developments has been to reassure Iran's leaders that the U.S. is a power in decline, less interested and capable of countering Tehran's nuclear and strategic ambitions.

While economic sanctions have begun to hurt the Iranian economy, they have been slow in coming and are probably too late to deter Iran. If the U.S. does find itself forced to strike against Iran's nuclear program, it will be in large part because President Obama, while announcing he would use any means necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear, has undertaken policies that have diminished our capability of doing so. Even worse, his policies have given Iran the sense that the strategic balance is moving in their direction.

Unfortunately, it is more than a sense; absent a reversal in U.S. policies or an unexpected catastrophic failure in Iran's efforts, momentum does appear to be on the side of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most capable and dedicated anti-American regime in the world.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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