One thing I'm finding interesting is that essentially every article I read these days threatening sanctions against Iran contains quotations from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Clearly he has been assigned, at least for now to be the public voice of US advocacy for sanctions. I'm not sure what message is intended, but one message I get is that the US defense establishment is behind sanctions. Which is to say that the US is signaling that the difference in emphasis that was apparent during the Bush administration, where the civilians were notably more hawkish against Iran than the military it not applicable to the Obama administration.
Is this reality, or is it just the message? Hillary Clinton speaking on Iran has been a disaster over the last year, from her bizarre statement that Iran does not have a right to nuclear enrichment under its own control, to her gift to Iran's regime when she bragged that "behind the scenes, we're doing a lot, as you know" to help the opposition. Seeing her taken off of the job of primary spokesperson for US Iran policy need not have any implications other than that the administration realizes that she is not good at it.
Gates, even if the military is behind sanctions, does have a realistic understanding of the consequences of hostility with Iran, and therefore may be more trustworthy to speak in a calculated way. He likely understands the seriousness of the issue enough that he will not start making things up that make the US position seem unreasonable or ridiculous.
One thing he is saying is that Barack Obama has taken a political risk in reaching out and trying to engage Iran.
At a news conference with French Defense Minister Hervé Morin, Mr. Gates praised U.S. President Barack Obama's attempts to engage the Islamic Republic diplomatically and chided Tehran for not reciprocating, the Associated Press reported. "No U.S. president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran," he said. "All these initiatives have been rejected."Obama's public position has not been risky. He did send a greeting for Nowruz. He said publicly after the election that he did not want to make any supportive statement about the opposition that would discredit it. His public position on the important question - Iranian domestic enrichment - does not differ from that of the Bush administration.
Maybe Obama's position differs in private, but Obama does not have the credibility on Middle East issues to make a believable private commitment. The US foreign policy apparatus froze before it could apply pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction in direct defiance of a high profile US request. A private commitment to reach an agreement that allows enrichment after Iran exports its stock of LEU would be unlikely to be implemented by the US even if Obama was sincere when he proposed it.
Gates claims to support sanctions, but the United States has not made any tangible efforts in that direction. Possibly Gates supports not sanctions, but the hope that the threat of sanctions, if delivered as credibly as possible, will pressure Iran into making concessions on its nuclear program. If the concession the US is hoping for is suspension, those hopes will certainly continue to be dashed.
If instead Gates is beginning to apply a new phase of a US policy to attempt to contain Iran, and confront Iran while it is being contained in an economic war of attrition involving a partial siege of the country, this is a very dangerous policy, as Gates would understand well. The United States is not acting eager to tighten economic sanctions on Iran.
The next several months will tell what direction the United States wants to take its containment policy. If it will be containment with a tightening siege, as Gates is hinting, but with the costs that would impose on US operations and goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, or if it will be containment with a modus vivendi in which the US and Iran agree to disagree on issues such as Israel and the nuclear issue while both sides wait for further developments. The second choice seems more consistent with US interests as well as Iranian interests. The first is clearly the preference of Israel and its supporters. So far, US public speech has indicated a preference for the first, while its actions have indicated a preference for the second. We'll see if that continues.
Gates certainly has become a central player in the campaign to pressure Iran but the direction of this campaign has still not yet become clear.