(photo credit: )
Judging from the headlines, Vice President Dick Cheney did some serious saber-rattling against Iran during his swing through the region last week. On closer examination, it all came down to one short sentence in his speech to soldiers on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, stationed in the Persian Gulf.
"We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region," Cheney said.
In reality, the news was not so much that Cheney had said this, since presumably this has long been the policy not only of the US government, but of all US candidates for president, regardless of party. The news was the possibility that he meant it, as emphasized by location - 240 kilometers off Iran's coast - and the audience, the pilots and sailors whose job it might be to enforce such a policy.
Still, it is striking that there is still doubt that the US policy remains as President George W. Bush declared in his State of the Union speech in January, 2002: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Some of that doubt is being sown by the actions of the Bush administration itself.
Just a week before Cheney's tough speech, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met briefly with Iran's foreign minister at a conference on Iraq. And on Sunday, a White House spokesman said, "You could expect a meeting in the next few weeks with [US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker and Iranians. The purpose is to try to make sure that the Iranians play a productive role in Iraq."
Many observers are having trouble squaring American charges that Iran is behind much of the violence and terrorism in Iraq with US willingness to talk about Iran playing a "productive role." Some argue that it is the tough talk and sanctions that are gumming up the works. "The problem with the two-track policy is that the first track - coercion, sanctions, naval deployments - can undercut the results on the second track," said Ray Takeyh at the Council of Foreign Relations.
"There are some in Teheran who will look at Cheney on that carrier and say that everything Rice is offering is not real. ... This is a case where we are trying to get through negotiations what, so far, we couldn't get through coercion," Takeyh is quoted as saying in The New York Times.
What this analysis mistakenly assumes is that "coercion" has been tried and failed. In fact, the strategy of making Iran's nuclear program more trouble than it's worth has only been feebly embarked upon, and the attempts to engage Iran now would seem to detract from the chances of achieving this goal through non-military means.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with a second track indicating that the door is open if Iran were to decide that it was abandoning terrorism and aggression, nuclear-backed and otherwise. The problem is that this second track has no chance of bearing fruit unless the first track, the "or else" side of the equation, is greatly ratcheted up.
According to a new Web site tracking trade with and investment in Iran (www.aei.org/IranInteractive), global investment in Iran rose from about $5 billion in mid-2006 to over $45b. in the first few months of this year. Most of this sharp increase in investments came from Europe and bout 70 percent of the investments in Iran have been made in the oil sector, the main source of cash for the regime.
In this context, it is not surprising that Iran does not take the West's sanctions too seriously, certainly not seriously enough to abandon its nuclear program. For Western policy to work, Iran must understand two things: both that sanctions will be drastically tightened and that there is a meaningful threat of military action if sanctions are not effective. Cheney's speech notwithstanding, military threats are unlikely to be credible unless the sanctions piece is being seriously pursued not just by the US, but by Europe as well.