Analysis: An American boost for Iran?

Analysis What Iran migh

US President Barack Obama might have spelled out his Afghanistan policy in person to West Point cadets and via television to the US public this week, but his words reverberated far beyond American or even Afghan borders. Indeed, Iran had already responded before the US commander-in-chief officially announced Tuesday night that he would be boosting troop levels by 30,000, accelerating the rate of deployment and increasing civilian resources because "we must deny al-Qaida a safe haven." "Obama's policies can be considered the continuation of Bush's policies," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying. "No change has been made in the current American president's behavior." In fact, senior administration officials briefing the media about the speech used the term "surge" just as previous president George W. Bush did when he announced his own controversial response to military setbacks, in his case regarding Iraq in 2007. When asked about Iran's response, the officials noted the continuity. "One reason that this policy may seem to Iran as consistent with previous policies is that it's founded on the same national interest," said one of the US officials. "...Fundamentally, at the very core of this, is the US national interest to protect America and America's allies. And the threat that emanates from this region, centered on al-Qaida, persists." That consistency has surprised some of those watching the new, Democratic president who had once criticized Bush's surge in Iraq. Though Obama has long made clear the primacy he places on the conflict in Afghanistan, he has faced intense opposition from some members of his own party and the White House in charting such a course. Former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, now at the Center for American Progress, argued that Obama's stance in light of that criticism should repudiate any claim that he is "weak" on national security issues. He contended that that posture should put adversaries like Iran on the defensive while reassuring allies, including Israel. "The Iranians are going to say, this guy is not afraid to take military action," he said. "They have to take that into consideration - that this is someone who's not going to shrink from doing what he thinks is necessary to protect US interests and allies." But Iran expert Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute pointed out that Obama's speech did differ in some respects from Bush, and that those divergences are crucial. "Bush talked about 'victory' and didn't talk about withdrawing US troops. Obama didn't talk about 'victory' and did talk about withdrawing troops," Rubin said, pointing to Obama's word choice but also his policy decision to announce that troops would begin to return in 18 months. "That undermines the fear that any number of troops will put into an adversary." Though Obama didn't say when all the troops would leave, or rule out revisiting troops levels in the future, Rubin argued that including a timeline for starting to leave still sent the message that America wasn't in it for the long haul and signaled to US enemies that they should simply wait things out. He predicted elements like Iran, the Taliban and al-Qaida would then jostle for position to fill the vacuum and claim victory. "That's going to bolster Iran's confidence and that raises the possibility Iran will push for conflict - they won't see red lines," he said, warning that it could instigate problems for Israel along its borders with Lebanon and Gaza. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Anthony Cordesman, who once worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, rejected the assessment that Iran would re-evaluate its plans. "There's no evidence that people in Iran … had doubts that the US would stay," he said of the suggestion of a lack of US commitment, adding that it would be "fairly unrealistic" to think that if the United States did leave Afghanistan it would then take a more tolerant approach toward Iran trouble-making. He stressed that Obama's address on Afghanistan was precisely that - a policy focused on the country that once harbored al-Qaida - and cautioned that it would be a mistake to read it as a signal to Iran. He also assessed that the military implications of the surge of troops wouldn't affect the US's ability to contemplate an attack on Iran, since he said, were such a route to be considered it would be through air and naval forces rather than ground units. Korb said that Obama's decision had in any case signaled a willingness to stretch the military's capacity, as he was building up troops in Afghanistan even as the US keeps a presence in Iraq. "He's willing to stress the force to protect national security," he said.