Analysis: Obama moves from the carrot to the stick

A shift in US strategy, UN sanctions only a start.

obama pointing 311 (photo credit: AP)
obama pointing 311
(photo credit: AP)
The sanctions against Iran that passed Wednesday in the UN Security Council are the fourth round of such measures approved by that body since 2006, but the first round under the Obama administration, and therein lies their overall significance.
These are President Barack Obama’s sanctions, and they demonstrate that he has moved the US from the “engagement” to the “pressure” track when it comes to Teheran’s nuclear ambitions.
True, the sanctions – which go after the Revolutionary Guards, as well as Iran’s military and shipping industries – are far from what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would have liked to see. Netanyahu wanted sanctions that targeted Iran’s all-important energy sector.
But still, these sanctions provide an important legal and moral basis for both the US and other countries, such as the EU member states, to build upon. With these internationally approved sanctions to stand on, the atmosphere will be much more conducive for others to take further, more far-reaching steps.
Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, during his meeting with a select group of rabbis last month in Washington, explained that the sequencing of the moves against Iran was extremely important, and the UN measures needed to come first, then further EU steps, and then – finally – harsh sanctions being drawn up in Washington.
Beyond serving as an important building block for other steps, the new Security Council measures – which the US worked hard to deliver – are also important because they represent a shift in Obama’s strategy.
Obama came into office waving the carrot under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nose, but these US-led sanctions now indicate that Obama’s patience has run out and he has now moved on to the stick.
Israel might have preferred to see Obama take out a much bigger stick, a heavier rod, but the decision to move from carrots to sticks, from engagement to pressure, is not an insignificant step.
Obama came into office 18 months ago wanting to differentiate himself from his predecessor George W. Bush’s polices on Iran, and during this period tried a different path. That path failed to move the Iranians, and now he is going back to the Bush way.
But, Obama will argue, he will move onto the pressure track with more international legitimacy, since it is now clear to the world that the US genuinely tried engagement, but got nowhere.
The problem with how the vote turned out Wednesday, however, is that the two states that voted against the sanctions – Brazil and Turkey – are not insignificant actors on the world stage, and Iran can, and will, now argue that the move lacks support from key corners of the world.
Nevertheless, 12 countries voted for the measure – and even Lebanon abstained – which moves the world from a position of engaging Iran, to pressuring it, and all that with the new, shiny imprimatur of the Obama administration.
No one in Jerusalem will say it, but there has to be a sense of “we told you so.”
From Obama’s first week in office, Israel’s position was that engagement with Iran was a waste of time, a treading of water, and that Teheran would only respond to pressure.
But the Netanyahu government felt it prudent to give the Obama administration time, to sit back quietly and let it try its hand at engagement, believing that at some point in time those efforts would run up against a brick wall, that Obama would acknowledge reality, and that the engagement policy would be replaced with one of pressure.
That certain point in time, Wednesday’s UN vote shows, has finally arrived.