Alex Massie

Obama and Iran

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Jonathan Freedland warns Guardian readers today that Obama is not a dove but, rather, a "smarter hawk". Fine. Here's how he summarises Obama's approach to Iran:

The new disposition on Iran is similarly nuanced. The noises are much less warlike. Obama promises diplomacy and dialogue, and relegates force to where it should be: a last, not a first, resort. But his own advisers counsel that Obama is firm on this matter. He has concluded that Tehran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power, not least because it would trigger a regional arms race. He will use negotiation to thwart that possibility. But if that fails, the use of force remains an option.

And that's when the new global context could make all the difference. Imagine if John McCain had toured European capitals, trying to assemble a coalition for strikes against Iran. He'd have barely got a hearing. Two million people would have marched in London waving banners declaring: "We won't get fooled again."

But if Obama were to make the case, explaining that he had seen through the nonsense of Iraqi WMD but that the Iranian threat was real, he would surely earn a very different response. In that sense if no other, armed international action against Iran might be more achievable under an Obama presidency than it would have been otherwise.

So, when you drill down to the bottom of it all, American policy towards Iran actually remains unchanged. Yes, Obama may be quicker to talk to Tehran than his predecessor has been, but to all intents an purposes he shares Mr Bush's fundamental position: Iran is not to be "permitted" to acquire a nuclear weapon and the United States reserves the right to attack Iran to prevent this from happening. Verily, that is change we can believe in.

Now, the best reason for wishing that the Iranians don't get the bomb is indeed the prospect of a regional arms race. But how likely is it that Washington can prevent this from happening? And, indeed, if you were in Iran's position would not the logical response to the threats coming from Washington be to build a bomb? That's not to say that Iran would halt its nuclear programme if Washington played footsie with Tehran; rather it's an observation on the limitations of American power and the fact that, sometimes, promised demonstrations of that power encourage other countries to act in precisely the fashion Washington would prefer them not to act.

Note too, however, the extent to which Freedland is prepared to give Obama a pass on the issue. He may be right to suggest that John McCain could not "sell" the idea of  bombing Iran and that Obama could. But surely the issue is whether it would be right to do so in the first place? In other words, it's the product that counts, not the salesman. But if Freedman is correct then, paradoxically, anyone who thinks attacking Iran is more likey than not to be a counter-productive blunder might have been better off voting for John Sydney McCain than Barack Hussein Obama.

Funny old world, innit?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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