Has US accepted a nuclear Iran?
Published in Gulf News, 29 July 2009
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Last week, as she prepared to attend a conference in Thailand, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington will consider whether to extend a formal "defence umbrella" over the Gulf States if Iran continues to move forward with its nuclear programme.
"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment," she said.
"If the US extends a defence umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon."
The reaction this remark prompted said a lot about where Middle Eastern affairs stand in Washington's current hierarchy of priorities.
The key was Clinton's final phrase - "once they have a nuclear weapon" - a construction which some felt accepted the inevitability of Iran's joining the nuclear club.
By itself Clinton's remark ought to have been fairly unremarkable. No formal treaty obliges the United States to defend any of the Gulf States, but recent history has left few doubts that an informal security guarantee exists.
This guarantee can be seen in the extensive US military presence throughout the region, and is supported by America's commercial interests in the Gulf, oil, the presence of many US citizens and the example of history (i.e. the Gulf War).
Whether Clinton's remark was designed to reassure allies beyond the Gulf is open to debate. In any event, the governments of the Gulf States largely kept their opinions to themselves. The Israelis, however, were noticeably more vocal.
Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor, told Israel Army Radio it appeared the Obama administration "have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran. I think that's a mistake".
Washington duly walked back Clinton's comments, quickly issuing a statement to the effect that Washington did not regard a nuclear Iran as inevitable.
The Israeli reaction, in retrospect, should not be surprising. Israel's focus on Iran and its nuclear programme has arguably crossed the line into obsessive.
Case in point: The Jerusalem Post's website, mixed in among buttons linking directly to its sports, business and travel sections, includes one that takes readers to the site's special "Iranian Threat" page.
What was more surprising was the reaction, or more accurately the almost complete lack of it, in the United States.
This is the summer of healthcare. The only other political issue that is managing to penetrate the American consciousness at the moment is the economy, though one may argue, as US President Barack Obama does, that the two issues are, in fact, intimately related.
Last week the president held a prime time news conference in a bid to get the general public to prod Congress to move forward.
His goal is to remake the country's health system, lowering costs while extending insurance coverage to many of the 46 million Americans who now lack it.
This is not a small issue. America is the world's only rich democracy in which healthcare is not guaranteed as a function of citizenship.
After a winter and spring devoted to legislation that might best be described as economic triage, the Obama administration has turned to healthcare as the signature issue with which it hopes to cap its first year in office.
Meanwhile the administration is pursuing an active and ambitious foreign policy agenda despite the fact (or, perhaps, with the comfortable knowledge) that here at home hardly anyone outside the small, cliquey community of foreign policy wonks is paying much attention.
In the weeks since the Iranian presidential election there has been some discussion about what, if anything, the disputed outcome and accompanying violence should mean for the administration's announced desire to engage Iran over its nuclear programme.
For now, the plan seems to hope the Iranians will agree to talks even as discussions continue among Washington and its allies over what to do if and when that initiative fails.
Doing that will be a delicate, albeit necessary, task. Hawks have dominated the Iranian debate in the United States for far too long.
More than a few of them seem eager to take diplomacy off the table and move forward to military options - despite the fact that the military itself seems decidedly reluctant to head down that road.
The trick will be not to allow planning for the worst to pre-empt working for the best. It remains an open question whether the Iranian regime actually wants to find an accommodation with the West over its nuclear programme.
For now, Washington's most responsible course is to keep searching, even as it plans for the worst. Though some may have found them unsettling, Clinton's comments were a good way of demonstrating that the US is working for the best outcome while planning for the worst. And what would we call that? Responsible statecraft.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator based in Burlington, Vermont. He has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades.