The Obama administration's Iran policy has been pretty cautious and realistic so far, which is a very good thing. American diplomacy has aimed toward keeping pressure on Iran to work out an acceptable solution that would provide it nuclear power plants without developing an immediate capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.
The backdrop of this problem is that the international nuclear nonproliferation regime (system/process) has been breaking down. With Israel, Pakistan and India all having developed nuclear weapons, and with Pakistan having engaged in aggressive nuclear proliferation and Israel constantly threatening war on Iran, Iran has rational reason to suspect that their national security would be better served by having nuclear weapons than by cooperating with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
One of the problems in the debate has been the overt warmongering by the neoconservatives, which was heavily enabled for years by the Bush administration. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed explicitly and sometimes heavily implied, Iran has never said that it intends to develop nuclear weapons. On the contrary, they have frequently said the object. And their chief leader who actually controls foreign policy, Ayatollah Khamanei, has explicitly declared that possession and use of nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam. He reaffirmed that position just recently.
The US and other Western powers like Germany, France and Britain have been conducting policy on the assumption that Iran is developing nuclear weapons capabilities. And that makes good sense to do so. The Obama administration has continued to press for new agreements to head off that possibility. But at the same time, they are scaling back the Star Wars/missile-defense systems that the Cheney-Bush administration had been deploying in Poland and the Czech Republic, whose announced purpose was to defend Europe against Iranian missiles. That was obviously a bogus diplomatic claim; those Star Wars deployments were directed against Russia. But scaling those back set the stage for improving cooperation with Russia on the Iranian nuclear program.
Scaling back on the rhetoric threatening war against Iran has also been a big improvement in the US posture. The Cheney-Bush foreign policy was basically built around war and the threat of war. Those continuing threats created maximum incentive for the Iranians to pursue nuclear weapons. As the Iraq War showed, the US is willing to invade countries that we accuse of developing nuclear weapons. But if a country like Iran actually has nuclear weapons, that's a major deterrent against US invasion. Even the most liberal, pro-democracy, Western-friendly Iranian government would take that calculation fully into account.
That's not the kind of government Iran has, though. If Iran wanted to pursue better relations with the US during Obama's first year, they have so far squandered that chance. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has continued to be provocative, most recent with a rabid Holocaust-denial speech. As Gary Sick points out in How to Keep Iran in Check Without WarThe Daily Beast 09/23/09, "Ahmadinejad, despite all his swagger and bluster, is a secondary figure at best in the actual decision-making on major security policy." His blowhard ways obviously don't help. But the fact that the Iranian President is a particularly fanatical, noxious individual doesn't have to impeded progress on nuclear nonproliferation. The stolen election of this summer also didn't help. Nuclear nonproliferation is not only for pristine democracies. But that kind of thing in practice makes diplomatic progress more difficult.
Stephen Walt in What is Iran up to?Foreign Policy Online 09/25/09 warns against the scare-mongering tactics of Iraq hawks.
Most importantly, this new information does not strengthen the case for using military force against Iran's nuclear program, although hawks are bound to invoke it for that purpose. Airstrikes can delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but cannot prevent it, and they are likely to strengthen Iran's resolve to acquire a genuine deterrent as soon as they can. Attacking Iran will rally the population around the regime, and given Iran ample reason to retaliate against the United States or its allies in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Middle East.
If we want to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to halting its nuclear enrichment activities), we are going to have to convince Iran that it doesn't need a nuclear deterrent to be safe. That won't be easy to do, given that Iran has three nuclear neighbors (Pakistan, India, and Israel), and a very bad relationship with the United States, which has given millions of dollars to Iranian opposition groups and formally committed itself to regime change on several past occasions. Persuading Tehran that they don't need a deterrent requires taking the threat of force, regime change, and the like off the table, instead of ratcheting the threat level up. I'm not saying that this approach will work; I'm saying that threatening preventive war won't. And actually launching a preventive war is likely to make things much worse.
However heavily Obama himself in domestic policy may lean toward the approaches of the corporate-conservative wing of the Democratic Party, there's nothing distinctly liberal about a pragmatic policy towards nuclear nonproliferation. It's in the interest of the United States and the rest of the world to strengthen international nuclear nonproliferation and to work toward avoiding wars rather than seeking them out. To the extent that the Obama administration follows even a realistic, pragmatic approach to foreign policy, that is a distinct advantage over the Republican approach.
Juan Cole continues to follow major development in Iran at his Informed Comment blog including: