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Trip to Nowhere

Defense Secretary Gates arrived unexpectedly in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday—reportedly due to alarm at whatever Vice President Biden said in Israel this week. This comes in the wake of an unusual public admission by Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, who said last Sunday that there are countries in the Persian Gulf that would like the U.S. or Israel to strike Iran militarily to slow its nuclear program. This shows that Middle Eastern governments have no confidence that President Obama’s Iran policy will work. That should concern every American, given that Iran’s Islamist theocracy is the most likely candidate to help terrorists bring a nuclear weapon into an American or allied city.

Over the past month, more than a half dozen Obama administration officials have paraded through the Middle East to showcase the latest iteration of U.S. policy. Like college students taking to the road for spring break, “Diplopalooza” has involved copious talk, together-time and posing, but few real accomplishments.

In addition to the Vice President and Secretary of Defense, the flurry of teas and meetings has featured no less than the Secretary of State, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Adviser, the CIA Director, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command and Dennis Ross. Their goal? To pitch a set of diplomatic and communications strategies that have no conceivable chance of halting Iran’s nuclear program. And even though this set of talking points is being delivered in part by military and security officials, Iran’s leaders are breathing easy as neither they nor anyone else believe military options are being considered in Washington. Worse, many in the region believe one of Vice President Biden’s goals in his meetings with Israelis was to dissuade them from a military attack on Iran.

The Obama administration approaches this problem with questionable analysis and little urgency. Last month, Secretary Clinton said in Doha that “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship.” While that sounds like tougher talk, in fact it indicates the Obama administration still believes that there are senior officials within the regime on whom reason will work. The administration thinks this can be encouraged by sanctions. Both assumptions are wrong.

The Iranian government, like any, has cliques and factions, but they are not as deep and exploitable as the White House thinks. Mr. Obama should know better by now. Just last spring, he failed at this when he tried to talk above President Ahmadinejad to Supreme Leader Khamenei. In an April press conference with the king of Jordan, President Obama attributed Iran’s stated goal of demolishing Israel to Ahmadinejad and noted hopefully that it was actually Khamenei who “exercises the most direct control over the policies of the Islamic Republic.” The effort went nowhere. Predictably, neither leader felt any real pressure to join with the leader of the “Great Satan” against his colleague.

The latest effort to imagine a rift into existence is equally foolish. Iranian civilian officials are essentially indivisible from the Qods Force and other quasi-military elements. Trying to divide them would be like trying to divide the leadership of the Third Reich from the SS.

Sanctions also will fail, as they comprise an effort that is too little too late. China and Russia signaled again this week a disinclination to allow sanctions. Mrs. Clinton was also publicly shot down on this matter by Brazil during her visit there last week. Even if sanctions are enacted, it is not plausible to assume they could affect the Iranian nuclear program soon enough—if ever. The time for sanctions would have been a year ago when low oil prices and economic turmoil were having a serious impact on Tehran. That time has passed.

From its beginning, President Obama’s approach to Iran has been centered on image and emotion rather than decisive steps to advance American security. The administration began with the incorrect belief that its predecessor in the White House desired only confrontation and never tried to talk and listen to our adversaries. In the case of Iran, the U.S. in fact has been negotiating directly and through allies for decades. This mistake of believing one’s own campaign rhetoric, combined with a president who radiates weakness, indecision and a level of conceit that prohibits policy corrections, has convinced Tehran that is faces no real consequence from Washington for its actions.

If the Obama administration is serious about the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, it needs to bring military options into the policy equation now—or at least stop trying to dissuade Israel from employing them. Otherwise, we are pinning our security solely on the device of hope. That emotion is hardly a sound defense.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at D.C. Asia Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ChristianWhiton

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Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).