The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is the biggest threat facing the world, according to one of Barack Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers. He also signalled that the US Democratic presidential candidate would push Europe to agree tougher sanctions against Tehran.
By Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce
In an interview with the Financial Times, Anthony Lake, a former US national security adviser who has worked with Mr Obama since the start of his campaign, also urged the US to learn lessons from its traumatic withdrawal from Vietnam regarding pulling out of Iraq.
Iran threat and Europe
“The most dangerous crisis we are going to face potentially in the next three to 10 years is if the Iranians get on the edge of developing a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“If I were the Europeans I would much rather put on the table more sanctions, together with bigger carrots, and have that negotiation than I would face that crisis down the road.”
In recent weeks, the issue of Tehran’s nuclear programme has gained prominence as speculation has mounted about a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But European countries have been reluctant to endorse new sanctions banning fresh investment in Iran’s energy sector, an idea mooted by Mr Obama’s supporters. Some European states are preoccupied by dependence on Russian gas and want to have Iran as an optional alternative.
European Union diplomats also reject suggestions that the world’s big powers should water down their conditions for starting negotiations on Iran’s nuclear dispute. Under current international policy, formal negotiations can begin only if Tehran suspends uranium enrichment, which can produce both civil nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material.
Reasoning with Iran
Mr Obama and his advisers stress the Democratic candidate’s readiness to sit down with Iranian leaders without conditions.
“Unless you assume that [Iranian negotiators] have IQs less than those of eggplants, they are not likely to make major concessions for the privilege of speaking with us. So the question is: what is your strategy for the talks?” Mr Lake said.
“Do you believe that simply sanctioning them can drive them into concessions before you talk, or do you believe that you need to have the sanctions there as a stick at the heart of negotiations?”
Mr Lake depicted the Democratic candidate as a tough-minded realist rather than an anti-war politician. “When I joined the campaign, I remember asking someone at the very beginning: ‘Is this a protest campaign or a presidential campaign?’” he said, before insisting that the answer was clearly the latter.
Out of Iraq unless…
He stressed that Mr Obama, even after withdrawing troops from Iraq over 16 months as he has promised, would maintain “a residual presence for clearly defined missions”. These would include military training, and “preparedness to go back in if there are specific acts of genocidal violence”.
“That is not ‘cut and run and let’s just see what happens’,” Mr Lake said. “It seems to me a very responsible strategy.”
Highlighting a parallel with his first posting as assistant to Henry Cabot Lodge, a US ambassador in 1960s Saigon, he said: “It is common sense that we could not leave Vietnam successfully unless we left behind a government in Saigon that could govern successfully.
“It seems obvious in retrospect; it was not obvious enough to too many politicians at the time. In Iraq it’s the same problem.”
The target of his criticism is John McCain, Mr Obama’s rival, whom Mr Lake accused of “saying we will win by 2013 without defining what winning is” – a reference to a speech in which the Republican candidate predicted that by that date the US would welcome home most of its soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Lake was also markedly less enthusiastic than Mr McCain about the US’s stricken civil nuclear deal with India, which has been hobbled by internal Indian opposition. “I don’t know how you resuscitate something that is dead there [in New Delhi], if it is in fact dead there,” he said.
al-Qaeda and Pakistan
On Pakistan, he said Mr Obama’s statement last year about using force against al-Qaeda leaders in the country – even without Pakistan’s permission – “is still relevant”.
Mr Lake was sympathetic to aspects of Mr McCain’s idea of a League of Democracies, one of the centrepieces of the Republican’s foreign policy plans.
Stressing that he had not spoken to Mr Obama about it, he backed the general idea of a grouping that was “not an anti-Russian device but an effort to find ways for the democracies to act together on issues of defence of our common values . . . specifically on issues when the UN can’t act”.
Even that notion might be difficult to digest for European countries wary of offending Moscow or seeming to sidestep the UN. But as Mr Lake’s words indicate, Mr Obama could yet be a demanding partner for the rest of the world.