This morning, I took President Obama and his senior staff to task for expressing unwarranted optimism about the prospects of negotiations with Iran. It seems I might have been mislead by news accounts of a meeting between the president and some columnists at the White House.
Robert Kagan, one of the best analysts and historians in the foreign-policy business, was present at the meeting and writes that it was called because “the administration wanted everyone to know how tough it was being on Iran. … What was striking was the president’s sobriety about the issue,” Kagan writes, “his evident pride in the global diplomatic efforts that produced the latest resolution and his determination to pressure the Tehran regime as much as possible.”
That wasn’t the message that go out, however. As Kagan explains:
[Obama] did make clear that the door was, of course, open to the Iranians to change their minds, that sanctions did not preclude diplomacy and engagement, and that if the Iranians ever decide they wanted to “behave responsibly” by complying with the demands of the international community, then the United States was prepared to welcome them.
It is here that this very straightforward briefing took a bizarre and amusing turn. Some of the journalists present, upon hearing the president’s last point about the door still being open to Iran, decided that he was signaling a brand-new diplomatic initiative. They started peppering Obama with questions to ferret out exactly what “new” diplomatic actions he was talking about and, after the president left, they continued probing the senior officials. This put the officials in an awkward position: They didn’t want to say flat out that the administration was not pursuing a new diplomatic initiative because this might suggest that the administration was not interested in diplomacy at all. But they made perfectly clear — in a half-dozen artful formulations — that, no, there was no new diplomatic initiative in the offing.
So it seems the president and his top aides have learned something in the past year and a half about the futility of reaching out to the Iranians. I apologize for mischaracterizing their views. But I still remain highly skeptical that the sanctions they’ve pushed through will cause Iran to give up its nuclear program. I am still concerned that the administration has not done enough to help the Green Movement and that it has done too much to take the military option of the table, thereby removing our best leverage against Iran. Bottom line: the administration is still failing to stop a major threat — the Iranian nuclear program. In fairness, as I’ve said before, the Bush administration also failed to stop the Iranians. But it is Obama who is now in office, and time is running out.