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What to Expect from Obama on Iran

President Obama gives his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and he will have to speak about Iran as it heads toward an obvious goal. The “tough” and “tight” sanctions he touted in last year’s SOTU Address did not cripple the regime, stop its nuclear weapons program, or produce any talks. Three years of attempted engagement have been a failure.

At the White House press conference Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Obama sent a private letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader proposing direct U.S.-Iranian talks, as two Iranian officials allege. Carney responded that “any communications … with the Iranians are the same in private as they have been in public;” that the only channel is the P5+1 offer to negotiate; and that Iran has “shown no inclination thus far to make that choice”:

“And what we have seen over the three years since this president has been in office is he has — by pursuing the Iranian issue in the way that he has, he has ensured that a world that was in conflict over this issue is now united … He has brought to bear a level of consensus in the international community on the need to pressure Iran and isolate Iran on this issue that did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Three years of effort and the only results are: a consensus to pressure and isolate Iran that supposedly “did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Except that it did exist. Here is an excerpt from the July 9, 2008 testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, entitled “The Strategic Challenge Posed by Iran,” which summarizes the strategy and consensus at that time:

This Committee is intimately familiar with the dual-track strategy that we have employed in concert with our P5+1 partners – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China – to put before the Iranian leadership a clear choice …

President Bush emphasized last month at the US-EU Summit that we seek to address this issue through a multilateral framework. He said: “Unilateral sanctions don’t work…One country can’t solve all problems…A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians, and that is: ‘We are going to continue to isolate you. We’ll continue to work on sanctions. We’ll find new sanctions if need be if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world.’” …

The international community is more unified than in the past on the necessity for Iran to fully and verifiably suspend its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities and reestablish international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. There is also a mounting consensus for Iran to come clean on its past efforts to build a nuclear warhead …

We have committed repeatedly and at the highest levels to deal diplomatically with the Iranian regime. The fact that this diplomatic dialogue has been limited to less than satisfying talks in Baghdad is the unfortunate choice of the Iranian leadership.

Obama has not forged a consensus that did not previously exist; he has continued a policy that had failed even before he took office. Under his watch, centrifuges have continued to whirl; deadlines have been ignored; sanctions have not achieved their purpose; no significant talks have occurred; and he has delayed further sanctions for six months or more, while signaling he is more concerned about Israel than Iran.

Leslie Gelb writes that the administration will not commit to “any particular action beyond ratcheting up rhetorical pressures and economic sanctions” and will try only to “say enough to keep Israel from pulling its own unilateral trigger.” If Carney’s remarks are any indication, Obama plans to congratulate himself on Tuesday for a consensus that pre-dated him, avoid any commitment beyond what has repeatedly failed in Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea, and hope this will take him beyond November.


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