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Obama Buys More Time for Diplomacy

After trying to persuade Congress not to pass sanctions on all entities doing business with Iran’s Central Bank and then warning he might not enforce them after the legislation passed, President Obama went ahead and ordered the ban to proceed via an executive order signed yesterday. The order was announced today in a letter to Congress and lends credence to previous statements from the administration that their problem with Congress’s attempt to impose the sanctions was an issue relating to separation of powers rather than reluctance to confront Iran and halt its efforts to obtain nuclear capability.

It is far from certain the order would have gone through had Congress not acted to mandate such action in the first place. But the prime motivation for acting now, well in advance of the six-month deadline Congress laid down for Obama to enforce the legislation, may have had more to do with fear of an Israeli strike on Iran than scruples about the Constitution. With Israel making it clear it will not wait indefinitely for sanctions and diplomacy to work, Obama had little choice but to implement the legislation, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that could lead to the complete economic isolation of Iran. The question facing Washington now is whether this measure can be quickly implemented, and will it be too little and too late?

In his pre-Super Bowl interview on NBC yesterday, the president acknowledged the gravity of Israel’s security concerns about a nuclear Iran, which he said Americans shared. He declared, “We are going to make sure we work in lock step and work to resolve this, hopefully diplomatically.” But the presidents’s chief concern seemed to be to persuade Israel to give him more time to achieve such a diplomatic resolution before deciding to act on their own.

His problem, however, is that even with the sanctions on the bank in place–a measure that is a prerequisite for an international embargo on Iranian oil sales–it is not clear whether it will be rigorously enforced or respected by Tehran’s chief trading partners. With Russia and China defying Obama on Syria, Israel can have little confidence the president can count on their acquiescence on a far bigger target in Iran. Moreover, just as worrisome is the Treasury Department’s history of providing exemptions to thousands of companies that already do business with companies that trade with Iran.

The bank ban may gain Obama a bit more time, and he is probably right when he says, as he did yesterday, that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have not yet made up their minds about launching a strike. But the Israelis are not likely to give the bank ban or even the oil embargo all that much time. Just as worrisome is the possibility Iran will switch tactics and attempt to engage Obama in another negotiation that might lead to an agreement that might not be enforceable, much in the same way the North Koreans scammed Obama’s predecessors as they ran out the clock on talks while proceeding to finish their bomb.

While a negotiated settlement that would avert the need to use force is in Israel’s interest as well as that of the United States, Jerusalem has little reason to trust in Obama’s good faith or his willingness to persist in a tough position vis-à-vis Iran. In signing the order, Obama has done the right thing, and for that he deserves credit. But the Israelis and others who understand the profound nature of this threat will be monitoring enforcement of the provision closely and looking to see whether Washington buckles at the first hint of a new round of futile talks with the ayatollahs’ representatives.