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Iran Thinks the West is Bluffing

One of the ironies of the last few months of international efforts to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions has been the fact that Western Europe has generally been much more aggressive about its willingness to put the screws to Tehran than the United States. Britain and especially France have been willing to talk about an oil embargo of Iran while the Obama administration has been much more circumspect about both the possibility of such a measure and its enforcement. But apparently, the Iranians are not quite convinced by the bluster coming from French President Sarkozy and other Europeans. Tehran’s official news agency announced today the regime called in the ambassadors of France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece and Portugal to tell them if they don’t shut up about the nuclear issue, the Iranians will pre-empt them and cut off the flow of their oil to Europe.

Tehran’s hope is the Europeans will take the bait laid out for them in the form of a message to the EU about a willingness to resume negotiations on the issue. In today’s New York Times, Dennis Ross, the former Obama staffer who continues to consult with the administration, wrote an op-ed in which he claimed the time is ripe to resume talks. But while the administration may see the article as a signal to Iran that talks are the only way for Iran to avoid an embargo or worse, Iran may interpret it as a sign of weakness by the United States.

While the threat to the Europeans may be dismissed as bluster, the Iranians are acting as if they think the European Union is bluffing about going to the mat over the nuclear issue by scheduling an embargo to begin on July 1. Moreover, the Iranian threat, which noted that the regime can “find other customers for its oil” is no lie. As we noted last week, China has been negotiating oil deals at cut-rate prices intended to take advantage of the pressure building on Iran. Though Saudi Arabia has vowed to make up any shortfall in the supply of oil as a result of this standoff, the Iranians may reason that when push comes to shove the Europeans won’t be willing to risk the impact such a confrontation might have on their economies.

Of even greater concern is that Ross’s article may reinforce Tehran’s belief it can lure the West back into dead-end negotiations.

Ross’s premise is the sanctions orchestrated by President Obama have brought the Iranians to their knees and made them ready to back down on the nuclear issue. The obvious drawback to a Western assent to resumed negotiations is Iran would have every incentive to drag out the process and run out the clock until their program succeeds. Ross’s answer to this concern is the European threat of an oil embargo this summer would ensure Tehran could not play that game.

But Ross, who is a veteran of two decades of failure on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track, fails to take into account the very real possibility  a new round of talks would give the Europeans the excuse many of them have been waiting for to back away from a confrontation. Their main concern has been to heighten the pressure on Iran so as to convince the Israelis not to launch an attack that might create an international crisis with unforeseen circumstances.

Unlike Ross, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has shown he doesn’t take either President Obama or the Europeans seriously when it comes to their threats. He may be gambling that both are far more interested in avoiding the use of force than they are in actually stopping Iran’s nuclear plans. Unfortunately, the Ross op-ed, which will rightly be viewed as an open peace feeler from Obama to Iran, will only reinforce Khamenei’s belief the U.S. doesn’t mean business. Moreover, there is no reason to believe a fanatical regime such as the Islamist government in Tehran would be willing to give up on its nuclear dream.

President Obama’s rhetoric on the necessity of stopping Iran has been faultless. But after more than three years of irresolute American diplomacy, the Iranians have come to believe both the U.S. and Europe are bluffing about an oil embargo. Iranians may think a dead-end negotiation will allow them to avoid more sanctions while bringing them closer to a nuclear weapon.


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