President Obama responded sharply yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim the P5+1 talks with Iran constituted a Western “freebie” to the Islamist regime because it gave it five more weeks to continue to enrich uranium. Speaking during his visit to Colombia, the president let loose with another barrage of tough talk about his intentions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Warning “the clock is ticking” for Iran, he directly addressed criticism of the talks by saying he wouldn’t allow it to turn into a “stalling process” and that far more draconian sanctions would be put into place against the regime if it didn’t take advantage of the diplomatic process.
That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the problem with America’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue remains the same as it has always been: the disconnect between President Obama’s public rhetoric and the process by which U.S. diplomatic efforts has allowed Tehran to do the stalling that he claims he opposes. With reports of Saturday’s meeting showing that nothing other than a commitment to future meetings in Baghdad (the venue has been changed from Turkey to suit Iran’s latest whim), it’s not clear why Israel or anyone who cares should have much confidence that the negotiators are doing anything but allowing both the ayatollahs and a president who wishes to avoid a confrontation during an election year to run out the clock in contravention to what Obama has pledged.
The president’s continued discussion of his desire to press Iran and refusal to let them off the hook ought to have encouraged the Israelis. But given the clear desire of America’s P5+1 negotiating partners — a group that includes Iran’s friends Russia and China — to treat the talks as merely a method for preventing an Israeli attack on Iran, it is difficult to fault Netanyahu for his skepticism about a process that, despite Obama’s comments, seems to have no clear agenda or deadline for success. Indeed, accounts of the meeting seem to have confirmed his fears that the whole point is about defusing tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and creating a process that will continue until well past November.
What is perhaps most discouraging about the accounts of the talks and the preparations for the next meeting is that they do not at all seem informed by the fact that the West has been down the garden path with Iran before. This is not the first diplomatic contact with Iran. Several years of talks dating back to the Bush administration and including President Obama’s ludicrous effort at engagement with Tehran all sought to get the Iranians to export their stockpile of enriched uranium as well as to prevent it from creating more. Each time, the Iranians agreed to the discussions and then even gave the impression that a deal was in place before reneging.
The president has indicated he is aware of this, but by buying into the current process and allowing the Russians and the Chinese an equal say in the negotiations, he has set himself up for a repeat performance. Unless he is prepared to get as tough with his own side in the talks as he claims to want to be with Iran, it is difficult to see how he can prevent a “stalling process” from taking up the entire summer and fall with talks that are not likely to achieve anything. The idea that he will be able to persuade the leaky international coalition he has assembled on behalf of sanctions on Iran to go ahead and embargo oil from the rogue state while he is simultaneously engaged in negotiations with it defies common sense. But if all the president is interested in doing is mollifying American public opinion while putting off an Israeli strike, his strategy makes perfect sense.
While Netanyahu is being criticized for going public with his concerns about the talks, his comments about a “freebie” merely indicate that this diplomatic process fools no one in Jerusalem. Both the Iranians and the president share a desire to kick the can down the road until after the November election. All the tough talk from the White House doesn’t change the fact that there is little reason to believe there will be genuine progress toward eliminating the Iranian threat.