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Obama’s Iranian Rubicon

As we noted yesterday, the celebratory tone of a senior Iranian figure about all his country has achieved in the negotiations with the West should scare those Americans who have been speaking with confidence about the Obama administration’s determination to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Despite the brave talk from the president, the Iranians are right to think they’ve got him on the run. Since the Iranians have crossed every red line intended to halt their progress, they can’t be blamed for thinking that the next round of talks or the ones that follow as the process drags out over the summer will ultimately lead to Western recognition of not only the legitimacy of their nuclear program but also their right to refine uranium. Indeed, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in charge of the talks and with France no longer led by a president who is committed to a strong policy on Iran, it is difficult to imagine any other outcome at this point.

All of which puts the public concerns expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the negotiating process that provoked the scorn of President Obama and much of the chattering classes in both the United States and Israel and in a very different light. Though the consensus in the foreign policy establishment is that much more time must be given to let diplomacy work, if this is the direction in which the talks are heading, Netanyahu is to be forgiven for thinking the Iranians have played the West for suckers.

President Obama took umbrage when Netanyahu said that it appeared that the first round of the P5+1 talks resulted in negotiators giving away “freebies” to Tehran’s envoys. But with Iran virtually declaring victory even before the next scheduled gathering in Baghdad later this month, that may turn out to be a generous evaluation.

This also lends credence to those who believe President Obama never had any attention of taking action on the nuclear threat but was merely talking tough for the benefit of pro-Israel voters while the diplomatic process enabled him to stall until he is re-elected and thereby have the “flexibility” to accept a policy of containment. This thesis holds that the only purpose of the talks was to prevent Israel from attacking Iran on its own.

However, if we accept the premise that the president is sincere in his desire to forestall an Iranian bomb (the point of view championed by Jewish Democrats and other Obama admirers), the coming talks present a peculiar challenge for the administration.

President Obama has taken great pride in having assembled an international coalition to oppose Iran, but now that this group is involved in talks with Iran, he is also its prisoner. The United States may have no intention of acquiescing to Iran’s demands about refinement or stepping back from the harsh sanctions that were belatedly placed on Tehran. But if the EU, Russia and China are all prepared to accept a deal that will enable Iran to continue its nuclear program, the president is going to be faced with a difficult choice. He will either have to repudiate the deal that Ashton and the other parties want to cut with Iran (and thereby embrace the sort of American unilateralism that he sought to replace when he succeed President Bush) or go along with something that he knows will present a grave threat to U.S. security. And, contrary to both the hopes of his friends and the fears of his detractors, he may not be able to put off crossing his Iranian Rubicon until after the election.

The only way to avoid such a choice is to do something that the president is equally uncomfortable with: exercising international leadership. Allowing Ashton it run the show in Baghdad is very much in keeping with the president’s predilection for “leading from behind.” But unless he gets directly involved in this process, he is going to be stuck with an indefensible deal that will give the lie to every statement he’s ever made on Iran. The coming weeks will tell us a lot about whether the president meant what he said about Iran or if he is able or willing to derail a negotiation that is heading inexorably toward an Iranian triumph.


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