The latest feeler from Iran about negotiating an end to their nuclear standoff with the West appears to have been slapped away rather quickly by the Obama administration. That’s a hopeful sign for those who have worried that a desperate desire to back away from the confrontation would lead Washington to buy into any deal, no matter how bad it might be. The Iranian offer would have required the West to drop the existing sanctions against the country in exchange for minimal concessions that would have allowed Tehran to restart its nuclear push at the drop of a hat. But having fended off Israeli calls for establishing red lines about Iran with such trouble, such an act of craven appeasement from the president isn’t in the cards. At least not in the foreseeable future, that is.
Though they can have few illusions about getting even the most tractable Western negotiators to accept such a bad bargain, the Iranians should be even more confident than ever that the U.S. is uninterested in joining or even condoning an Israeli military strike to take out their nuclear facilities. That’s because the demonstrations this week in Tehran over the collapse of the rial may have had the unintended effect of encouraging both Americans and Israelis to believe that the sanctions are not only working but could conceivably force the Iranian government to give up their nuclear goal or even force a change in regime. Even though such scenarios are far-fetched at best, they may serve to reinforce the Obama administration’s reluctance to go beyond the existing plan. Thus, rather than helping to topple the Islamist regime or even to weaken its nuclear resolve, the demonstrations may actually wind up helping the ayatollahs achieve their nuclear ambition.
The unrest in Iran is a clear manifestation of the pain being felt by ordinary Iranians as a result of the sanctions. But that pain is not being shared by the government. As the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported, far from slowing down its efforts, the regime has increased the pace of development of their nuclear project this year as the sanctions were belatedly imposed by the United States. Though they cannot be pleased by the violence in Tehran, there should be little doubt about the willingness of the Islamist clerics who run the country to shed blood in order to preserve their hold on power. Having withstood a far greater challenge in the summer of 2009 when they stole the presidential election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while President Obama was silent, they are not likely to loose their nerve now when they are getting closer to a bomb.
The latest feeler from Tehran may have just been for show, but it is possible that the Iranians hope that once the presidential election is over they may find President Obama adopting a more “flexible approach” to them. The danger is not that the U.S. and its European negotiating partners will succumb to such a non-offer from Iran prior to November or even after it. But so long as Washington holds on to the hope that negotiations can avert the nuclear threat, the Iranians are going to keep prevaricating and seeking to string their antagonists along while their centrifuges keep spinning.
The administration may have quieted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the moment, but the more confident they are about the success of the partially enforced sanctions already in place, the more likely it is that they will sooner or later have to listen to his advice and contemplate sterner action. If Washington makes the mistake of underestimating the Islamist regime or overestimating the impact of the sanctions, the next president is going to be faced with two unpalatable choices: using force or acquiescing in a nuclear Iran.