There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.
Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.
The ayatollah’s cutting and sinister remarks about any Iranian who might consider talking with the Americans illustrates how deeply committed the government is to the nuclear program. He also gave a not-so-subtle hint about what would happen to any official who was foolish enough to think of compromising either on nukes or on warming up relations with the United States:
“I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” he said. “If anyone wants the return of U.S. dominance here, people will grab his throat.”
This puts a period on the notion of a new engagement policy in Iran that might have relieved President Obama of the obligation to make good on his promises about Iran. Negotiations might have yielded some sort of accord that might have been able to be represented as a victory for U.S. policy even if it fell short of actually removing the Iranian nuclear threat in the long run. But Khamenei’s contempt for Obama is so complete that he will not deign to negotiate directly with him. Instead, he seems to believe that if he sticks to his position on the nuclear question, he can eventually run out the clock through multilateral talks via the P5+1 group in which Russia and China will prevent anyone from applying real pressure on Tehran.
Khamenei can hardly be blamed for thinking the administration isn’t serious about rejecting any thought of containing them rather than forestalling their nuclear program via force even as a last resort. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense—a man who not only opposes force and supports containment but also can’t even be counted on to lie persuasively about it during his confirmation hearing—may have persuaded them that the president never meant what he said about Iran throughout his re-election campaign. The Iranians also read the American press and know that one of the rising figures in the Republican Party—Rand Paul—also supports containment.
The Iranian confidence that they can ignore American threats puts the administration in a pickle. The president will not pull the plug on the next round of P5+1 talks but even he knows that effort will never yield success. But he now knows, even if he didn’t before, that Khamenei would never yield on the nuclear question. Sooner or later that leaves him with either containment or force as his only two options on Iran. Given the consequences of allowing Iran to go nuclear, let’s hope he hasn’t been bluffing all along about leaving no option off the table.