After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.
With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.
All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.
As TIME notes, only Obama knows for sure whether he really will make good on his pledges to use every possible option, including war, to stop Iran. But the appointment of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon was not something that was geared to make the Iranians believe the president means what he says. They are hoping to drag out the talks over time, and the promise of even more open-ended negotiations after this week could hardly have persuaded them to alter that strategy.
Indeed, the new talks repeated the patterns of past negotiations in which Western concessions were made to get a deal that would not conclusively end the nuclear threat. The current P5+1 position would leave the Iranians plenty of room to maneuver and to cheat on their promises—as the North Koreans did before they got their bomb.
The Iranians have convinced the West and even the Israelis that they have more time than they thought they had last year before it is too late to spike the nuclear program. But even if we assume that the West has until the fall or even next spring to talk the Iranians down from the nuclear ledge, nothing they have done—including tough economic sanctions—seems to have really gotten Iran to believe they have no choice but to surrender their nukes.
If President Obama wants Iran to take him seriously he needs to change his diplomatic posture, not double down on a policy of engagement that only serves to make the ayatollahs think he is a paper tiger. If he is to disabuse them of that belief, the president needs to do something in the coming months that makes clear that the U.S. is ready to strike. But with Hagel, whom Obama appears to trust, having replaced his predecessor Robert Gates as the leading proponent of containment in the administration, the odds of doing so are not good.
Even if one believes the TIME story about the president’s intentions, he needs to understand the threat of American force is only credible if the other side believes in it. After ensnaring the West in a new round of dead-end negotiations, it’s hard to blame the Iranians if they think they have nothing to worry about.