President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.
But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.
But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.
It is entirely plausible to argue, as Aaron David Miller does in Foreign Policy today, that it would be very difficult if not impossible for President Obama to get away with an accord with Iran that would enable the Iranians to continue on their nuclear path. After the Syria fiasco where his indecisiveness led him to hand a victory to Russia and its ally Bashar Assad, the president can’t afford to “play the fool” on Iran. He has staked his credibility on the issue. Given his domestic political problems and the growing signs that he is becoming a lame duck, Obama would also be foolish to pick another fight with Israel and its supporters. Moreover, even with the press and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheering the idea of backing away from confrontation with Iran, as Miller notes, “the mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables.”
So what’s wrong with making nice with Rouhani and giving diplomacy another try? Plenty.
It should first be understood what Iran is seeking to accomplish. Their primary goal is to separate the U.S. from Europe on the nuclear issue. The Europeans have always been more eager to compromise with Iran than the U.S., and if they can weaken international support for the economic sanctions that were belatedly implemented by President Obama, they will do so. They also want to drive a wedge between Obama and the Israelis.
Equally important is that after repeatedly demonstrating their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, the Iranians’ charm offensive looks like it will gain them more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The Iranians are past masters at drawing out diplomatic proceedings and one should expect that the talks that Obama and Kerry say must be “swift” would undoubtedly drag on for many months and perhaps longer than that, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. The president is already prepared to wait until mid-October for an Iranian response to his outreach. That will be followed by more delays that will lead us into 2014 and beyond.
Then there is also the damage the willingness to buy into Rouhani’s faux moderation does to the Western consensus about eventually holding Iran accountable. His defenders argue that by giving diplomacy more chances, he will strengthen his ability to increase sanctions or even use force once the initiative is seen to have failed. But in the world of Barack Obama, diplomacy never really fails even if that is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from events. Each diplomatic failure will lead to another try that will also fail with the only result being that more time will be wasted, just as the president wasted his first five years in office on tactics that played into Tehran’s hands. Moreover, having allowed Rouhani to get away with playing the moderate even when it is obvious that this is a ruse, the president feeds the perception that Iran is the victim of Western pressure rather than a sponsor of terrorism that is seeking to expand the reach of its tyrannical regime.
So even if an administration desperate for a compromise solution is unlikely to get one from Rouhani, the charm offensive is still working very nicely to achieve Iranian goals. The danger here is not so much a deal but the delays that will bring us that much closer to an Iranian bomb.