Commentary Magazine


Obama and Iran’s Nuclear Red Line

Iran is feeling cocky right now and who can blame them? The replacement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani as regime front man not only improved their imaged but also was enough to trick the West into restarting negotiations aimed at stopping their nuclear program. The assumption in Washington, London and Paris is that Rouhani’s new role means that a decade of diplomatic failure is about to end as Iran finally behaves reasonably and agrees to halt their drive to obtain a nuclear weapon. Tehran’s long record of using diplomacy as a delaying tactic rather than a path to a solution ought to inspire caution on the part of the P5+1 group that will reassemble in Geneva this week in order to pick up where they left off after the last round of talks failed. But, as I wrote last week, the warnings issued by Britain and France to Israel that Jerusalem should be prepared for a deal that will leave Iran still in possession of a working nuclear infrastructure may be a sign that the West may be so committed to ending the standoff that any deal will do.

But that conclusion doesn’t seem to be limited to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu whose warnings about Iran’s real intentions have led to his isolation. The Iranians appear to be thinking along the same lines if the latest pronouncement from one of their spokesmen is any indication. Reuters reports that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi made it clear on Iranian TV that the regime has its own nuclear “red line:”

Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line.

This is no minor detail. If Iran isn’t going to allow the removal of enriched uranium, then a nuclear accord will be one that will be easily evaded and make the entire process a mockery. That makes it imperative that President Obama and other Western leaders show some spine at the talks even if they are desperate to use Rouhani as an excuse to back away from confrontation.

It should be understood that any nuclear deal that leaves Iran’s nuclear program in place is an invitation to a repeat of what happened when the West tried to use diplomacy to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. Anything short of a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure including its plutonium project as well as the well-documented enrichment of uranium will simply delay the Islamist regime’s push toward a weapon. But if Iran is allowed to not only keep its nuclear plants operating — ostensibly to give the oil-rich nation a new source of energy — but to keep the enriched uranium inside their borders, the diplomatic process will be revealed to be a scam whose only purpose is to allow the West to pretend to be doing something about the problem.

By stating its “red line” in this manner, the Iranians are challenging President Obama. The administration’s rhetoric on the Iranian threat has been consistently strong even though it has not been matched by actions that are aimed at achieving its goals. For five years, its attempts at engagement and diplomacy have failed miserably even as the president continued to insist that there was still time to try again. But now that the P5+1 talks are about to resume and with happy talk about Rouhani’s beneficent influence on Iranian policy the conventional wisdom of the day, the president will be put to a test that will allow us to finally assess the sincerity of his pronouncements on the issue. If Iran is allowed to get away with keeping its red lines on enriched uranium or is permitted to drag out the talks on such a false premise as the U.S. puts off toughening economic sanctions, it will no longer be possible to argue that he is serious about stopping Tehran.