President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.
The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.
But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.
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.
The Iranian nuclear threat has been on the back burner in recent months, as first the United States and now Israel have been distracted by elections. But the reported comments of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during a visit to India about Tehran’s interest in another round of talks with the West are sure to revive the hopes of those who believe in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” to resolve the issue.
But the question to be asked about this is not so much whether there will be more talks but whether both the Iranians and their Western negotiating partners have the same motive for continuing what can only be described as the charade of a diplomatic process. If President Obama is prepared to engage in a repeat of last year’s P5+1 fiasco that took up the better part of a year doing nothing but allowing the Iranians to get that much closer to their nuclear goal, then it will be difficult to argue that he is not doing the same thing as the Iranians: stalling until it is too late to do anything about an Iranian bomb.