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Obama’s Waiting Until Fall to Think About Getting Tough with Iran

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Israel today, where the Israeli government was eager to get as much as possible out of him on Iran. Gates is considered the most friendly toward Israel among all of Obama’s cabinet senior members and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was expected to push him to make a statement assuring Israel that there is more to Washington’s approach to Tehran’s nuclear threat than a confused call for “engagement” and lukewarm support for sanctions.

But it is doubtful that Ayatollah Khamenei or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are shaking in their shoes at the rhetoric Gates used in either Jerusalem or in Amman, Jordan. Claiming that Israel and the U.S. see eye-to-eye on the Iranian issue, the Jerusalem Post reports that Gates said:

If the engagement process is not successful, the United States is prepared to press for significant additional sanctions.

Acknowledging that the current policy of mild sanctions, which actually dates back to George W. Bush’s weak position on Iran, hasn’t worked, Gates said that if engagement fails, “We would try to get international support for a much tougher position,” and that “Our hope remains that Iran would respond to the president’s outstretched hand in a positive and constructive way, but we’ll see.”

The good news about this situation is that Gates said Obama’s belief in engagement is “not an open-ended offer” and that they were aware that Iran has been trying (successfully) to “run out the clock” on diplomacy to buy time for its nuclear ambitions. Gates said that Obama was hoping for “some kind of response” from Iran before the U.N. General Assembly meets this fall and that sanctions were a possibility if diplomacy failed. He also repeated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer of a “defense umbrella” to shelter Israel and moderate Arab states from Iran’s nukes.

The bad news is that if Obama’s team thinks this is the sort of talk that will serve as a tough signal to scare the Iranian regime into backing down on their nuclear program, then they are kidding themselves. Obama has been reaching out to Iran since he took office in January. The result has been a big fat nothing in the way of even the faintest signal from Tehran of a willingness to talk sense about nuclear development. Nor did the regime respond via diplomacy to Obama’s feckless dithering about the stolen Iranian presidential election and the repression of dissent there.

The loose talk in Washington over the past few months about supposedly trading a tougher stand on Iran in exchange for Israeli concessions on settlements can also only have convinced Tehran that Obama isn’t serious. Indeed, the Iranians would be forgiven for interpreting the talk about U.S. defense shields for Israel as a signal that the administration has no intention of keeping the president’s campaign promises not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

One thing this statement does accomplish is to start a new clock running in addition to the one already ticking toward the day Ahmadinejad announces nuclear success. The countdown until the General Assembly gives Obama a few months of breathing room during which he can still act as if diplomacy had a real chance of working. The problem is that nothing that has happened before either on Obama’s part or on the Iranians’ would lead any reasonable person to believe that real progress toward ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions is realistic. Moreover, if work toward tougher sanctions cannot start until after October, given the difficulty of achieving international support for even minimal sanctions on this issue, what Obama has done is exactly what Gates said he doesn’t want to do: give the Iranians more time to build nukes while the rest of the world waits.

No one who understands the existential threat Iran poses to Israel and to the stability of the Middle East ought to feel good about any of this.

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