Along with the leaders of Britain and France, President Obama was forced today to take time out of the G-8 Summit to react to the announcement that Iran has been building a secret underground plant to manufacture nuclear fuel. What followed was the announcement that Iran had a deadline of two months to comply with international demands to halt its nuclear program or it would face sanctions. This makes it sound as if real pressure is about to be ratcheted up on Tehran. Supposedly, this means that unless the Iranians allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct an immediate inspection of the facility, the West will press for new, tougher sanctions on Iran. Obama hopes that his recent appeasement of Russia by breaking faith with Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense will mean that the Putin/Medvedev regime will finally play along on sanctions and drag the Chinese with them.
It’s a nice theory, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fresh off another vile Holocaust-denying speech at the United Nations, may not exactly be shaking in his boots about the prospect of Western resolve. Years of feckless Western diplomacy (outsourced by the Bush administration to France and Germany) did nothing but convince the Iranians that no one outside of Israel was serious about stopping them. And after months of outreach from the Obama administration, including an astonishingly weak response to their brazen theft of a presidential election and brutal crackdown on dissidents, it’s not clear that the threat of sanctions is one the Iranians take seriously.
As for what would happen after the two months if the deadline is not adhered to, Tehran understands all too well that the negotiations between the United States, its Western allies, and Iran’s erstwhile friends in Moscow and Beijing would be long, tedious, and likely to produce something short of the draconian measures necessary to produce significant leverage.
Just as important is that the two-month deadline, though seemingly indicative of some spine on behalf of the West, is hardly the sort of ultimatum likely to spur panic among the leaders of the Islamist regime. It is, in fact, not the first multi-month deadline Iran has recently received. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Israel over the summer, he attempted to placate his anxious hosts by saying that America had given Tehran only until the United Nations General Assembly to respond to Obama’s overtures before the clock would start on stronger sanctions. So, far from being the harbinger of a new era of resolve on the issue, the new two-month deadline is in effect an extension on the previous demand placed on Iran. This must lead Ahmadinejad to reason that no matter what his government does or doesn’t do between now and the end of November, it may be a reasonable bet that this date will be merely the beginning of a new period during which Washington will say diplomacy must be given just one more chance.
We may hope that Obama’s rhetoric today is the beginning of a new era of American seriousness about the threat from Iranian nukes. But when seen in the context of what has recently preceded it, and the clear preference on the part of the president and our allies for “engagement” rather than action on the issue, optimism in Tehran about their chances of further successful defiance of international opinion may well be justified.