Jonathan, even before Obama’s December 31 deadline got thrown down the memory hole, the administration signaled that it was not a deadline. At the December 22 daily press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley had this colloquy with reporters:
QUESTION: … Come the beginning of the year, are you going to move towards imposing new sanctions against Iran?
MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t put a particular date or deadline on this. This is an ongoing process. … I would think at some point, we would be in a position to take some action with our partners through the various fora that are available to us.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, could you just — can you just kind of specify or put a finer point on “at some point?” … I understand that on January 1st you’re not going to have sanctions to impose, but you keep saying at some point down the road, at some point down the road. …
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, this is where it’s always been, which is we have a two-track strategy. One track is engagement, one track is pressure. And these have never been mutually exclusive. …
QUESTION: Given that this deadline seems to be a little bit soft, do you think in the future you’ll —
MR. CROWLEY: Let me just — Andy, sorry to interrupt you, but what we have always said throughout the year was that at the end of the year we would assess where we are. But that’s not a deadline; it’s a point in a calendar at which the President said, okay, where are we and what are the steps that are available to us.
The nature of a deadline is that if action is not taken by that point in a calendar, something happens or something is lost: an offer previously made is taken off the table, or a consequence established for inaction takes effect as promised. Deadlines are, as Obama memorably said in another context, the only way to get things done.
For the Obama administration, however, neither aspect of a deadline applies when it comes to Iran. Even though December 31 has passed, Iran is still free to accept the administration’s offer at any time. It thus can, if it chooses (and why would it not choose?), simply wait and watch to see if the administration can get its threatened sanctions formulated; or if formulated, agreed upon by allies; or if agreed upon by allies, agreed upon by both Russia and China; or if agreed upon by everyone “in principle,” actually enacted in practice; or if actually enacted, actually enforced; or if actually enforced, actually be effective — all before Iran passes the nuclear threshold. With no real deadline, Iran has no real reason to decide.
Nor will the second aspect of a deadline apply: there will be no significant consequences for Iran’s failure to act over a period now approaching a year. Iran will not even receive a new “deadline.” The president will just say, “Okay, where are we?” And it is not even clear how serious he is about that — he has not yet even scheduled any seminars.
Iran can see that one hand will remain outstretched indefinitely, whether its fist remains clenched or not, and that in Obama’s other hand is . . . nothing. His deadline was only a point on a calendar.