Thirty-eight days past Washington’s January 1 deadline for Iran to respond to frequent calls for negotiations on its nuclear-weapons program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once again thumbed his nose at Barack Obama. Speaking on live TV, the Iranian president told the country’s atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, to “please start 20 percent enrichment” of uranium into nuclear fuel. While both Ahmadinejad and Salehi spoke of the move as part of previously failed negotiations in which the West would accept the continuance of the Iranian program as long as it agreed to exchange its own nuclear material for enriched uranium from another country, the point of the announcement was to force the West to back away from sanctions on Iran. But given the ignominious failure of previous attempts to work out such a deal and, as even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out this weekend, Iran’s clear unwillingness to abide by any such rules, there is no point to talks along these lines.
But Iran’s announcement has a double meaning. While clearly provocative, a New York Times report speculates that it also intended to serve as cover for China and Russia to continue to support further negotiations about fuel exchange so as to avoid United Nations sanctions. The Obama administration wasted much of the past year trying to prove that the president’s belief in “engagement” with rogue regimes was smarter than attempts to confront or isolate them. All that has accomplished is to give the Iranians another year to plan, build, and scheme while undermining the notion that there is anything like an international consensus that will stop them.
There are those who argue that the Iranians are still bluffing with their talk of 20 percent enrichment. We don’t know whether that’s true, but given the way the regime has managed to brutally crush internal dissent, as well as foil Obama’s attempt to get China and Russia to join a sanctions coalition, Ahmadinejad has good reason to be feeling confident these days. At this point, the best the world can hope for is that after several more months of failed diplomacy, perhaps America, Britain, France, and Germany will announce some sort of less-than-crippling-sanctions plan that everyone knows Iran will be able to easily evade. Such a plan will, no doubt, be trumpeted by the administration as a triumph of Obama’s leadership. But the fact remains that his dithering has strengthened Iran’s belief that no one can stop it. All of which means that announcements such as Ahmadinejad’s talk on Iran TV mean that we are yet another day closer to an Iranian nuclear device, something that Barack Obama promised America he would never let happen.