There has been no shortage of foreign-policy disasters in the first year and a half of Barack Obama’s presidency, but nothing has illustrated the administration’s appalling lack of skill in diplomacy more than its amateurish efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program. The latest indication of incompetence was illustrated when the government of Brazil released the full text of a three-page letter sent by Obama to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in April, in which the American commander in chief gave the Brazilian leader the green light to pursue an agreement in which Iran would transfer part of its stockpile of enriched uranium to Turkey. This startling piece of news was buried toward the bottom of a New York Times report on the latest developments in Iranian diplomacy. The article devoted most of its space to new tensions between Tehran and Moscow.
The Iran/Brazil/Turkey deal was a blatant Iranian attempt to derail faltering American efforts to build an international coalition that supports sanctions against Tehran to pressure the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions. It would also not prevent the Iranians from continuing to amass material to build a bomb. This diplomatic freelancing on the part of both Brazil and Turkey was widely seen as a slap in the face to Obama at just the moment that the American president had started to cobble together enough support for a weak sanctions package.
But although both the Brazilians and the Turks deserve the opprobrium that has been heaped on them for allowing Iran’s tyrannical Islamist regime to use them to divert attention away from sanctions efforts, it must be conceded that what they have done isn’t any more foolish than a similar deal that the United States itself tried to make with Iran last fall. That disaster, which came after several months of unsuccessful attempts at engagement with Tehran, fell through after the Iranians embarrassed the administration by reneging on an agreement to transfer uranium. Obama and his foreign-policy team seemingly learned their lesson after this fiasco and finally began to talk about sanctions. To gain tepid Russian support for sanctions, the Obama administration has had to water down its proposals to a point where it is clear that little damage will be done. But after having labored so hard to achieve so little, Washington was clearly outraged by being outflanked by Brazil’s and Turkey’s untimely intervention earlier this month.
But if the mere fact of this new deal wasn’t enough to undermine international support for sanctions, the revelation that Brazil acted with the express written permission of Obama must be seen as a catastrophe for international efforts to restrain Tehran. Why should anyone take American rhetoric about stopping Iran seriously if Obama is now understood to have spent the past few months pushing for sanctions in public while privately encouraging third parties who are trying to appease the Iranians?
What were Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who has spent the last weeks spouting a great deal of tough talk about Iran) thinking when they sent the letter to Lula? Did they take a calculated gamble that the Brazil initiative would fail and that they could make nice with the leftist Lula while not endangering their sanctions campaign? If so, then once again, the wily Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has outwitted Obama and Clinton. Though the Iranians appear to have miscalculated how far they can push their erstwhile Russian allies as they maneuver to buy even more time for their nuclear program, it seems as if they have decided that there is no limit to how far they can push Obama. And after this latest diplomatic embarrassment for the United States, it is hard to argue with them on that point.