In just the latest of what has been a series of featured articles on U.S. policy on Iran all generated by leaks from “senior administration officials,” the New York Times led its front page yesterday with a piece outlining Washington’s nearly unbridled optimism about securing a nuclear deal on Iran. Using the Times as its mouthpiece, the Obama administration again sent a very loud signal about its naïveté about Iran’s determination to realize its nuclear ambitions, and its willingness to start making concessions to the ayatollahs in order to keep negotiations going throughout the rest of the year so as to avoid the necessity of taking action on the issue during the president’s re-election.
The outline of the president’s plans to make the Iran nuclear threat go away is pretty clear. The West’s negotiators at the P5+1 talks in Baghdad later this month will start the process of backing away from the serious sanctions that were belatedly applied to the regime in the hope that the Iranians will consent to a deal that would, at least in principle, halt their refining of uranium that could make a bomb. If the Iranians agree, then that would lead to more frequent meetings during the summer that could culminate in an agreement. But rather than the harbinger of a successful diplomatic offensive, the administration’s decision to present the Iranians with a present in advance of the meeting will only confirm Tehran’s belief in the president’s weakness and give it even more confidence that the talks are the perfect venue to achieve all of their nuclear goals.
In theory, a deal that would remove the stockpile of weapons grade uranium and halt any more production would hamper Iran’s plans for a bomb. But any agreement that leaves those facilities intact, rather than having them dismantled and which would allow the production of more refined uranium, even if it is supposed to be not useful for a bomb, is the sort of framework the Iranians could use to bypass the restrictions. Moreover, any diplomatic process that can be dragged out for many months before it is put into effect will simply allow Iran more time to get closer to a bomb, and at the end of the process, it could, as it has done with previous Western-brokered deals for uranium shipment, simply opt out of the agreement.
The difference, the senior administration officials are telling us, is that the tough sanctions and plans for an oil embargo on Iran have finally brought them to their knees. In this optimistic view of events, recent statements from the Iranians that they have already beaten the West in the talks are just for domestic consumption and designed to make it easier for the regime to sell the concessions they will have to make to a public that views the nuclear program as an expression of nationalism.
But the problem with Iran’s boasting about its diplomatic victories is that their claims are largely correct. They have crossed every “red line” set out by the West — putting nuclear plants online, building heavy water facilities and refining uranium and doing so at grades that could produce weapons, and working on triggers and other devices that have only military applications — and gotten away with it. Any deal that will allow them to keep their nuclear facilities operating and which will scale back sanctions will be an enormous victory for the regime. Such a victory could, without all that much effort to deceive Western inspectors, allow them to continue working toward a nuclear weapon and greatly strengthen it at home.
Those are two things President Obama ought to be worried about but, as even his cheerleaders at the Times have noticed, he has other priorities:
For President Obama, the stakes are huge. A successful meeting could prolong the diplomatic dance with Tehran, delaying any possible military confrontation over the nuclear program until after the presidential election. It could also keep a lid on oil prices, which fell again this week in part because of the decrease in tensions. Lower gasoline prices would aid the economic recovery in the United States, and Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects.
But while prolonging “the diplomatic dance” will aid the president’s re-election prospects, it also very much plays into Tehran’s goals. So long as the talks go on, an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is out of the question. And though some administration officials have made noises about America’s contingency plans for an attack, it’s difficult to see why Iran would take such talk seriously so long as “senior administration officials” are promising them lollipops even before the Baghdad talks start. Once re-elected, the president will, as he has said in other contexts, have the “flexibility” to change his mind about some issues. Iran has little reason to believe they are in any danger as long as they can keep Washington dancing. And as the president and his foreign policy team have made clear, they have no intention of stopping.