Commentary Magazine


Has Iran’s Maliki Ploy Hooked Obama?

After several years of vowing to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, President Obama has painted himself into a corner. Every one of his diplomatic initiatives intended to persuade or pressure the Iranians into halting their nuclear quest have failed ignominiously. From his laughable attempt at “engagement” to his assembling of an international coalition in support of sanctions on Iran to the latest failure of the P5+1 talks, the result has always followed the same pattern. The Iranians always welcome each new attempt at outreach, allow the United States to invest time and effort in the effort, and then, like the Peanuts cartoon character Lucy invariably did to Charlie Brown, snatch the football away just when the U.S. thought it was about to reach its goal. But experience is only helpful if you are willing to learn from your mistakes, and it looks as if the administration is about to play Charlie Brown again.

The election of a new supposedly moderate president was already being used by those who were eager to go down the garden path with Iran as an excuse for more pointless diplomacy, but now it appears that Tehran is using its close ally in charge of Iraq to convince the United States that it’s ready for direct talks. As the New York Times reports this morning, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki was the conduit for a message from the ayatollahs that they were ready to open up a new round of nuclear negotiations. But in the absence of any change in Iran’s position on the issue in hand, the eagerness of the administration to jump at the chance for direct talks says more about their desire to avoid having to make good on the president’s promise than it does about the possibility of actually stopping the nuclear threat. The odds that this scheme is anything other than one more Iranian ruse designed to win them more time to build their program are slim.

Maliki is in the unique position of being friendly with both the U.S. and Iran and his involvement in the setup is likely to lend credence to the initiative in Washington’s eyes. That is especially true since, according to the Times, Maliki is claiming that his information about the regime’s thinking comes from the inner circle of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not from those close to new President Hassan Rowhani, who lacks real power.

However, the Iranians’ goal, as they made clear during the most recent round of negotiations with the West, is not to achieve even a favorable compromise that would enable them to retain their nuclear program–as might have happened had they followed through with administration’s 2009 attempt to forge an agreement on nuclear fuel that they eventually reneged on. All Tehran wants is a respite from the sanctions that, while not impeding its ability or desire to continue nuclear research and development, have harmed its economy and lowered the Iranian people’s standard of living. Obama has shown himself eager to make a deal on terms that while technically making an Iranian weapon impossible would leave in place a nuclear program that would, with the inevitable cheating and deceptions that will follow such negotiations, lead in the long run to the same result that the world has been trying to forestall.

The Iranians are past masters of manipulating the United States. They’ve been doing it to the West since long before Obama became president. For more than a decade, Khamenei has risked his nation’s economy and deepened its diplomatic isolation in order to achieve its nuclear ambition. Everything he and his regime have done and said would lead any rational person to believe that Iran is merely looking to play the same game again and to prolong negotiations—or, rather, the pretense of negotiations—for as long as possible.

President Obama’s willingness to embrace this latest plot as an actual chance for a solution is a crucial hint that tells us he is inching his way back toward a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran despite his campaign promise (issued at the 2012 annual conference of AIPAC) never to do so. Should the U.S. fall for the Maliki ploy hook, line, and sinker as it appears to be doing, it will involve what may be many months, if not more than a year, of more dead-end talks that will leave us back in the same position we are in today. The only difference is that by then it may be too late to credibly use the threat of force—which Obama insists is still on the table—in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Observing the way the U.S. appears to be falling in line with the machinations of Iran’s leaders is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. We know there is little doubt about the outcome but still somehow hope against hope that it can be prevented. If President Obama truly intends to keep his word on Iran, this may be the last chance for him to alter course. If he doesn’t, there may be no turning back.

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