It Was Not a Deadline, It Was a Point on a Calendar

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?

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.