Just a few weeks ago I started to become increasingly confident in the Obama administration’s Iran policy. The Obama/Sarkozy/Brown Qum facility proclamation put the world on notice that the US was ready to deal with an Iran regime seeking nuclear weapons. This public outing was to be followed by face-to-face negotiations with strong economic sanctions on the immediate horizon. The New York Times and US State Department believed that Russia was to be on board with this, a key factor. Though I’ve always been skeptical of Iranian intentions for negotiations and even more so of Moscow’s actual intentions to put real pressure on Tehran, it felt that the Obama administration had things laid out to give the process a fighting chance. Well, unfortunately, it appears that the US is already on the mat. Not knocked out by no means, but dizzy and looking for a new direction.
Though it was the Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev, who weeks ago stated that ‘sometimes sanctions are inevitable’, it was the real movers of Moscow’s foreign policy Prime Minister Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov who have the final say and they said it today. Sanctions are ‘counterproductive’ to them as long as negotiations are underway. In other words, ‘No’. This policy stance could change in the future, but not likely. What would it take anyway? Moscow knows as much as anybody about Iran’s secret nuclear sites, missile launches, and empty negotiating tactics and none of this has changed their mind. It appears that not even Obama’s removal of missile defenses and security pacts with the Czech Republic and Poland have swayed the Russian Bear from its obdurate position. The US may have pressed ‘Reset’, but Moscow’s been on ‘Play’ this entire time.
So what’s the big deal? The US can negotiate for a time and then bring in the sanctions, right? Wrong Rhetorical Pat. There’s a thing called leverage and right now its all on Iran’s side. Conservative Peter Feaver at Shadow Government summed up the dilemma well:
“We can’t do sanctions, the Russians explained, because that would undermine negotiations. As long as the negotiations are ongoing, the Russians will block sanctions. All the Iranian regime has to do to keep sanctions at bay is to string the negotiations along. As was foreseeable, Team Obama is trapped negotiating with the Iranian regime without significant leverage and without much prospect of additional leverage. This does not guarantee failure, but it does guarantee that the Iranian regime has the strongest possible hand and that the U.S. hole card, the evidence of Iranian duplicity revealed at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, has been played to minimal effect.”
Contrary to what many believe, the US has, in one way another, been negotiating with Iran over the nuclear issue for years and the only thing it has lead to is more negotiations. I worry that with the Qum and missile shield placement cards already played, the Obama administration is running out of options. I’m not the only one either. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen of the Washington Post states:
“For a crisis such as this, the immense prestige of the American presidency ought to be held in reserve. Let the secretary of state issue grave warnings. When Obama said in Pittsburgh that Iran is “going to have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice,” it had the sound of an ultimatum. But what if the Iranians don’t? What then? A president has to be careful with such language. He better mean what he says.”
This was written weeks ago. I doubt Cohen’s feelings have changed much. The Iranian nuclear situation is probably the Obama administration’s most arduous tasks (at least one that does not involve thousands of US troops) and the chances for success were always very low, but it has featured a growing trend of ultimatums unmet, threats without consequences, in other words, empty words. There is still time and I must trust that administration has a few more tricks up its sleeves, but my skepticism (and the country’s) grows nevertheless.