Since the minute he set foot in the White House, President Obama has pursued one foreign policy objective with uncharacteristic clarity and focus: avoiding war with Iran. Whatever the merits of the goal, the approach has actually been a narrow success.
Now, however, all the president’s work is in danger of going down the drain.
The peril arises from the latest twist in America’s long-running negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Facing pressure from the left and the right, the White House has focused almost exclusively on multilateral talks that rope in the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five members, plus Germany.
That makes a certain amount of sense. Republicans don’t want bilateral talks; Democrats don’t want the U.S. to go it alone; the world’s major powers want a say, too. But there was always serious concern about whether Russia and China would ever really side with the West over their sometimes hard-to-manage allies in Tehran.
Surprisingly, that’s not why the nuclear meetings almost fell apart. In a last-ditch effort, negotiators have managed to extend talks four months, resuming in September. It’s a last gasp. Despite the extra time, Iran seems completely intransigent on the key issue — its number of uranium-enriching centrifuges.
All Iran’s negotiating partners, including Russia and China, agree that Iran’s demands on enrichment are unacceptable. They agree that Iran should have no more than 10,000 so-called “separate work units” devoted to enriching uranium. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei just announced that only 190,000 will do, calling the massive number an “absolute need.”
It’s just the latest Iranian tactic to drag out negotiations while keeping them on the brink of collapse. The mullahs have been at it for about a decade, and though they’ve had to suffer crippling economic sanctions, they’ve gradually gained themselves some breathing room.
In the interest of keeping talks going, President Obama eased those sanctions last year. According to one recent study, the change produced more than an 8 percent swing in Iran’s gross domestic product — from a drop of more than 6 percent the prior fiscal year to a 2 percent gain.
For most of Mr. Obama’s presidency, the benefits of keeping an uneasy peace with Iran outweighed the costs. Very few Americans would have supported a war during Obama’s first term, when our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan were still substantial. Today, voters aren’t isolationist, but they are now broadly turned off by our recent military conflicts — and in no hurry to add new ones.
Nevertheless, America and its negotiating partners are now in a position where all the talk, sanctions and strategizing will amount to nothing. The president’s approach bought us time to develop a new Mideast strategy. Instead, the administration fell asleep at the switch, and the Islamic State straddling Syria and Iraq has changed the game. Iran knows the geopolitical momentum is in its favor. When talks hit a dead end in four months, will the U.S. lead its partners in meting out consequences? That’s a question President Obama must be prepared to answer well.
From the Milwaukee Jounral Sentinel