Iran test Obama, it looks like he will flunk

Robert Kagan:

Watching the Obama administration launch its "new era of engagement" over the past 10 months, most seasoned observers have pondered two questions: First, if engagement fails, will the Obama team ever acknowledge that it has failed? And what then?

The first question is about to be answered. The main object of the "new era of engagement," Iran, has settled back into its old game-playing. The joint proposal agreed to by the United States, France and Russia, to have Iran ship 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia this year, was a compromise, as administration officials acknowledge. It might theoretically have delayed Iran's bomb program by a year or so -- assuming we know everything about that program -- and thus bought some time to get a better and more definitive agreement with Tehran. But it would not have stopped Iran from continuing to enrich uranium, which has been the goal of the United States and Europe for the better part of a decade. The deal, blessed and promoted by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, not exactly a hawk, was really more a test of Iran's intentions than a decisive breakthrough.

So now the test results are in: Iran's intentions, it seems, are not good. Tehran apparently will not accept the deal but will propose an alternate plan, agreeing to ship smaller amounts of low-enriched uranium to Russia gradually over a year. Even if Iran carried out this plan as promised -- every month would be an adventure to see how much, if anything, Iran shipped -- the slow movement of small amounts of low-enriched uranium does not accomplish the original purpose, since Iran can quickly replace these amounts with new low-enriched uranium produced by its centrifuges. Iran's nuclear clock, which the Obama administration hoped to stop or at least slow, would continue ticking at close to its regular speed.

Tehran is obviously probing to see whether President Obama can play hardball or whether he can be played. If Obama has any hope of getting anywhere with the mullahs, he needs to show them he means business, now, and immediately begin imposing new sanctions.

And what about Russia, that other great object of the "new era of engagement"? Administration officials claim to have won Moscow's agreement to join in sanctions should Iran refuse to make a deal, and Obama paid in advance for cooperation by acquiescing to Moscow's demand to cancel planned missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic.


The case can be made that Russia is already playing Obama too. Russia has shown no seriousness in dealing with Iran. I get the impression Russia rather enjoys the way Iran is toying with Obama. If Russia was really serious it would not hesitate to join in threatened sanctions. Instead, Russia acts as if threatened sanctions would be an impediment to a deal. That is a strange position since it would suggest to Iran that there will be no negative consequences to failing to reach a deal. In fact Iran is acting just as if there are none.

Kagan's analysis is the situation is one of the best I have seen. Hopefully, someone in the administration has similar insights.


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