The Magazine

Obama's Iran Formula

Speak timidly and don't carry a stick.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When Barack Obama strode on stage to scold Iran for its failure to disclose the existence of a second uranium-enrichment facility in the country, his message was timid and at times almost apologetic. When the tough language came, it was because French president Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the podium. Sarkozy excoriated the Iranians for their deception, saying that the revelations have caused "a very severe confidence crisis" and issued a time-specific warning about oft-threatened (but never implemented) sanctions. "We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the centrifuges are spinning," he declared. "If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be imposed."

In fact, it was the third time in a week that Sarkozy had been tougher than the U.S. president on nuclear issues. Earlier in the week, the French president had insisted that the United States strengthen language in a non-proliferation resolution before the U.N. Security Council and admonished other world leaders for addressing nuclear issues without focusing their discussion on Iran and North Korea.

British prime minister Gordon Brown joined Obama and Sarkozy for the statement Friday. He, too, was stern. "The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve."

Obama should have been taking notes. Three times in his brief statement Obama used bizarre couplets to soften his already gentle critique of the Iranian regime:

As the international community knows, this is not the first time that Iran has concealed information about its nuclear program. Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people.

And:

It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations. We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue through the P5+1 negotiations.

And:

To put it simply: Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and make clear it is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations. We have offered Iran a clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations, and that offer stands.

The offer stands? Iran has been caught lying about its nuclear program three times in the last decade. The mullahs fixed the June 12 election and violently suppressed the brave Iranians who had the audacity to say so. The Iranian regime is continuing to train, fund, and arm terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan whose primary purpose is the killing of American soldiers. And the U.S. State Department considers Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terror.

For another American president, any one of these things might be cause to seek the destabilization of the regime, and all of them together might be cause to seek its removal. Not for Obama. He is determined to pursue "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," as he has put it. On Friday, a senior administration official briefed reporters shortly after the statement. The official referred to the October 1 negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group (made up of the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) as an "opportunity" for Iran. "This is going to be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate that it's willing to address the very serious concerns that have been raised about its intentions in the nuclear area." At one point, the official called the upcoming talks a "test" for Iran.

But of course Iran has failed this test before-and dozens of others. It failed this test repeatedly under the Bush administration, as it steadfastly refused to address any of the concerns that have been raised about its intentions with its nuclear program. And it failed it two weeks ago, when it submitted a defiant 10-page response to international community demands that it suspend uranium enrichment and return to the negotiating table.

The fundamental problem with the Obama administration's approach to Iran is that it treats the nature of the regime as an unknown. Back in June, after a week of mayhem and murder by the regime in the streets of Tehran, Obama said: "I'm very concerned, based on some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made, that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching. And how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is-and is not."

He was right. And the signal was clear to everyone but those determined to ignore it: The Iranian regime is corrupt, despotic, and willing to use terror internally and externally to achieve its goals. And the lesson of its repeated lies about its nuclear program is equally clear: The Iranian regime will stop at nothing to acquire nuclear weapons.

In some respects, the news of the second Iranian facility makes it harder for Obama to pretend that the Iranian regime is something it's not. And one line in particular from his statement Friday would seem to complicate his engagement-at-all-costs strategy. "The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

It is a line that the U.S. intelligence community would not allow George W. Bush to use. Although Western intelligence services had been looking at this facility for years, they had been unable-or unwilling-to draw conclusions about its purpose. When Obama was first briefed on the facility-as president-elect-the CIA had not determined that the facility was for the production of highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

We are left with many questions. What, if anything, changed? Was there new intelligence? If so, what is it? If not, why did the CIA change its conclusion and allow the president to use this language? When did Obama learn that the benefit of the doubt he had been giving Iran on its nuclear program was, in effect, helping the Iranian regime perpetuate its lies?

Perhaps most important, will this public revelation of the facility create the political pressure necessary to persuade Obama to finally get tough with Iran?

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.