This morning the New York Times reports that (surprise!) Iran has rejected the deal its negotiators agreed to last week that would have compelled Iran to ship its uranium to Russia for enrichmentinto fuel rods that could be used only in nuclear power plants. Leaving aside the (significant) question as to whether Russia could be trusted as a partner in this program, the agreement that was supposedly reached by the IAEA and Iran in Vienna promised to at the very least slow down Iran's bomb making program, "buying time" for Obama and the Europeans to figure out a way to resolve the nuclear "standoff" peaceably. Many news outlets had praised the apparent agreement in Vienna as a major step forward in the Obama Administration's diplomacy-centered foreign policy. Oops. Not so fast. The Iranian theocracy has apparently nixed the agreement, putting yet another spin on the on-again, off-again diplomatic machinations of dealing with the Iranians. This cannot seriously be a surprise to Barack Obama, who though living largely in a fantasy world of his own making, has to be aware of the past decade of smoke and mirrors that has marked U.S. engagement with Iran. As I have written many times, Iran's nuclear program is really non-negotiable -- so any pretense to serious discussions on it are bound to be met with failure. This has not, of course, kept the great Obama from trying to bend metal with his brain, or to use his x-ray vision and leap tall buildings in a single bound. But it should be of no surprise that the results with Iran are the same as those that confronted George W. Bush -- even in the midst of Obama's fig leaf to the Mullahs that he's ready to listen to their myriad grievances, etc.
So now that the Iranian's have apparently given Obama the proverbial finger, what's next? If his grand plan for engagement fails (as it inevitably will), will Obama be able to play hardball? Robert Kagan at the Washington Post asks this very question, and comes to the conclusion that Iran is clearly testing Obama to see whether he will blink -- and whether Tehran's friends in Moscow will be persuaded to launch sanctions that truly have a bite:
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.
This is precisely correct -- and the key now will be Obama's response to the Iranian rejection. Will be move forward aggressively to put together a program of aggressive penalties for Iran's non-compliance? Will he move to put a credible military option back on the table to show Iran that he means business? Can he play hardball?
For Kagan, it is an open question:
Many of us worry that, for Obama, engagement is an end in itself, not a means to an end. We worry that every time Iran rejects one proposal, the president will simply resume negotiations on another proposal and that this will continue right up until the day Iran finally tests its first nuclear weapon, at which point the president will simply begin negotiations again to try to persuade Iran to put its nuclear genie back in the bottle.
This is exactly my fear: that our president is a talker, and lacks the steel in his spine to move forcefully against this real and present threat to security in the Middle East. And as for Russia -- it is equally clear that Putin is working Obama as effectively as the Mullah's are:
Russia, meanwhile, will continue to be accommodated as a partner in this effort, on the perpetually untested theory that if Obama ever did decide to get tough with Iran, Moscow would join in. Russia thus reaps all the rewards of engagement without ever having to make a difficult decision.
This is a bad spot to be in: Iran continues to buy time to further its enrichment program, and we continue to court an "ally" in Russia that has its own economic stake in maintaining productive relations with Iran. We are caught in the middle, being played by both sides.
The rubber has hit the road concerning Obama's "talk first" policy on Iran. Will we now get run over?