A new approach for Obama on Iran, not new deadlines

The US will still press for sanctions in the weeks ahead, but it knows support will be limited.

The US president Barack Obama, when confronted with tough choices, tends to split the difference. Those instincts have been shown over the past year as he first allowed himself to be painted into a corner by setting a January 1 deadline for Iran to accept western demands on its nuclear programme and then manoeuvred adroitly out of that same corner as the New Year dawned. The Obama administration had threatened "crippling sanctions" should the Iranians fail to comply - and the US House of Representatives has already passed legislation aimed at cutting off Iran's gasoline imports by punishing its third-country suppliers ? but last week, Team Obama abruptly changed its tune.

"We want to keep the door to dialogue open," said the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, adding that "although the United States has avoided using the term deadline, it cannot wait indefinitely to hear from Iran." That took the wind out of the sails of hawks proclaiming that Tehran had squandered its final chance, and would now face a sharp escalation of economic pressure. Instead, Clinton said, the administration would focus its sanctions efforts on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the key player in the current crackdown on opposition protesters, "without contributing to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians], who deserve better than they are currently receiving". In other words, don't expect to see Mr Obama try and apply gasoline sanctions.

The pretext for this shift was the resurgence of street protests in Iran during the Shiite commemoration Ashura. With the opposition proving its resilience, the administration could argue that adopting sanctions such as the gasoline embargo that would hurt ordinary Iranians was unconscionable, and would strengthen the hand of those in power. But the deeper reason for the shift was simply that shutting off engagement and ratcheting up economic pressure was clearly not going to change Tehran's position on its nuclear programme.

Iran's domestic political turmoil has limited its ability to engage with the West; even the opposition flatly rejected the terms being demanded by the US and its allies; and China and Russia - and a host of neighbouring countries - oppose a significant increase in sanctions. The sticks-and-ultimatums track required by his deadline would have left Mr Obama, a year from now, being pressed by Israel and its hawkish allies in Washington to recognise the failure of sanctions and order the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities, setting off a potentially disastrous war.

The US will still press for sanctions in the weeks ahead, but it knows support will be limited. China's ambassador to the UN made clear last week that Beijing believes there is no need for new sanctions at this point. While western officials complain that this position is simply a product of China's trade interests in Iran, Beijing simply does not share Washington's view of the situation. American journalists visiting China recently report that most of that country's foreign policy advisers don't believe Iran has a military nuclear programme. They argue that engagement should be given years to integrate it into the international mainstream.

The Chinese may have a point. Despite the continuous stream of innuendo and hype in western media outlets, there is no credible evidence that Iran is currently at work building nuclear weapons. What is reliably known is that Iran is assembling, under the rubric of a civilian nuclear programme, the "breakout" capacity to build a weapon. Its lack of transparency has raised questions over its ultimate intentions. The rest is hypothesis, and it's worth noting that those who are most shrill in proclaiming that Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon have been saying the same thing since 1992.

Sure, Iran has sufficient low-enriched uranium that if it were reprocessed into highly enriched uranium it would be enough for a simple nuclear bomb. But that's a very big if. To do so, Iran would have to kick out inspectors, unambiguously declaring its intentions, and then still have a year or two to go before being able to create and deploy a weapon. The Obama administration has lately begun acknowledging that Iran is only currently using about half of its centrifuge enrichment capability.

In short, there's no imminent danger of Iran building nuclear weapons, and the fact that the West approached the recent nuclear-fuel negotiations on the basis that separating Iran from its uranium stockpile by the end of this year was somehow a pressing matter of international security may have contributed to their failure. The fact that Mr Obama has walked back from his dysfunctional deadline is to be welcomed. But it's worth remembering why he had adopted it in the first place. He came into office having promised to seek engagement with Iran in order to break the nuclear stalemate, but immediately faced a barrage of scepticism from hawkish interests in Washington. It was in dealing with the impatient Israelis that Mr Obama first came out with the idea that he'd give engagement until the end of 2009 to show results. And to further placate the hawks, he warned that tough sanctions would follow if Iran was not forthcoming. Perhaps with an eye over his right shoulder, he also refrained from adjusting the demands western powers were making of Iran, despite Tehran having made clear that it had no intention of relinquishing the right to enrich uranium for energy purposes no matter who was asking.

Mr Obama, in other words, had arrived at his Iran policy by splitting the difference with the hawks, pursuing engagement, but in pursuit of the same demands as his predecessor, on a limited deadline that effectively created ultimatums backed by threats. Rather than rushing to impose new sanctions, the Obama administration would be better served by thoroughly reviewing its Iran policy, basing it on a realistic appraisal of any "threat" from Iran, analysing the failures of the past and realistic goals, and developing an approach whose goal is to integrate the Islamic Republic into a set of security arrangements aimed at promoting regional stability.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitan.com