Don't let the atmospherics fool you. The inaugural U.S.-Iranian parlay that took place in Geneva on Oct. 1 may have netted a pair of notable diplomatic concessions from the Islamic Republic, namely, a commitment to open its recently disclosed nuclear facility in Qom to international inspectors, and agreement in principle to having at least a portion of its nuclear cycle carried out on foreign soil. But Tehran is already giving indications of reverting to type.
In the wake of talks with Washington, Iranian officials have taken pains to reaffirm that they still view their nuclear program as an "inalienable" right. Not surprisingly, they have nixed the idea of foreign enrichment, demanded nuclear fuel imports from abroad, and announced plans to install a new generation of even faster centrifuges at the previously clandestine uranium plant in Qom. The message is clear: No matter the diplomatic niceties, Iran's nuclear program is not up for grabs.
By now, this sort of back-and-forth should be old news. Since the start of negotiations over its nuclear program six years ago, Iran's diplomatic strategy has been remarkably consistent. As Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, boasted back in 2006, the Islamic Republic successfully used more than two years of negotiations with the European Union "troika" (Great Britain, France and Germany) as a way to add permanence to its atomic effort.
Tehran's current predilection for talks, therefore, is likely a savvy way to exploit the new lingua franca of "engagement" that permeates official Washington.
The American people understand this very well. After years of Iranian intransigence, the center of gravity in the domestic debate over Iran policy now is steadily shifting in favor of sterner measures. In a recent survey carried out by Fox News and Opinion Dynamics, an overwhelming majority (some 70 percent) of the 900 Americans polled said the White House needs to be "tougher" on Iran. A similar study carried out by the Pew Research Center came up with even more striking results: A clear majority (61 percent) of its 1,500 respondents believe the United States needs to stop the emergence of a nuclear Iran by any means necessary.
The White House, in other words, has a much broader public mandate than ever before to bring Iran's nuclear program to heel.
The Obama administration, however, doesn't seem to have noticed. In keeping with the president's campaign promise to talk to the Iranian regime, his foreign policy team is focused on forging a durable dialogue with Iran's leaders over their nuclear ambitions. In the process, they have embraced the idea that diplomacy needs to be tried first, tabling economic sanctions and other coercive measures until later.
Action Put On Hold
Thus, despite overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, key legislation aimed at exploiting vulnerabilities in Iran's economy and energy sector largely has been stuck in neutral pending the outcome of negotiations with Tehran. So has serious attention to the idea of a military option of any sort, despite the fact that Washington desperately needs - at the very least - to be able to deter and contain Iran's increasingly assertive regime.
Team Obama likewise has quietly walked back support for Iranian democracy, remaining largely silent on Iran's post-electoral unrest and, most recently, withdrawing support from nongovernmental organizations involved in tracking regime human rights abuses. In the process, the administration has stripped itself of precisely the type of strategic leverage that would be useful at the nuclear negotiating table.
It's no wonder that Iran's leaders believe they are negotiating from a position of strength. As Maj. Gen. Hohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's feared clerical army, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, put it recently, the very public military war games carried out by the regime in late September "led the enemies to an understanding of the fact that military threats against Iran would prove useless and that they should even give up their sanctions."
In other words, Washington's willingness to talk is being touted in Tehran as evidence of strategic surrender.
It's up to the White House to disabuse the Iranian government of that notion. In order to do that, though, Team Obama will need to abandon its current, sequential approach in favor of a strategy that simultaneously harnesses economic, diplomatic and military measures to create real leverage over Tehran's decision-making. Only in that way can our diplomacy with the Islamic Republic have a prayer of having any real bite.