Obama’s attempts at reconciliation have only given Iran more time to build a bomb.
Years from now, when the world knows how events have turned out, historians will inevitably ask: What unnecessary risks did our presidents foolishly run? President Obama’s Iran policy will be high on this list. His misconceptions about Iran will be judged to have stifled, in his first years, timely, non-violent methods that, by his own later assessments, had the best chance to head off the looming prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons. There is value in future historians’ holding leaders to account for failed policies, but the harsh, concrete consequences may be borne by many others much sooner.
It didn’t have to be this way. When candidate Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, there was a lively debate about Iran policy. Obama maintained that reaching out to Iran and acknowledging its interests was the best way to persuade it to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs, which he came to call an “unacceptable” and “hugely dangerous path.” In his inaugural address, the president offered his hand to those who would unclench their fist. In his first months in office, he acknowledged past wrongs done to Iran and declared his resolve “to overcome decades of mistrust” by moving forward “without preconditions.” He built our policy to meet his assessment of an Iran ready to abandon its nuclear program and embrace a new era.
Others warned Obama in 2008 and 2009 that no amount of bending to Iran would induce its hard-core leadership to abandon a nuclear program it considered so integral to its regional ambitions and its hold on power. Do not be deluded, these others warned, about the sincerity of Iranian hostility, the risks they will run to keep power, or the scope of their ambitions, for these things had lain close to the heart of Iran’s revolution since its inception. And so some urged the president: Aim for harsh, even crippling sanctions on Iran now, for even the best sanctions take years to grab hold of a regime. If there is any chance of a peaceful solution, these students of Iran asserted, it lies in a concerted, forceful policy implemented sooner, not later. If Iran gets close to having nuclear weapons, they argued, changing its course will only be harder.
Regional powers contested Obama’s assessment of Iran, too. They knew Iran well and saw no prospect that it could be easily deterred from its ambitions. Arab leaders enjoined us to take Iran’s ambitions seriously; the Israelis said they could not wait very long. When Obama claimed to see an Iran eager to respond to an open hand, our regional allies held their heads in disbelief.
Obama rejected these cautions. He claimed to know better. In the summer of 2009, Obama did his best to overlook a widespread rebellion in Iran and the regime’s brutal repression of it. In his quest to keep his policy of engagement on track, he downplayed Iranian provocations. Shocked by Obama’s efforts to minimize revelations about Iran’s nuclear duplicity, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was driven to say, “We live in the real world, not in a virtual one.” Sarkozy continued: “I support America’s ‘extended hand.’ But what have these proposals for dialogue produced for the international community? Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges. . . . What conclusions are we to draw? At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions.” Undeterred, Obama chased the Iranians to enter talks, then conceded critical points in advance and raised American hopes, only to find that the Iranians were somehow, mystifyingly to him and his diplomats, no closer to meaningful change.
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