Obama in a 'Rundown' on Iran

President Barack Obama is in what in baseball slang would be considered "a pickle" when it comes to how he should be responding to the extraordinary events occurring in Iran.

The correct sports terminology is actually "rundown" -- an equally descriptive idiom to describe a situation where a runner is caught between two bases while the fielders run him first one direction and then the other as they try to tag him out.

Watching a runner trying to escape a "pickle" is considered one of the most humorous moments in a ballgame as it can be very entertaining to watch the poor guy in the middle, schlepping back and forth while trying to avoid the inevitable tag. Since most rundowns occur because of stupid baserunning, the unfortunate participant is usually razzed by players and fans all the way back to the dugout, where the manager glares at him and his teammates pretend not to notice him.

Carrying the baseball analogy forward, our president has been caught in a rundown on Iran between advisors who are telling him that anything he says to support the demonstrators will be used by the regime as an excuse to crack down on the reformers, and those advisors who want him to speak out forcefully in favor of the aspirations of the Iranian people embodied in the protestors' demands.

It must be pointed out that our president is in an extremely delicate and sensitive diplomatic situation. An excellent case can be made for both schools of thought in his administration, and throwing politics and ideology in the mix from the outside is like tossing a lit match into a gasoline dump. In the end, he can only please one side in the debate, and he has chosen the more cautious approach -- for the time being.

Indeed, after starting out by congratulating the regime for carrying out a "robust debate" in the lead-up to the election, the president made it plain that he would accept whoever emerged from the post-election scrum in order to continue his outreach to the Iranian government. Even in Saturday's statement regarding the violent crackdown by authorities, rather than directly and forcefully coming down on the side of the good guys in the streets, the president concentrated on chiding the regime for using force to suppress the demonstrators. He also called on the Ahmadinejad government to "respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."

A tepid response to the horrific actions of the Iranian government? Of course it was. And the underlying reason for this milquetoast rhetoric is more problematic still: the hope of the administration that they can sit down with the Iranian theocracy and convince them to abandon their nuclear ambitions. The belief that there is little the president can say to influence the regime's treatments of the reformers anyway and that ratcheting down the criticism will earn them points with the thugs who are ordering their children to be beaten like animals in the streets seems to have won out over any ringing declaration of support for the demonstrators.

But the president is not just playing to an American or an Iranian audience. Also watching what we do and listening closely are Russia and China, who not only have extensive commercial ties with Iran, but also share our deep concerns about the Iranians' nuclear enrichment program -- or at least, they have been assuring us for years that this is the case. Both nations have cooperated at the UN in imposing sanctions on Iran for defying the will of the Security Council to open their nuclear program to full inspection. Both nations' help will be vital if we are to convince the Iranians to abandon their enrichment program or, at the very least, subject the program to a stringent inspection regime that will assure the Israelis, and us, that they are not building a nuclear weapon.

The alternative is a potential catastrophic war, the consequences of which can only dimly be perceived. Considering the enormous problems Iran could cause the United States and our vital interests in the Middle East, it behooves the president to use every means available to solve the Iranian nuclear problem without resorting to force.