Two problems will make the administration’s attempts to take a hard line with Iran now that Teheran has been found to be secretly building a nuclear facility difficult. The first is the accusation that the administration is making a virtue out of a necessity. Revelations that Iran has been operating in bad faith can pull the carpet out from under the entire strategy of “engaging Iran”. Why make a deal with a double-dealer? The Politico describes how the administration raced to put together a tough public presentation just hours before the damning information about Iran’s nuclear cheating was about to go public.
But behind the scenes, the Obama administration was furiously preparing for a major public intelligence disclosure that it had not planned to make: that the U.S. had known for years about a previously undisclosed clandestine nuclear enrichment facility Iran has been building since 2005 in a mountain near Qom.
Interviews with administration and international officials, diplomats, non-proliferation and Iran experts suggest the administration had no plans to announce its suspicions before beginning international talks with Iran next week. But its hand was forced after learning some time during the week of a letter Iran had sent the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna acknowledging construction of a previously undisclosed facility. …
Indeed, one international official who asked for anonymity said that to this person’s knowledge, it was an Associated Press reporter in Vienna, George Jahn, who having learned of the Iranian letter, may have first tipped off western officials to its existence.
Ralph Peters thinks that the administration has pie on its face. He rhetorically asks, “Did it surprise a single Post reader that Iran’s been hiding a big nuclear weapons development facility? It stunned our president when he learned about it months ago. Then he kept it secret from you. Obama didn’t want you to know how much progress Iran had made. It’s an embarrassment.”
The adminstration is advancing the line that it knew of the secret facility all along but held the news back as part of its overall strategy. David Ignatius describes it as a way of buying time while joint action was prepared, an objective so important the administration held their fire in order to lay the groundwork for an unstoppable demarche which would rock Teheran back on its heels. Ignatius describes the administration’s explanation of events:
So why didn’t the Obama administration lay down an even stronger marker in response to this breakout — by threatening, say, to intercept ships at sea that it believed were carrying parts for the Iranian nuclear program?
The answer, explained the senior official in a telephone interview, is that the U.S. wants to preserve consensus among its allies for much harsher sanctions, even as it heads toward a face-to-face negotiating meeting with the Iranians on Oct. 1.The U.S. has privately communicated with the Iranians in recent days that it wants those talks to go forward, the senior official said. …
If the negotiations fail and Iran makes a further breakout toward weapons capability, “we could always escalate,” says the senior administration official. It’s hard to see how this one will end short of military confrontation if the Iranians don’t start bargaining for real.
The Huffington Post is in absolute awe of the adminstration’s strategy. “The key to understanding today’s announcement on Iran is this: President Obama knew about the secret Iranian facility nine months ago. Before he began his strategy of engagement, he knew Iran was lying about its program. When he extended his hand in friendship, he knew Iran had built a secret factory to enrich uranium. Before he offered direct talks, he knew Iran was hiding a nuclear weapons breakout capability. Each move was denounced as “weak” and “naïve” by the right. That talk looks foolish today. These were the moves of chess master, carefully positioning pieces on the board, laying a trap, and springing it at the opportune moment.”
According to this interpretation, the Obama administration cannily wooed Iran, offered to meet without preconditions, released Iranian special forces who killed American troops in Iran, refused to support dissidents who were fighting for their lives in the streets of Teheran, made the withdrawal of US troops from Iran the centerpiece of its policy, dismantled the defense missile shield aimed at deflecting projectiles the Ayatollahs might launch at the West and offered to reduce its own nuclear stockpile to levels unknown since the 1940s to lull them into a false sense of confidence so that they could deliver their diplomatic bombshell. And then — to crown it all — just when Iran’s cat was almost out of the bag, they pre-empted the public release by hours to leave Teheran in no doubt that they were dealing with a strategic genius. The Huffington Post explains the game of grandmasters to us poor kibitzers:
He knew better than his critics that Ahmadinejad could not be trusted. He just had a better plan for how to deal with him. …Obama is now well positioned to unite world leaders in a long-term strategy to back Iran away from nuclear weapons. While some nations mistrusted the previous administration–fearing a repeat of the Iraq War–they have more confidence in Obama. They don’t believe he will use military force, except as a last resort. …
Obama has now backed Iran into a corner. The solution will not be easy or quick, however. A great deal depends on getting Russia and China to agree to tougher sanctions. There are options that Europe and the US could employ without them, but their agreement to UN sanctions would greatly increase the financial and diplomatic pressure on Iran. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking with Obama and French President Sarkozy this morning, laid down a December deadline for sanctions.
The obvious solution is for Iran to agree to intrusive inspections. Let the IAEA inspectors into all sites; give them access to all records; give them access to all scientists. If possible, we want a suspension of the program–both construction and operations.
All of this is now more likely than at any time in the past few years. We will know soon, within the next few months, if Obama’s sophisticated, comprehensive approach is working. For now, we have a new appreciation of Obama, the strategist.
But here the second fly in the ointment makes its appearance. David Ignatius’s source mentioned the need for strong measures in a pinch. He said “we [the administration] could always escalate”. But how this can credibly be threatened, given the administration’s arduous efforts to convince America’s allies that it won’t “use military force, except as a last resort” remains to be seen. A sheriff who spends months convincing gangsters that his gun is unloaded may suffer from a credibility deficit when he tells them to come out with their hands up or else. But all this may yet succeed in prying an agreement from a regime which just demonstrated its willingness lie until it is caught. And when that agreement is to hand it will resolve everything, as we all know, even if you can’t believe a word on it.