To Obama's Pile of Woes, Add a Failing Iran Policy

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Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands in front of a map of Iran and a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Jan. 7, 2010

As if President Barack Obama didn't have his hands full at home with his party's loss of Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, the collapse of health care reform and a disorganized war against the banks, he now faces a major foreign policy setback. Since the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama has promised to curtail Iran's nuclear program by simultaneously offering talks and threatening sanctions. After a year of trying, both approaches appear on the verge of failure.

The President has given Iran two deadlines to demonstrate good faith. Last spring, his Administration told reporters that if Iran didn't show willingness to engage in talks by September, sanctions would follow. Then, in September, when Iran hinted that it might possibly talk, Obama delivered another deadline, this time the end of 2009.

Iran's response to these deadlines has been repeated delays and obfuscation. First, in the spring it delivered a lengthy manifesto about global peace irrelevant to the issues at hand. The summer months were taken up with Iran's election turmoil, but following talks with the U.S. and its international partners in the fall, Iran hinted that it might be willing to accept a deal under which it would export most of its enriched-uranium stockpile to be converted into reactor fuel — and then quickly backpedaled as the proposed deal came under a hail of criticism from across Iran's political spectrum. In recent weeks, Iran has made a counteroffer to export its uranium in small parcels over a longer time period that State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described as "clearly an inadequate response."

The idea behind Obama's engagement effort, though, was that if Iran kept stalling, countries previously opposed to sanctions, such as Russia, China and Germany, could be persuaded to support new punitive measures aimed at forcing Iran to cooperate. "We actually believe that by following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and as crippling as we would want it to be," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in last April.

So, how's that working? Not very well, by all indications.

True, with Iran stalling, the Germans seem to be playing along, although earlier in the year they said they'd only support sanctions if approved by the U.N. And while senior American officials and European diplomats say Russia has come around to supporting sanctions, nothing that has happened publicly has confirmed that claim — and the signals from Moscow remain mixed.

But where Russia had previously taken the lead in blocking sanctions efforts, that role has now fallen to China, which has a rapidly growing stake in Iran's energy sector. Beijing believes that while Iran must be brought into compliance with the international nonproliferation regime, its nuclear program does not represent an imminent danger of producing nuclear weapons and diplomacy should therefore be given a lot more time.

Beijing has bluntly opposed any effort to introduce new punitive measures against Iran, and last weekend China's Deputy Foreign Minister snubbed his counterparts from the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and Germany and sent only a low-level official to a meeting called to discuss new efforts to pressure Tehran. "The meeting we had last weekend was not great," says a European diplomat. "The Chinese sent someone along who said, 'I can't make any decisions.' " Worse, the Chinese have become allergic to the very mention of sanctions. After last weekend's meeting, a senior European diplomat speaking on background with reporters declined even to utter the word sanctions for fear of upsetting Beijing.

Without China, which holds a Security Council veto, there is no prospect of meaningful sanctions at the U.N. That in turn means difficulty getting tough sanctions from all the European countries, some of whom can't act without U.N. approval.

Now Obama faces the unpleasant reality that neither the engagement track nor the sanctions track appear to be going anywhere. His defenders at home and abroad say it was the right way to proceed, but skeptics of Obama's policy are emerging, even in his own party. "What exactly did your year of engagement get you?" asks a Hill Democrat.

So what options does Obama have left? Some European and American diplomats hold out hope that they will be able to bring China around. But privately they say the U.S. and its allies may need to move ahead on their own, without China. "No one wants to go there," says the European diplomat, but "what we're saying to the Chinese now explicitly is there's no point in going forward together" if the current approach isn't changing Iran's behavior.

Splitting the international community has been Iran's goal from the start, and unilateral sanctions could be fatally undermined if a bloc of countries that trade with Iran, such as China, Russia, Turkey and India, don't comply. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies are even thinking of going it alone is a sign of just how much trouble Obama's policy is in.