Obama Doubles Down in Iran Nuclear Showdown

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Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (L), Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C), Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2nd L), Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) and Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hold their hands as sign of unity during the 32nd Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of G-15 in Tehran May 17, 2010.

Iran has once again done what it does best: use delaying tactics to its diplomatic advantage. By landing a deal with Brazil and Turkey to export half its enriched-uranium stockpile in exchange for reactor fuel just days before the U.S. unveiled a new raft of sanctions, Iran has potentially gotten more than it would have had it accepted a similar deal offered by the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency last October. Under the new deal, Iran will get the reactor fuel it needs to produce medical isotopes, and because it continued its enrichment activities in the interim, it will hold on to a substantially larger stockpile of enriched uranium after making the exchange.

But there is more at stake than just the size and quality of Iran's nuclear stockpile. Tehran is testing one of the fundamental premises of President Obama's foreign policy: that diplomatic engagement can build durable international coalitions in the face of rogue states. The test has real downsides for Obama if his premise fails. By the same token, passing the test would be a significant victory for the President.

From the start, Obama said his outreach to foreign adversaries like Iran, and his embrace of international institutions, would strengthen Washington's hand in mustering pressure on countries that defy the international community. On the presidential campaign trail in 2008, Obama argued that engaging with Iran would make other countries more likely to side with the U.S. if Tehran continued to renege on its international obligations. He saw a similar value in working via the international institutions scorned by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Iran's continued defiance over the past 12 months has prompted Obama's political opponents to brand his approach naive, particularly after the President's self-imposed deadline for compliance from Tehran passed at the end of 2009 and China boycotted talks on sanctions in January and February (after the U.S. announced a new round of arms sales to Taiwan and Obama met with the Dalai Lama). But in the past few weeks, senior Administration officials say, Obama has made a breakthrough with China, securing Beijing's support for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its refusal to heed U.N. demands to suspend uranium enrichment. Administration officials attribute the breakthrough to Obama's support for international regimes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, growing impatience in China and Russia with Iran's refusal to accept Obama's diplomatic outreach and Obama's one-on-one attention to China's concerns.

The new sanctions would introduce additional penalties against Iranian individuals and organizations involved in the illegal spread of nuclear materials and technology. And although these measures would fall short of the "crippling" sanctions the U.S. had threatened for continued Iranian defiance, U.S. officials believe the U.N. resolution would contain language that would allow Washington and some of its allies to impose further, tougher measures of their own. There are plenty who are skeptical about whether such sanctions will change Iranian behavior on the nuclear front, but it is clear that Iran was sufficiently eager to avoid the new measures that it accepted a deal, via Turkey and Brazil, that it had rejected last October.

Unmoved by the latest Iranian offer, the Administration is pressing ahead with the new sanctions resolution, and it says that Russia and China remain onboard. If, despite Tehran's gambit, Obama can still get all five permanent members of the Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France) and four of the rotating members to vote for new sanctions, that would not only be a win for his effort to tighten the screws on Iran but also a validation of his strategy of outreach to rivals and the international community. If the tactical shift by Iran fails to divide the consensus Washington has achieved throughout months of laborious diplomacy, it will prove that Obama can leverage engagement not just to build an international coalition but to build a resilient one.

The downside, of course, is stark. If any of the permanent five breaks ranks — if China even abstains rather than use its veto — or if the U.S. can't rustle up the nine votes needed to pass the resolution, it will suggest that Obama's months of outreach failed to net any significant international advantage in dealing with rogue actors. Iran would then gain the fuel for its reactor while hanging on to a stockpile of enriched uranium as well as strike a body blow on Obama's attempt to rebuild the international security cooperation that collapsed over the Iraq war.