December 16, 2017

Can the Obama administration deliver the tough Iran sanctions it has pledged?

IRAN HAS finally offered its response to an international call for negotiations on its nuclear program, ahead of a late September deadline set by the Obama administration. But the “package of proposals” Tehran delivered to representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on Wednesday did not even address its continuing uranium enrichment, which is bringing it steadily closer to producing nuclear weapons. That should have been no surprise: On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bluntly reiterated the regime’s position that “we will never negotiate” on the issue.

President Obama’s offer of direct diplomacy evidently has produced no change in the stance taken by Iran during the George W. Bush administration, when Tehran proposed discussing everything from stability in the Balkans to the development of Latin America with the United States and its allies — but refused to consider even a temporary shutdown of its centrifuges. Two letters dispatched by the White House to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, received no meaningful response. While Mr. Ahmadinejad would be happy to share a stage with Mr. Obama — he proposed a debate before the world’s media during his upcoming visit to the United Nations — he made clear at his latest news conference that his regime is far more concerned with its continuing power struggle with domestic opponents. “From our point of view, Iran’s nuclear issue is over,” he said.

The Iranian president is almost certainly not staking out a bargaining position. His stance is consistent with the regime’s behavior ever since its then-clandestine nuclear program was discovered in 2002 — and it has been reinforced by the coup that Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei, have led this summer against the Islamic republic’s more moderate elements. Yet the Obama administration persists; the State Department’s spokesman said Thursday that “we will be testing [Iran’s] willingness to engage in the next few weeks.”

There’s no reason to publicly rule out talks. But the administration has said all along that it would seek tough sanctions against Iran unless it responded meaningfully to an offer of dialogue. The time has come for it to show whether it can deliver on that promise. Can Russia, which has been the focus of much diplomatic stroking during the past seven months, be persuaded to support measures such as a ban on arms or gasoline sales to Iran? Will European governments, which remain among Iran’s largest trading partners, finally curtail exports and investments? Such sanctions might not work; the best hope for stopping Iran’s nuclear program lies in the possibility that domestic upheaval will overturn Mr. Khamenei’s regime. But, if the Obama administration cannot bring more pressure to bear, it will vindicate Mr. Ahmadinejad’s position, which is that “the Iranian nation will never be harmed under any circumstances” for its defiance of the United Nations.


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