NOBODY SAID it would be easy to cut a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. And recent developments make it look even harder, in large part because vicious factional infighting is distorting the regime’s approach to the nuclear issue. But no matter how perverse that regime’s recent actions may appear, President Obama would be making a mistake if he heeded calls to impose coercive new sanctions on Iran by early next year.
If ever there was a need for “no-drama Obama’’ to live up to his reputation, it is in the frustrating imbroglio with Iran. First, Iran reneged on a meticulously negotiated deal to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be processed into fuel for peaceful purposes. Then, the International Atomic Energy Agency censured Iran for hiding a site for enriching uranium. Finally, in a burst of defiant bravado, Iranian authorities announced Sunday that they intend to build 10 more uranium enrichment plants.
To avoid over-reacting to what French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called Iran’s “infantile’’ threat, Obama will have to see through Iranian posturing - and find the encouraging signs underneath the avalanche of rhetoric. Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially welcomed the deal on shipping Iran’s nuclear fuel abroad because it was so obviously favorable to Iran - and because he wanted to take credit for ending Iran’s costly standoff with the United States and Europe.
But hard-line rivals of Ahmadinejad along with his more progressive challenger in last August’s fraudulent election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, castigated him for capitulating to the West. Then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, heeding bellicose factions and perhaps not grasping technical aspects of the deal, denounced it.
The worst elements in Iran want nothing better than to provoke a new confrontation with the Great Satan. To give them what they want - the escalating tensions that go along with a new round of sanctions - would make it harder than ever to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran.
The time may yet come when a move to greater sanctions becomes unavoidable. But for now, Obama should seek to alter the political equation inside Iran. He should address the Iranian public directly, explaining that Iran is being offered a chance to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and painting a picture of how Iran and the United States could cooperate in other ways. Obama should leave no doubt it is the regime in Tehran, not America, that is responsible for the dangerous enmity between them.