The conventional wisdom on last week's astonishing revelations about Iran's secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.
Current and former officials seem to think announcing the facility was a shrewd move. "We have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday. "I think this is actually healthy that this has broken," former President Bill Clinton chimed in.
Don't be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.
For one thing, it's not clear that "the Russians" have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev's advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin's top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister's ears and eyes on the ground.)
What we don't know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he's still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should "calm down" over Iran's latest missile test and "not give way to emotions.") And then there's China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.
And let's also remember that the point of all this isn't the sanctions themselves -- it's getting the Iranians to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions. Now, put yourself in the minds of Iranian leaders. Despite some major remaining technical hurdles, you're inching closer to achieving your nuclear goals. You've been watching the North Koreans very closely, noticing that even after they tested a nuclear device one, two times, the regime is still in power and, if anything, the carrots they've been offered have only become more generous. And you're willing to bet that once you've got The Bomb, you'll be able to sort out all those issues like your frozen bank accounts and airplane spare parts with The Great Satan.