There is no better example of an Obama administration initiative that has succeeded on its own terms, and yet failed as policy, than Iran. By engaging the regime in Tehran, and being rebuffed, the White House has been able to enlist China, Russia, and the European Union in imposing tough sanctions on Iran. By steadily ratcheting up those sanctions, the administration has been able to gradually squeeze the Iranian economy. By insisting that "containment" is not an option, Obama has persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he need not launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- at least not any time soon.
Obama has done everything right, and yet his Iran policy is failing. There is no evidence that the sanctions will bring Iran to its knees and force the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept the humiliation of abandoning his nuclear program. But neither is there any sign of new thinking in the White House. "I don't see how what didn't work last year is going to work this year," says Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama State Department before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He might not get much of an argument from White House officials, who, the New York Times recently noted, "seem content with stalemate."
The United States is not negotiating directly with Iran but rather doing so through the P5+1, which consists of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. The P5+1's current position is that Iran must stop enriching nuclear fuel to 20 percent purity -- a point from which Iran could quickly move to weapons-grade material -- transfer its existing stock of such fuel to a third country, and shut down one of its two enrichment facilities, known as Fordow. In exchange, the parties will help Iran produce such fuel for medical purposes, which the regime claims is its actual goal. Iran has refused, saying it will not shut down Fordow.
But the current state of play masks the larger issue, which is that the ayatollah and those around him believe the United States wants to make Iran cry uncle -- which happens to be true. The next round of P5+1 negotiations, now scheduled for Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan, are almost certainly not going to go anywhere unless the United States signals that it is prepared to make what the Iranians view as meaningful and equivalent moves in exchange for Iranian concessions. Arms-control experts say that both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Catherine Ashton, head of foreign affairs for the European Union, favor offering Iran a reduction in sanctions; but there's a limit to what they can do without the United States.
Of course, such flexibility would be pointless if Iran is simply hell-bent on gaining the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The signals, as always with Iran, are cryptic. Iranian authorities have told nuclear inspectors that they plan to install a new generation of centrifuges in order to accelerate enrichment. And yet Iran also chose to convert some of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for medical use rather than approach the amount needed for a bomb, leading Israeli authorities to predict that Iran wouldn't be able to build a bomb before 2015 or 2016. Last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's foreign policy advisor, publicly criticized officials who have treated the negotiations dismissively. Presumably, he was thinking of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has compared Iran's nuclear program to a train without brakes.
Iran is now at the outset of what promises to be a raucous presidential election, and may be no more capable of serious negotiations between now and June than the United States was in 2012. But what is clear is that the sanctions have moderated Iranian behavior and rhetoric. At the same time, as the Times also noted, the economic pressure is not nearly great enough to compel concessions that the regime would view as a blow to national pride. In short, Iran might -- might -- be more willing to accept a face-saving compromise than they were a year or two ago, but will need serious inducements to do so.