WASHINGTON – Progress is slow here, but the last week of July into August saw
multiple significant developments in the saga that is Iran’s standoff with the
West over its nuclear program.
The US House of Representatives passed, by
a vote of 400 to 20, a punishing sanctions package against the Iranian regime,
which would eliminate what remains of its oil exports.
That same week –
within a mere three days – 76 senators agreed on the language of a letter to US
President Barack Obama, calling on the White House to bring “a renewed sense of
urgency to the process” of negotiations.
“We need to understand quickly
whether Tehran is at last ready to negotiate seriously,” the letter
“Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s former negotiator with the West on its
nuclear program, who won the presidency this year on a promise of reconciliation
with the US, was inaugurated two days after the letter was sent.
Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, we are ready to seriously, and without wasting
any time, participate in serious negotiations,” Rouhani said in his first press
conference as president. “If other sides have the same notion, I am sure this
issue will be solved in a short time.”
Short time is relative. The US and
its allies await Rouhani’s decision on who will represent the regime in
negotiations, after several failed rounds of talks over multiple
All the while, centrifuges spin uranium faster than ever, with the
installation of advanced devices across Iran’s multiple enrichment plants. Based
on International Atomic Energy Agency data, the International Institute for
Strategic Studies estimates that Iran will be capable of acquiring nuclear
weapons capacity by mid-2014.
Since Rouhani was elected two months ago,
Iran has installed 7,000 new centrifuges, indicating that he is nothing more
than a new face to an old regime, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said
The installation of the new centrifuges, including 1,000
upgraded models with enhanced uranium enrichment capabilities, is proof,
Netanyahu said during a tour of new IDF bases to be built at the Hanegev
junction south of Beersheba, that Iran has not changed course.
that some place their hopes on Iran’s new president. He knows how to exploit
this, and yesterday he called for more talks,” Netanyahu said later at a meeting
with US representatives.
“Of course he wants more talks. He wants
to talk and talk and talk. And while everybody is busy talking to him, he’ll be
busy enriching uranium. The centrifuges will keep on
spinning. ‘This isn’t a secret. The new Iranian president boasts that
that is his strategy. He says, ‘I talk and I smile and I enrich
Among the shifts and strides, the Obama administration has remained
relatively quiet about its expectations.
The US stands “ready to talk”
with no timeline, the administration says, while adding that the window for
negotiations is not indefinite.
“The international community is not going
to wait around forever to see concrete steps,” a US official told The Jerusalem
Post, adding that “time is of the essence.”
Michael Singh, managing
director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior
White House official on Middle East affairs, said the two-step from the Obama
administration – on the one hand giving no set timeline, and on the other
issuing notice that time is running out – “smacks of naiveté.”“This issue has
been unfolding now for over 10 years,” said Singh. “Iran is now, if it chooses,
just months away.”
The new sanctions package steamrolling through
Congress will have a compounding effect on Iran’s bruised economy, bringing
Iranian oil exports effectively down to zero while closing a loophole that
currently enables Iranians to conduct transactions in euros. Despite gripes from
the American president on challenging provisions of the law – which will
prohibit exemptions for companies buying Iranian oil in allied nations such as
China and Turkey – the bill is likely to pass with significant
“If Iran indeed wants to change its policy, they’ve got all of
August, they’ve got all of September,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking
member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told the Post. “The Senate’s
not coming back until then. Then we have a conference. Then it goes to the
president’s desk. I don’t see anything happening much before
Engel said this timeline was a justification for many
congressmen apprehensive about the bill – eager to give Rouhani, an alleged
reformer, a fair chance at diplomacy – to ultimately vote for the package, which
represent the harshest US sanctions against the Islamic Republic to
“If they want to show a change in policy,” Engel added, “then
they’ve got a couple of months to do it.” That three-month window grants the
Obama administration a strategically significant opportunity to apply pressure
on the Rouhani regime, providing the president with leverage against Iran when
he arguably has little left to work with.
The window also gives Rouhani
time to seriously demonstrate his commitment to a negotiated settlement, in an
effort to avoid the new sanctions regimen.
“It’s not the three months per
se, but it’s within the next several months,” another US official told the Post,
noting that “this whole round of sanctions came before the election [in
And yet the current sanctions bill will only come into full
effect in 14 months, assuming autumn passage through the Senate is followed by
swift presidential approval.
US officials hope to see concrete steps from
the Iranians by the UN General Assembly, but no deadlines have been
That reluctance to fix any timeline, while insisting that Rouhani
move “quickly” toward serious action, reflects a strategy in conflict with
itself as the slow-moving crisis enters its final lap.
squaring the two,” said Singh. “They are in between not wanting to be fooled and
not wanting to miss an opportunity, if it’s there.”
“You’re not going to
see preemptive concessions,” he added.
And yet, the institutionalized
leverage from Congress should be treated as an opportunity by the president.
True acceptance of a military option against Iran would mean a full embrace of
the consequences of a timeline. Requiring Rouhani to engage meaningfully in
talks by the UN General Assembly in September, or by a date of the president’s
choosing, not only applies real pressure on Iran but also requires the US to
accept the consequences of possible Iranian repudiation.
past White House vows that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons
capacity are genuine, this requires the president and his national security team
to come to terms with the possibility of military action to prevent Iran from
acquiring that capacity. And if this team cannot bring itself to set a deadline,
it is unlikely they have come to accept the stark terms of their public
“The House bill gives the president a great deal of
leeway,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) told the Post. “There are much greater risks
with Iran getting a bomb.”
Referring to the Iranians, the congressman
added: “They can’t just wait us out.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this