Obama Faces Reality on Iran, Middle East

Iran's missile test makes some skeptical the regime will be conciliatory toward the United States.


President Obama's disclosure that Iran has been building a secret uranium enrichment plant underscores a truism in foreign policy: Harsh reality trumps good intentions. Obama says the plant is further evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and he promises to push even harder for sanctions against the Tehran regime. Administration officials say that, at a special conference in Geneva Thursday, the Iranians will have another chance to prove that they are not building such weapons or to agree to stop such a program. But, with Iran having just completed more missile tests as a defiant gesture, few are expecting conciliation.

Last week's revelation about the uranium facility interrupted the president's campaign of international outreach, which climbed to dizzying heights as he swept through a lengthy series of meetings with other world leaders. He preached cooperation in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, met there with a wide range of world leaders, and held important talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and, separately, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He won U.N. Security Council approval for a new commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. And he ended last week at the G-20 summit, a high-profile session with leaders of 20 major industrial nations in Pittsburgh.

Obama, as usual, was brilliant in the rhetoric and symbolism departments. But this time, he seemed to come up short on results. The Mideast leaders shook hands and posed for photographs but refused to give ground on substantive issues. The Security Council resolution was little more than a high-minded statement of principle rather than a blueprint for change. Even though Medvedev suggested that his government might be more open to tougher sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, there was little indication that a breakthrough in cooperation between Washington and Moscow was at hand.

Finally, there was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement that Tehran would let its nuclear experts meet with scientists from the United States and other nations to ease concerns about that nuclear program. Critics saw it as a ploy to discourage tougher sanctions.

International conferences, meetings, and "summits" tend to be hyped by the news-hungry media and the PR-focused White House, no matter who is president. And the latest round of such sessions was no exception. As usual, there was a pageant of the unusual and the bizarre. The American media focused, with considerable derision, on appearances by three of what many Americans consider the world's rogue leaders—Ahmadinejad of Iran, Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Qadhafi gave a strange and rambling 98-minute speech. Ahmadinejad offered his customary rants against the United States and Israel. Chávez insisted that America and capitalism would lose "the battle of ideas" around the world. For his part, Obama managed to avoid personal contact with the trio, including any photo ops that could be used to embarrass the White House.

But there was little clear progress on Obama's agenda. "He's getting a dose of reality," says a former national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush. "Just because he says something doesn't mean it will take place."

Where Obama did succeed, however, was in demonstrating two important facts: First, George W. Bush, vastly unpopular around the world, is no longer in charge at the White House, and, second, Obama is abandoning Bush's unilateral approach to diplomacy, as he promised in his campaign.

"Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," Obama told the U.N. General Assembly. His administration aims to build new coalitions to combat climate change, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation and to work in concert on other issues, such as continuing to stabilize the world economy.