Obama's Iran Election Ineptitude Worsens Nuclear Threat

While the president fiddles, the ayatollah burns the midnight oil on nukes.

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The Obama administration's unwillingness to speak frankly about the situation in Iran as peaceful protesters are shot dead in the streets by regime thugs is troubling. But even more concerning is the fact that recent events have not caused President Obama to rethink his strategy of engagement with Tehran.

As protests rage on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, President Obama, desperate to preserve the engagement strategy he laid out during his campaign, has chosen to respond cautiously, stating that he is "deeply troubled" but that he intends to "pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries."

It is worth reviewing how President Obama got himself into this conundrum.

After running a campaign in which he repeatedly promised to meet with and engage America's enemies, President Obama spent the first six months of his administration doing nothing of the sort with Iran.

Since assuming office, his administration's "engagement" has been limited to a taped message to the Iranian people for the Persian New Year, and other minor acts such as coffee bar conversations between U.S. and Iranian diplomats at international meetings and invites to Iranian diplomats to attend U.S. Fourth of July celebrations.

President Obama decided to put off any substantive engagement until after Iran's presidential election, either hoping that a more moderate president would be elected or fearing that overt engagement with Iran's leaders in the middle of a campaign would ensure the re-election of President Ahmadinejad.

There are multiple problems with this strategy of delayed engagement. First, and foremost: Iran's nuclear program. Each day spent engaging, or talking about engaging, represents one more day for the regime to master the technology required to build the bomb.

The second problem is that the Obama administration will have to deal with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, if it is to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

And this is no easy task. By sanctioning the fraudulent re-election of Ahmadinejad and overseeing the brutal crackdown underway in its aftermath, Khamenei has revealed the true despotic nature of the regime he oversees.

Additionally, Khamenei oversees Iran's support for Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has resulted in thousands of deaths, including those of many Americans.

This man, now with the blood of his own people on his hands, is the person the Obama administration is attempting to curry favor with during this time of uncertainty in Iran.

One troubling possibility is that recent events might cause the ayatollah to decide that possession of nuclear weapons is the most effective way to consolidate his hold on power and ensure that external enemies, such as the United States and Israel, do not exploit Iran's moment of weakness. He might order a restart of Iran's military nuclear program, which the U.S. intelligence community believes was halted in 2003.

Before last Friday, President Obama seemed to have bought another six months of time to implement his engagement strategy. There had been little questioning of his statement on May 18 after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that "we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach."

The problem with Obama's approach is that Iran will have made significant progress toward a nuclear weapon by the end of this year.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran will soon have more than 7,000 centrifuges operating at Natanz, where it has already produced enough low enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon if the uranium is converted to a highly enriched form.

It appears that Iran is rapidly mastering uranium enrichment as well as advancing its missile program, two of the three components of a successful nuclear weapons program. It is unclear how much progress Iran made on the third, weaponization, prior to the program's reported halt in 2003.

Very few analysts expect engagement with Iran to be productive. Even if the regime agrees to negotiate directly with Washington, Iran is unlikely to give up the thousands of centrifuges currently spinning at Natanz. The Obama administration will be tempted to accept a compromise, which would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment capability under enhanced international oversight. Given Iran's history of duplicity in its nuclear program, this will almost certainly result in a nuclear-armed Iran.

Jamie M. Fly served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the National Security Council staff from 2005-2009. He is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.