The question surrounding President Barack Obama’s outreach to Iran since the beginning has always been about the timetable: How long would he let this diplomatic initiative proceed before he switches to a more punitive course?
Among critics and even privately among members of Obama’s own administration, it has been taken almost for granted that using engagement to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear program is a strategy with a short future, a necessary but ultimately fruitless step on the way to something far tougher.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying earlier this year that she doubted Iran would jump at the offer of better ties with Washington. When he talks about Iran, Vice President Joe Biden always emphasizes that no option is off the table, a indirect way of saying that a U.S. military strike remains possible,
But whenever Obama himself has a chance to clarify his own views on this question, he finds a way to put more time on the clock.
He did it Monday after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he vowed wait until the end of the year before deciding if the strategy for engaging with Tehran was working.
Actual talks with the Iranians could begin shortly after that country’s presidential elections in June, Obama said.
That timetable was not completely unexpected. It had been long rumored that Washington was willing to wait that long to assess Iran’s intentions. But hearing it directly from Obama was a reminder of how committed he is to giving diplomacy a real test.
Obama makes no secret about why. Not engaging hasn’t worked, he says. And if the U.S. tries to reach a deal with the Iranians and fails, it will be in a stronger position to win support from European allies for tougher sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. He also sees engagement as a way to define his presidency.
“We have put forward a clear principle that where we can resolve issues through negotiations and diplomacy, we should,” he said Monday.
Nonetheless, pursuing the principle carries high risk for Obama. The Israelis had come to town hoping to shorten the timetable for turning to sanctions against Iran and possibly an eventual military strike.
Members of Congress, including some of Israel’s strongest supporters, are already clamoring for moving to sanctions on a timetable that is far more abbreviated than the one Obama is on.
But even with Netanyahu sitting at his side, Obama refused to be rushed. He made clear the end of the year is not even a hard deadline for reaching a deal with Tehran but merely the point at which the U.S. will assess whether a deal is possible.
To be sure, he emphasized as Clinton has, that he was not interested in talks for their own sake and that tough sanctions were the likely next step if engagement doesn’t produce results.
But unlike his predecessor, Obama seems to feels no particular obligation to adopt the Israeli timetable for halting Iranian nuclear activities as his own. He also sends subtle but unmistakable hints to the Iranians that he is prepared to be flexible on the terms of an eventual deal.
He did it Monday by stating that “it is in Iran’s interest not to develop nuclear weapons.” He later made his point even clearer when he said that the goal was to prevent Iran from “developing” and “deploying a nuclear weapon.”
That leaves room for Iran to retain a nuclear capability as long as it is for civilian purposes. Obama’s formulation is less onerous than that of Israel, which wants to deny Iran not just a deployed weapon but also its own nuclear fuel, which could be used for civilian purposes as well as for producing fissile material for a possible bomb.
The bottom line is that Obama seems to believe in the possibility of reaching a deal with the Iranian that will alleviate concerns about Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons. Few others, even in his administration, appear as optimistic.