Iran Clenches Its Fist

As Iran prepares to fire up its Bushehr nuclear reactor--and as the International Atomic Energy Agency governing board meets this week, again confronted with further progress by Tehran's nuclear program--it is worth asking how the Obama administration is responding.

Well, the State Department recently named Dennis Ross, a seasoned Middle East negotiator, as a "special adviser" to the Gulf region--a bureaucratic but important prerequisite for direct talks with Iran. Unfortunately, a new envoy and a new diplomatic tone cannot disguise the ongoing substantive collapse of U.S. policy and resolve in the teeth of the Islamic Republic's growing challenge.

Tehran welcomes direct negotiations with Washington. Why not, given the enormous benefits its nuclear programs have accrued during five and a half years of negotiations with Europe? Why not, with America at the table, buy even more time to marry its impending nuclear weapons with its satellite-launching ballistic missile capability?

We have yet to see any evidence that Barack Obama (any more than George W. Bush) knows how to stop Iran. Consider these four blunt threats to our interests that direct talks may only facilitate, not reduce.

First, diplomacy has not and will not reduce Iran's nuclear program. Ironically, European leaders are belatedly feeling hollow in the pits of their diplomatic stomachs, now that their failed diplomacy has left us with almost no alternatives to a nuclear Iran. Imagine their dismay that President Obama is now "opening" to Iran, thus eviscerating their tentative efforts to "close" the diplomatic cover under which Iran has almost achieved the worst-case outcome, deliverable nuclear weapons.

The West's collective failure to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions has persuaded Iran that it faces minimal risks in greater adventurism on other fronts as well. Mr. Obama's discovery of "carrots and sticks," after a half decade of European failure to make that mantra a successful policy, will lead Tehran's mullahs to one inescapable conclusion: They have won the nuclear race, absent imminent regime change or military action.

Second, dealing with Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria as though they are unrelated to Iran's broader threat is exactly backwards. Mr. Obama is again following Europe's mistaken view that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict will help to resolve other regional problems. But concentrating on Gaza only increases Hamas's leverage, just as negotiating with Syria only enhances its (and thereby Iran's) bargaining power.

We should deal instead with diseases, not symptoms. Changing Tehran's Holocaust-denying regime could end its nuclear program, as well as eliminate its continuing financing of and weapons supplies for Hamas and Hezbollah, reduce its malign hold over Syria, and strengthen Lebanon's fragile democracy. Taming Iran is not a magical cure-all, but surely addressing the central threat is more sensible than haphazardly dealing with the symptoms separately.

Third, Iran opposes a freer, more stable Iraq, and U.S. diplomacy will not change that. Given the recent political and military progress in stabilizing Iraq, Tehran holds a weak hand. Accordingly, legitimizing Iran as a factor in Iraqi affairs via diplomacy is patently illogical and would only strengthen Iran at the very moment Mr. Obama has announced the reduction of America's presence and clout in Iraq.

Iran's theocracy knows God's law without the help of mere voters, and it has no taste for the democracy to which Iraqis are growing increasingly accustomed. It is telling that Iran's Baghdad ambassador is a commander of the Revolutionary Army's elite Quds force.

Lastly, Iran has no incentive to "help" in Afghanistan, especially on narcotics, despite a domestic narcotics problem. Tehran's approach to Afghanistan is more subtle and complex. Whatever the desire to reduce its own drug problem, why should Iran not welcome increased sales to the decadent West and a weaker Kabul government? Moreover, if Iran cannot have its own puppets in control, it will welcome a corrupt, divided and incompetent Afghan government, rather than help us achieve the opposite result. As with Iraq, weak and divided neighbors on its borders are assets not liabilities for Tehran--and ample reason not to assist us in changing these realities.

Hordes of U.S. officials with vague and overlapping mandates--special envoys, ambassadors, cabinet officials, and, of course, the vice president--are racing to be in the first photo-op with Iran. But what should focus our attention is the substantive risk that Tehran will use its opportunity to employ diplomacy to undermine U.S. interests.

Iran has already made clear how it will proceed. By recently withholding visas for the U.S. women's badminton team, Iran symbolically dashed administration hopes to update "ping pong" diplomacy. Perhaps in Iran they still play badminton with a clenched fist rather than an open hand.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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