Iran's Islamic Revolution had a busy week preceding its 31st birthday yesterday. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Sunday that Iran would enrich uranium to 19.75% purity for Tehran's research reactor. Yesterday he claimed to have done just that, making Iran "a nuclear state."
Earlier, Tehran boasted of making advances in radar-evading drone aircraft. Its ambassador to Moscow said that Russia promised imminent delivery of S-300 air-defense systems that could preclude Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear program. And to intimidate protesters, the regime disrupted communications networks, made widespread arrests, and executed dissidents. Antiregime demonstrations yesterday were met with force.
Unfortunately, President Obama is not affording these provocations the seriousness they deserve. On Feb. 9, he struck pre-emptively in the White House pressroom by saying that the Iran nuclear issue was well in hand despite what National Security Adviser James Jones earlier this week called Iran's "puzzling defiance." Advocating a "regime of sanctions" against Iran, Mr. Obama stressed that his purpose was to "indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole."
That raises the question of why being isolated would bother Iran. The regime's leaders believe they are implementing God's will, so why should they fear being isolated from mere mortals—even Barack Obama?
Mr. Obama also said "the door is still open" for Iran to negotiate, and a State Department spokesman added "If Iran didn't trust the proposal we put on the table last fall [to enrich uranium outside Iran] . . . we're willing to explore . . . alternatives."
Mr. Obama's open-handed, open-doored, two-track approach just won't die, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceding last week that Iran has not "unclenched its fist" as Mr. Obama called for in his inaugural address. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, "the only path that is left to us at this point . . . is that pressure track." Perhaps the president and his national-security cabinet should talk more often.
In the White House pressroom, Mr. Obama said that he is "confident . . . that the international community is unified around Iran's misbehavior." But his very next sentence offered this contradictory statement: "How China operates in the Security Council as we pursue sanctions is something we're going to have to see." Despite the lack of support from China, a veto-wielding permanent council member, Mr. Obama argued that his outreach to Iran had strengthened the campaign for more sanctions. He said he was "pleased . . . to see how forward leaning the Russians have been on this issue."
Moscow seems to be telling Washington what it knows Mr. Obama wants to hear, but that has little to do with how it behaves privately. We can predict that Russia will obstruct the drive toward sanctions. After all, it did just that for all five of the existing Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran's nuclear program. As for China, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has been unusually public in saying "to talk about sanctions at the moment will complicate the situation and might stand in the way of finding a diplomatic solution."
So is Mr. Obama's real objective to pressure Iran back to negotiations, force it to give up nuclear weapons altogether, or undermine the regime's authority and capacity to govern? And how long does Mr. Obama think reaching any of these objectives will take?
It is true that we stand a much better chance at getting Iran to give up its nuclear programs if the regime is replaced with a democratically elected government. But it is entirely possible that even a democratic Iran would retain any nuclear weapons program it inherits upon the collapse of the current regime. If so, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will likely continue to see a nuclear Iran as a threat and seek to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Democracy in Iran will not calm their fears.
America's central focus must be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place. Doing so requires decisive, and likely military, action now, since there is essentially no likelihood that an Obama-inspired "regime of sanctions" will achieve that objective. The U.S. must rigorously avoid "sanctions" or "pro-democracy" rhetoric becoming excuses for American nonaction.
Incompetence, sabotage and other factors can still slow Iran down, but not forever. Mr. Obama's fascination with negotiations and gestures like sanctions is something Tehran fully understands and is happily exploiting. Iran's nuclear progress and the potential delivery of the S-300s all suggest a crisis point sooner rather than later. We ignore this reality at our peril.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.