Last Wednesday at the State Department press briefing, we got some insight into where the administration is going on Iran policy: Nowhere. This exchange epitomizes the lethargy that characterizes our approach to Iran, with my comments in brackets:
QUESTION: On Iran, could you update us? Is there anything new with the engagement of Iran about the program?
MR. VENTRELL: Engaged with Iran about what? [Really, there is something else on which we are engaged?]
QUESTION: Is there anything new in the engagement process with Iran on the nuclear program?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Well, as you know, Said, yesterday the White House announced an increase in pressure. As you know, in our two-track strategy the pressure will continue until the Iranian regime fundamentally decides to change their calculus. We’re not there yet. Where we are technically in the process is that we’ve had the deputies — both of the Iranian deputy and the EU deputy on behalf of the P-5+1 had discussions. The next step is for Lady Ashton and [Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed] Jalili to be in touch, and then we’ll see if we’re at a place where we can have another meeting. But that’s sort of where we are from a technical standpoint.
But the wider issue is that Iran has not yet come in – made the strategic decision or come to the table with a proposal that is workable. [That is diplomatic talk for: It hasn’t worked. At all.]What I would say is that as this pressure continues it’s all designed to get them to change their calculus. It’s had an impact on their economy. It’s obviously had an impact on their procurement of some of these sensitive items. So the sanctions are absolutely having an impact, and we’ll continue to ramp them up as we can – we’re all united in the – among the P-5+1 – to get the Iranians to the table. And there’s a window for diplomacy, but it’s just not indefinite. [The administration has been saying this for a long time, so if not “indefinite” you could understand if the mullahs saw it as “open-ended.”]
QUESTION: Okay. On that particular point, on the window, the Israelis are saying that the window for a military action is closing. And it has been suggested that the United States is going to take some measures to widen that window, to assure the Israelis that the window for military action is a little bigger than it is going to be, so giving some sort of a calendar and so on. Could you share any information with us on that front?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, all I can say is that it’s – actually what’s narrowing is the window for diplomacy. We’re still at a point where we think there is room to make this diplomacy work. It’s not an indefinite window, but there is room for the diplomacy to work. Beyond that, obviously, the Israelis are in lockstep with us in terms of their desire to keep the pressure on to get the Iranians to change their behavior. So we’re in agreement on that.
QUESTION: Following up on that, the Chinese have reacted pretty angrily to the sanctions against their Bank of Kunlun and are actually calling for the sanctions to be revoked, and planning – and say that it violates the norms of international relations. What is the U.S. reaction to that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’d just say, Jo, first of all, that we made very clear yesterday that this action was taken in response to the conduct of one financial institution. It was not taken against China, nor does it change the fundamental nature of our cooperation with China or Iran – with China on Iran, excuse me. (Laughter.) And that’s because the U.S. and China, we’ve been on the same page in the P-5+1 about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. So we’re very much on the same page in terms of that. And we had, obviously, beforehand were in a discussion with the Chinese both here and in Beijing about this and continue to coordinate closely and keep the channels of communication open with China on the Iran account.
QUESTION: Did they contact you directly, though, after the sanctions were announced yesterday?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that, other than their public statement, they’ve been in touch with us directly.
QUESTION: If you’re on the same page as China when it comes to countering a nuclear-armed Iran, why is it the responsibility of the United States to sanction Chinese banks? Why not let the Chinese Government take those actions against unhelpful institutions?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again – and the White House did a call yesterday that was lengthy and very precise about a lot of this, so of course refer you to that, but we’ve been clear that the financial institutions, wherever they are, when it comes to the CISADA sanctions in particular, we’ll apply U.S. law and that there are sanctionable activities from financial institutions in a number of different places. With China, we’re in the P-5+1 process, on the same page, in our unified presentation to the Iranians.
QUESTION: So you’re all on the same page, but it’s up to the United States to police everyone’s actions when it comes to Iran?
MR. VENTRELL: This was an action taken against a financial institution, not against any country. [But institutions are, if not owned by, heavily controlled by China’s ruling class, no?]
So much for China’s cooperation.
I suspect that absent the new developments regarding China and the additional sanctions, a near-verbatim version of this conversation took place six months ago, a year ago and two years ago.
The Obama administration assumes that Iranian leaders will come to their senses (Gosh, we should join this family of nations thing!) before they reach nuclear weapons capability. We, however, have no reason to believe that will be the case, and given his past behavior, President Obama does not convey that he’ll ever give up on sanctions/negotiations. Therefore, Iran has no incentive to “come to its senses.” That “room for diplomacy to work” is precisely what keeps the Iranians from capitulating. It is only when we stop negotiations and begin, very overtly, preparations for military action that we can test whether Iran’s leaders, out of a desire for self-preservation, will come running, finally willing to make a deal.
But the Iranian economy is falling apart, the defenders of Obama’s policy cry. And yet Iran has not “made the strategic decision or come to the table with a proposal that is workable.” Might that be because we’re telling them there is still time for diplomacy to work?