An Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran. (Abedin Taherkenareah/European Pressphoto Agency) An Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran. (Abedin Taherkenareah/European Pressphoto Agency)

Raymond Tanter at Foreign Policy looks at what a hypothetical post-mortem would look like if the Iran talks fail. As he notes, even the president has given talks only a 50-50 chance, so the exercise isn’t merely academic. He argues that a postmortem would conclude that we didn’t give Iran enough of an incentive to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

I’m more interested in another question: What is Obama’s back-up plan? I mean, given his own odds, he should have one. And if he has one and it would be something other than capitulation (i.e. containment of a nuclear weapons program), why wouldn’t he want at least the Iranians to know it? He’s very much into a theory of foreign policy that characterizes impasses as “miscommunication” or “distrust.” But Iran could make a horrible error, for example, if it rebuffed the Obama team on the theory that the first six months would be followed by another six months of negotiations. Indeed, the European Union’s chief negotiator, Catherine Ashton, is already hinting at a 6-month extension. (“We have no guarantees in this and we will take the time that is necessary to get this to be the right agreement.”)

Michael Makovsky, CEO of the pro-Israel group JINSA, remarks, “Perhaps the only surprise in Lady Ashton’s remarks is that they were uttered so soon after the interim deal was announced instead of closer to the six-month deadline. The result is to reduce further the pressure on the Iranians to cut a final deal, thereby reducing our leverage with them and lowering further the chances for an acceptable deal.” He adds, “Meanwhile, sanctions are weakening, Iran appears to be selling more oil and meeting with Western executives as its nuclear program advances. This won’t end well.”

There is no rational theory for not telling Iran the alternative to its refusal to comply with our demands, that is if we are still intent on forcing the mullahs to give up their weapons.  It isn’t good enough to say “all options” remain on the table. That is hopelessly vague, and no one believes it anyway. If we want to persuade Iran to act, Iranian officials would need to hear that the sanctions would come back (or whatever the Obama team’s plan is). Right now all the Iranians see is the president’s threat to veto sanctions. Rightly or wrongly, they will conclude there is no upside in capitulating at the six month point. Some $500M has already poured into the country with more on the way, thanks to the interim deal.

Next time the president gives an interview or the secretary of state comes to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers, he should be asked: Since you think conditional sanctions are a mistake, what is your idea if negotiations fail? He also should be asked: Given the frequent public comments that Iran will not dismantle its program, have you heard anything different from Iran in negotiations and, if so, why do you have any hope this will succeed? In public Iran has said it is determined to pursue research on advanced centrifuges; have negotiators said anything different in private? (Not to be too pointed, since he also thought the Syria peace talks could work, why should we give his views any credence?)

There are two frightful possibilities as to why the president hasn’t said what he’d do if negotiations fail. First, he might not know. That is another way of saying he has no end game, no strategy and, therefore, no convincing argument to force Iran to capitulate. The other is that he knows precisely what he will do: Nothing. He’s already made his decision to ease up on sanctions and commit himself to endless negotiations with a foe who has no incentive to give in. The latter is entirely consistent with his obvious pique with Israel and the U.S. Congress in suggesting what he is up to is a canard. Even worse, he may fear that Iran might leave even temporarily, forcing him to act or giving Israel a chance to act.

In essence, there is every reason to believe the U.S. policy has turned to containment — of Israel and U.S. lawmakers objecting to an Islamic revolutionary state on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. It is no longer a matter of pushing Iran back from its threshold, but of keeping the pressure off Obama. The goal is served by endless negotiations, dropping language suggesting we’d deploy a military strike, concealing the actual text of any agreement and threatening Congress if it interferes with the endless negotiation game plan. Sound familiar?