Absent some last-minute fireworks, President Bush will leave office with a kind of double failure on Iran: Administration hard-liners haven't checked Tehran's drive to acquire nuclear-weapons technology, and moderates haven't engaged Iran in negotiation and dialogue.
The strategic balance between the two countries is the opposite of what Bush had hoped to accomplish: Iran is stronger than it was eight years ago, and the United States, fighting costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is weaker. Iran spurns America's carrots and dismisses its sticks.
President-elect Barack Obama wants to open a serious dialogue with Tehran. That's a worthy aspiration, but there's little reason now to believe that it will succeed. Iranian officials are bellicose in public, and privately even the advocates of negotiation warn that the time may not be ripe for a broad strategic discussion. Iran is heading toward a presidential election of its own in June, which will complicate any diplomatic opening.
And as the clock ticks, Iran moves inexorably toward becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Despite four U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Iranian program, the West seems powerless to stop it.
To see how the strategic situation with Iran has worsened, it's useful to recall what has happened over the past eight years. Graham Allison, the director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, suggested this accounting during a meeting last week in Cambridge.
Let's start with centrifuges, the crucial technology for enriching the uranium fuel needed for a bomb. When Bush took office in 2001, Iran had no known centrifuges in operation. Today, Iran is operating about 3,850 centrifuges, with plans to add approximately 3,000, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Now let's consider the enriched uranium itself. When Bush took office, Iran had none. By this month, the IAEA reported, the Iranians had 1,390 pounds of low-enriched uranium. That's enough to make one nuclear weapon, after this feedstock has been enriched further with additional passes through the centrifuges.
What about the missile systems that could deliver a nuclear weapon? Iran has continued over the past eight years to expand its arsenal of ballistic missiles. The Shahab-3 has a range of about 1,300 miles, which could allow it to target Israel and countries in Eastern Europe. Iran is also developing a longer-range, Shahab-6 intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 6,200 miles that could, in theory, reach parts of the United States.
A disturbing test of Iran's missile technology and the robustness of its command-and-control systems came in the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Tehran's proxy army, Hezbollah, was able to keep firing its Iranian-supplied missiles at Israeli population centers despite several weeks of aggressive Israeli attacks.
It's impossible to say whether Iran's march toward nuclear-weapons capability could have been stopped by diplomacy. But there hasn't yet been a good test. Because of bitter infighting in the Bush administration, its diplomatic efforts were late in coming and, once launched, have been ineffective.
Bush stayed on the diplomatic sidelines for more than five years. A 2003 Iranian overture for a "grand bargain" that would address the nuclear issue went unanswered. Britain, France and Germany (the so-called EU-3) were left alone to try to negotiate a compromise. They concluded the Paris agreement of Nov. 14, 2004, in which Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment efforts. But without U.S. support, this deal withered and the Iranians resumed enrichment in August 2005.
Bush finally agreed to join the nuclear talks in 2006, but only if Iran agreed as a precondition to halt enrichment. Not surprisingly, that diktat went nowhere. The administration effectively dropped that demand this year, sending Undersecretary of State William J. Burns to join an EU-3 meeting in Geneva with Iranian representatives.
Bush also missed the chance to engage Iran in a constructive dialogue about the future of Iraq. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, agreed to send his top negotiator, Ali Larijani, to Baghdad for talks with the United States in March 2006. That upset Iranian hard-liners, but they needn't have worried. The administration backed out.
It's easy to criticize the Bush record on Iran. But anyone who thinks it will be easy for Obama to make a breakthrough hasn't been paying attention. Iran moves closer every day to becoming a nuclear-weapons power. It views America as an aggressive adversary that wants regime change, no matter what Washington says. Dialogue is worth a try, but Obama and his advisers should start thinking about what they will do if negotiations fail.