The War of Wills Between U.S. and Iran

By Christopher Griffin

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper warned Congress last Tuesday that Iran's technical progress toward building missile-deliverable nuclear weapons "makes the central issue its political will to do so." President Obama issued his own warning that evening, telling Congress that he would veto legislation imposing new sanctions if Iran continues its nuclear program. Although Obama promised that he will be "the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options" if diplomacy fails, the United States is quickly losing ground in its contest of wills with Tehran.

Under the Joint Plan of Action announced in November 2013, Iran is committed to only a tactical pause at the nuclear threshold, no more than two months away from a nuclear weapon. A recent report found that even if Tehran irreversibly dismantled 80 percent of its 19,000 installed centrifuges as part of a final agreement, Tehran could still be just six months away from the bomb. For his part, Iranian President HassanRouhani has rejected even these lenient terms, declaring that Iran will not dismantle any of its centrifuges "under any circumstances."

The interim deal has also allowed Iran to catch its breath from crippling international sanctions. Ignoring the U.S. position that "Tehran is not open for business," Iran hosted more trade delegations during the first two weeks of 2014 than all last year, and its economy is showingmarked signs of recovery. As both Iranian and European negotiators propose extending the interim period envisioned by the Joint Plan of Action, Tehran's leaders are confident that they can bank on at least a year to erode sanctions.

Iran is cashing in on its growing prestige. In the months since the Joint Plan of Action was announced, Iran has developed more capable next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium, worked with its proxy Hezbollah to smuggle anti-ship missiles into Lebanon, continued its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war against the Syrian people, and attempted smuggling weapons to militants in Bahrain.

As Iran's leaders prepare for the next round of talks, American diplomatic missteps risk bolstering their confidence as much as the lenient terms of the interim deal.

Iran is fully engaged in Syria, where President Obama's 2013 "red line" debacle over Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons attacks has come full circle. It is now clear that Assad will neither meet the deadlines set in the U.S.-Russian plan for destroying his chemical weapons, nor relent from his slaughter of Syrian civilians. While even Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly admitted that U.S. policy is failing in Syria, the administration has not articulated any meaningful response toAssad's rope-a-dope strategy toward Washington's diplomatic outreach

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Christopher Griffin is the Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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