One of the more predictable Obama administration foreign policy failures playing out this week is the Iran nuclear talks.
As we write this, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Vienna trying to salvage talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif aimed at completing a comprehensive nuclear agreement. He is nowhere close to success.
Many will recall that around the end of last year, over objections of members of both parties in Congress, the administration ratcheted back economic sanctions on Iran just as they were beginning to bite. The international sanctions were designed to bring Iran to heel on its nuclear enrichment program, which by the day brings Iran closer to the capability of producing a nuclear bomb.
A condition of the relaxed sanctions was that Iran was to complete a comprehensive agreement with the U.S. and its international partners by July 20 to rein in its nuclear ambitions. The latest round of talks was scheduled to end Sunday, and the British, French and German foreign ministers left late Sunday saying no breakthrough was at hand.
Kerry stayed on however, hoping against hope he could somehow save face for himself and the Obama administration. But that's highly unlikely. The talks were likely doomed last week when Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech that Iran needs significantly greater enrichment capability. Khamenei is considered to be the final arbiter of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and his comments led the Wall Street Journal to speculate in a July 9 article that his comments meant the talks are in serious trouble.
According to the WSJ, the goal of Western negotiators is to assure Iran will not achieve "breakout capability" that would allow it to suddenly and quickly produce enough highly enriched nuclear fuel for a nuclear bomb. To accomplish that, Western experts contend Iran must accept a limit of between 2,000 and 6,000 old-generation centrifuges as the sum and substance of its program.
But Iran already has 19,000 centrifuges, of which 10,000 are in operation. The WSJ also says that 1,000 of those centrifuges are advanced machines with significantly higher enrichment capacity than Iran's older centrifuges.
An administration official told the WSJ last week that to reach an agreement acceptable to the West, Iran would have to accept a program having "a fraction" of Iran's current capabilities. It seems pretty clear from Khamenei's remarks that the two sides are moving in opposite directions.
Iran is not about to scale back from its current capabilities, but really, does that surprise anyone? At a time when many were urging that the U.S. consider more sanctions or a military strike to set back Iran's nuclear program, President Obama continued to maintain, as he did in his campaign, that all the Iranians needed was a good talking to and this could be amicably settled at the negotiating table.
The approach was Carter-esque in its naivety. In the end all it accomplished was to let Iran off the sanctions hook for six months while Iran's nuclear program marched ever closer to the capability of producing nuclear weapons.
The administration has been played on this one and the embarrassing part is that almost everyone, save the administration, saw it coming.