Chicago Tribune: Iran blusters, Obama blinks

JAN. 6, 2016 — Last Wednesday morning, the Obama administration notified Congress that it was about to slap new economic sanctions against Iran for conducting ballistic missile tests that violated a United Nations ban.

The Treasury Department announcement, set for 10:30 a.m., was abruptly delayed. And delayed again.

By Wednesday evening, the sanctions, targeting nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates that had roles in Iran’s ballistic missile program, had evidently vanished into the political ether. Administration officials told lawmakers the sanctions were delayed because of “evolving diplomatic work,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

A week later, nothing.

It appears that President Barack Obama couldn’t bring himself to call the bluff of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had threatened to walk away from the nuclear weapons deal reached with the U.S. and other nations. Khamenei said sanctions targeted to the ballistic missile tests would violate the nuclear agreement.

As the U.S. backpedaled, the Iranians pressed their advantage: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proclaimed on Thursday that he was so incensed by proposed U.S. sanctions that he had instructed the military to expand Tehran’s missile program “in terms of range and accuracy.” You don’t like two missile launches? How about 20?

Days later, the Iranian Navy launched rockets within 1,500 feet of an American aircraft carrier and a French frigate in the Strait of Hormuz.

This development has been overshadowed by another Mideast crisis. Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric on terrorism charges, which prompted Iranian protesters to torch the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which prompted the Saudis to toss out Iranian diplomats and recall their own representatives. Underlying the rising tension is the sense among U.S. friends and foes that the U.S. won’t assert itself in any way in the Middle East, even diplomatically.

A dangerous pattern is developing with the Iran nuclear deal: Iran provokes and the West looks the other way. The precedent is being set that Iran will not be expected to live by the terms of the agreement.

Iran has shipped some of its low-enriched uranium fuel to Russia, as promised per the deal. But Iran didn’t come clean, as promised, on the breadth of its past nuclear weapons work. The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a final report riddled with unanswered questions about how close Iran came to building a nuclear weapon.

When Iranian officials complained that their citizens could be targeted under a new U.S. anti-terrorism law that would tighten visa procedures for visitors to the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry leapt to reassure them that they wouldn’t. He promised that Obama would wield executive authority to waive the provision.

And that now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t punishment for the illegal ballistic missile tests? The White House says it is mulling its options and plans to consult Congress.

The Obama administration’s efforts to appease Iran are starting to worry even some prominent Democratic supporters of the nuclear deal. “I believe in the power of vigorous enforcement that pushes back on Iran’s bad behavior,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said after the sanctions were delayed. “If we don’t do that, we invite Iran to cheat.”

The U.S. and its partners have only one chance to establish that strict compliance from Iran will be expected through the course of this nuclear deal. That chance comes right now, before sanctions are lifted, before millions of dollars flow into Tehran’s economy.

The U.S. should impose those sanctions for the missile tests. Iran won’t walk from the deal. It desperately needs that sanctions relief. And if it does walk away, that will serve notice that Iran never did intend to comply.

The Western wink and a nod now invites more trouble soon.

By Chicago Tribune