Saturday is the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, marking both the first day of spring and the first day of the Iranian calendar. This year, the holiday is also a milestone for Americans. We’ve been waiting a full year for President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to persuade the Iranians to scrap their plans for a nuclear weapon.
Now that a year has passed, and Obama’s “outstretched hand” has not been grasped, it’s time for tougher measures.
On last year’s Nowruz, March 20, 2009, President Obama issued an historic video to some 66 million Iranians. The president emphasized that despite past strained relations, the Iranian new year was a time to remember the two countries’ commonalities. Obama stressed that he was “committed to diplomacy.” Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a senior Iranian official, responded that his country could not ignore the “previous hostile and aggressive attitude of the United States.”
By the end of the president’s first 100 days in office, in April 2009, the Iranians showed no signs of slowing their march toward a nuclear bomb. Nevertheless, the administration made it clear that it was still holding out hope. Despite calls for tougher sanctions against the Mullahs from inside the beltway and beyond, Obama remained convinced that diplomacy would work.
Two months later, Obama again appealed to Iran to step back from the brink. During his much-publicized speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, 2009, he reiterated his willingness to forge a new relationship with Iran without preconditions.
Days later, on June 12, Iran erupted in protest after Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged his presidential reelection. Obama remained silent. He insisted that the U.S. not meddle in Iranian affairs – yet another overture to the Iranians that the U.S. sought to renew ties. As he himself stated, “the last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States.”
By September, news of advances in Iran’s nuclear program sent shock waves through the international community. President Obama, along with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, announced at the G-20 Summit that Iran had been “building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.”
Soon after, Sarkozy leaked the fact that Obama had long known about Iran’s latest violations, and inexplicably failed to challenge the Mullahs earlier that month at the United Nations. Obama, in fact, asked Sarkozy and Brown to hide it from the public so that he could deliver a general speech about nuclear disarmament.
In an attempt to restore confidence at home, Obama publicly called upon Iran in October to come clean about its program and cooperate with the IAEA and accept the offer to have Iran’s uranium shipped to another country for enrichment. At this point, the President finally warned that he was not ready to “negotiate indefinitely,” and threatened “increased pressure.”
The tough talk didn’t last long. On the 30th anniversary of the Tehran hostage crisis (when Iranian radicals held 52 American hostages for 444 days), Obama released a statement on November 3 affirming America’s willingness to move past the mistrust and confrontation, and even stated his belief that Iran had a right to a peaceful nuclear program.
Congress, by this point, had endured enough. In December, the House passed the "Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA)," which called for sanctions against Iran’s gasoline suppliers and other companies that aided its gasoline supply chain. In January, the Senate passed its version, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, which mirrored IRPSA, but also went after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are the primary stakeholders in the Iranian energy sector.
For his part, the president made no mention of these landmark legislative efforts during his first State of the Union address on January 27. Rather, he claimed that his own diplomatic efforts have strengthened the U.S. negotiating position with Iran over its nuclear program.
After a long year of failed diplomatic gestures, the Mullahs are decidedly closer to the bomb. China, a crucial Iranian trade partner, recently stated bluntly that it was “concerned about the current situation.” British Foreign Minister David Milliband echoed his “lack of confidence” in Iranian intentions.
New years are moments for reflection, and for resolutions. It’s time for the president to shepherd the energy sanctions that Congress has drawn up, and to muster the resolve to stop Iran’s nuclear quest.
Let us usher this Nowruz in as a new year of Iran policies, not just a new year in Iran.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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