UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to rescind an invitation to Iran to participate in the Montreux conference on the civil war in Syria has brought to the fore the problems inherent in the Obama approach toward Iran.

The disinvitation came at the insistence of the U.S., which, we are told, wanted explicit guarantees that Iran would agree to go along with the ouster of its ally, President Assad, which Iran refused to do. Such a scenario, of course, portrays a resolute, no-nonsense administration. More likely, however, the turn of events puts the spotlight on a president running scared in his outreach to Iran.

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President Obama is in a battle with Congress over Iran sanctions. A growing number of senators – now a majority – want to enact a new round of sanctions to be triggered if and when it is determined that Iran is not negotiating in good faith over reducing its nuclear production. President Obama insists that any such legislation passed by Congress, regardless of its effective date, would result in Iran’s walking away from the talks, thus thwarting his ongoing outreach efforts.

Key to the legislation – both for the president and Iran – is the question of who decides when a lack of good faith has occurred – the president or Congress? Central to the president’s argument that he should be in charge is that he is not soft on Iran. But the invitation imbroglio demonstrates how the president is losing that battle of perception.

On January 5 it was reported that Secretary of State Kerry had said, “Could [Iran] contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them, conceivably to weigh in?…. It may be that there are ways that could happen. But that has to be determined by the [UN] secretary-general. It has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves. We are happy to have Iran be helpful.”

So this past Sunday Ban Kai moon announced he had invited Iran to the Syria conference. The U.S. promptly objected. Under the terms of the talks, hammered out more than a year ago, the mission was to establish “by mutual consent” a transition from the rule of Bashar al Assad, and the U.S. said Iran had not publicly agreed to abide by the rules. However, Mr. Ban made the invitation to Iran based on what he said were private assurances that Iran would “welcome” these goals and had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role,” which seems entirely consistent with Mr. Kerry’s statement of January 5.

In addition, a spokesman for the secretary-general said that “We have been in close contact with the Russian and American delegations today, and over the weeks and days before [the invitation]” and that the invitation to Iran was “not hasty.” He added, “Certainly I know this could not have been a surprise to U.S. authorities. They were fully aware of the timing of the announcement.”

Despite the efforts to portray a strong and resolute Obama administration, this latest episode of ineptitude only deepens the concern many have about an apparently clueless White House. In particular, evidence is mounting by the day that the Iranians are eating the president’s lunch.

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