Your Move, Mr. Ahmadinejad

Obama was branded as naïve on Iran, but James Carroll says last week’s soaring rhetoric put him back on track—and in a position to push Tehran closer to checkmate in tomorrow’s nuclear talks.

On Thursday, when the United States confronts Iran over its hidden nuclear facility, one move will be as obvious as a jump in a game of checkers—the threat of tougher sanctions to force open the mountain bunker near Qum to international inspectors, combined with a demand for access to blueprints and personnel. The message will be clear: Tehran will not be allowed to weaponize its nuclear operations.

Obama is being derided for naïveté, as if he expected Iran to roll over and take orders just because a young American president gives great speeches. “Obama should temper his rhetoric,” Jim Hoagland wrote in The Washington Post the other day, “and avoid adding atomic abolition to the growing list of subjects that he oversells.” Iran’s duplicity was revealed just as Obama was basking in the world spotlight at the U.N., rhetoric and all. As I observed last week, his resurrection of the word “disarmament” before the Security Council was historic. But was it just rhetoric?

The U.S. is getting serious about nuclear disarmament. Far from being the move of a naïve idealist, this is the essence of realism today.

Obama is no dope. Actions and words must be twinned, and he showed that the next day, since, of course, it was Obama who blew the whistle on the facility near Qum, a carefully timed exposure of intelligence that the United States had long possessed. When Obama flipped on the klieg lights to expose damning evidence that Iran’s nuclear project is not what Tehran claims, he proved the point that he had just made before the world at the U.N.: Proliferation is a real and present danger. In other words, he orchestrated the challenge to Iran, right up to this week’s confrontation. Obama is playing chess, not checkers.

Unlike the bevy of “realists” who disdain him, Obama knows that the sanctions threat, no matter how tough or universally enforced, is not enough to get Iran to surrender its nuclear ambition. The idealist-president, it may turn out, has the hardest nose of all. The principle is obvious: Nuclear weapons give a nation superpower clout in the international arena (and permanently deter others from attempting a regime-change intervention.) The only way a country like Iran will yield on such ambition is if this pillar of global power begins to be removed, and that means the nuclear-haves must get serious about the negotiations toward a nuclear abolition treaty they are already bound to by Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a requirement that has been all but ignored for almost the entire 39 years of the treaty’s existence. The only U.S. president who seriously tried to abolish nuclear weapons was the arch-realist Ronald Reagan, coming within a hair’s breadth of an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to empty the arsenals of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. by 2000.

Michael Adler: Why Iran Hard-Liners Are StrengthenedThe nuclear radicalism that animated Reagan, the abolitionist, plays in a lower key with Obama, but it defines the other move that he will make on Thursday. In effect, it is the carrot that will be quietly dangled before Iran: The U.S. is getting serious about nuclear disarmament. Far from being the move of a naïve idealist, this is the essence of realism today. Chess, not checkers. Obama has one eye on Iran, but another eye on the dozen other nations that are waiting to see whether Iran will win this match. Tehran with the Bomb will promptly bring Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Mideast states into the nuclear arms race, with countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina approaching the starting line.

Iran is the proliferation firewall. The spread of nukes has to stop here. Obama, far from being ambushed, has been setting up this confrontation at least since Cairo, when he began to change the terms of the entire nuclear discussion. (And where he acknowledged America’s role in sparking Iran’s anti-U.S. hostility with the 1953 coup.)

Don’t be surprised if the Thursday confrontation ends inconclusively. Chess games take time. Having been making his moves since last spring, Obama is setting up moves two and three in advance, aware ultimately of next spring. That is when the long-scheduled NPT Review Conference will be held in New York, with most signatory nations gathered under the same banner: No non-proliferation for the many without disarmament by the few. Between now and then, Obama will have restored the structure of nuclear arms reduction with Russia. Other nuclear haves will be feeling unwelcome pressure of their own, for they, too, have to play by these rules. The problem of Iran looks different when viewed in the larger context. The solution to that problem will follow when the world understands the United States as leading in a new direction. Ironically, Iran is serving the invaluable function of forcing the issue—big time. And no, it has not taken Obama by surprise.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.