Iran's Defiant Dare = Crunch Time for Obama

President Obama made clear at his impromptu press conference today that his engagement policy with Iran has proven to be diplomatically useful, but nevertheless a barren enterprise given Iran's defiant determination to accelerate its uranium enrichment program.

Against the backdrop of Iran's impending celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 (an event that may bring yet another bloody confrontation between the Ayatollah's henchmen and protesters), Ahmadinejad defiantly announced that Iran would have "new surprises" for its enemies,and begin enriching uranium from a 3.5% level to a 20% level -- one more incremental milestone on the increasingly short route to enriching uranium to weapons-grade 90%. Yet another blatant violation of Iran's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is a signatory.

Rather than bang the war drums the Administration has adopted a "defensive" two pronged strategy: 1) accelerate deployment of land and sea-based missile defense systems in and around the Persian Gulf to neutralize any attack or counterattack by Iran; and 2) move for a 4th UN Security Council resolution to increase the so-called sanction regime on Iran.

Iran is clearly playing a game of "ropa dopa" with the U.S. Everytime Iran takes a further step toward developing a nuclear bomb (but no proof yet that it has actually decided to make one) it couples it with a farcical offer to negotiate.

First it expresses willingness to transfer its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for one year, then cheats and retreats away from a deal it seemed willing to accept in October. Then, it couples its order to enrich uranium to 20% with yet another empty negotiating ploy. So, is anyone surprised? Only China appears willing to lend theatrical credit to Ahmadinejad's hijinks.

So where does this leave us?

Israel's PM Netanyahu plans to travel to Moscow in a a few days to try to convince Russia to support tougher economic sanctions against Iran -- a move that could leave China as the lone Security Council holdout opposing tougher sanctions. And would China veto a tougher UN sanctions measure? Right now, Beijing is holding out.

If the UN Security Council remains disunited and unable to pass a stronger sanctions measure, Iran will win its gambit until the US, Russia and European allies decide to create another "coalition of the sanctions willing." But even then sanctions as a diplomatic tool stands little chance dissuading a regime that has no compunction to murder its own innocent citizens as it deems fit.

Biting economic sanctions -- the type that hit at the very economic and financial heart of the regime and not the Iranian people -- must be aggressively pursued and carefully constructed. Effective sanctions are the last diplomatic stand short of a potential military showdown with Iran.

I prefer trying every non-military route, particularly a fourth strong round of economic sanctions that has the support of the UN Security Council, but there is only so much one can invest in sanctions that fail to inflict the pain intended to dissuade Iran.

There are very few takers in Washington and in European capitols who believe that semi-universal sanctions against Iran will deter it from its determined slide into nuclear powership. Nevertheless, they deserve to be tested, but with a reasonable time-frame before the next move becomes necessary.

How long should Obama give sanctions time to work? Certainly no more than the end of 2010. And if Iran moves closer to the 90% enrichment threshold before 2010...that will be the clearest signal that sanctions, however needed and well-intended, have failed.