WASHINGTON — When Iran agreed Thursday to let inspectors into its previously secret nuclear plant, it appeared to be at least a small victory for the United States and the coalition trying to stop the rogue nation from getting nuclear weapons.
But it was just one step on a long road with the Iranians. And it was just one spot on the globe.
President Barack Obama has a world full of challenges this fall — Afghanistan, Iran, the Mideast — all of which will test his political skills as much, if not more, than the domestic issues such as health care that dominated his summer.
“His in-box runneth over,” said Richard Haass, a top diplomat and security expert in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, and now president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.
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In his most recent test, Obama was under pressure to draw a hard line with Iran as he and other leaders revealed that Iran was operating a secret nuclear facility.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, was reportedly irked that Obama wouldn’t reveal the secret plant when he had a global audience at the United Nations late last month, preferring instead to wait for a smaller venue at the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh a day later.
When they met with Iranian representatives last week in Switzerland, the U.S., France and four other countries appeared to make some progress. Iran agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the nuclear plant near the holy city of Qom starting within two weeks. It also agreed to ship most of its uranium stockpile to Russia for enrichment — though just enough for peaceful purposes, not enough for a nuclear weapon.
Still, Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili made no concession on demands that his country stop enriching uranium. And the Obama administration still must work to ensure that Iran opens its nuclear facility as promised and, ultimately, that it doesn’t use that reactor to produce weapons-quality uranium.
One key question for Obama will be how long to keep talking — how to know when Iran is making just enough concessions to keep dragging things along so it can keep enriching uranium. Sarkozy said that Iran should get only until the end of the year. Obama set no deadline.
“The overall problem of Iran’s nuclear program remains,” said one senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters in Geneva on the condition of anonymity. “No one expected that one day would allow us to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but I think today was a first step in what is bound to be a difficult process,” the official said. “We are in what we hope is an intensive diplomatic phase now.”
So, too, Obama is entering an intense phase of the eight-year-long war in Afghanistan, as he weighs a request from the U.S. commander there to send as many as 40,000 more troops to a war the American public is turning against.
He’s in a political box: Send all the troops his hand-picked commander calls critical and outrage his liberal base, or refuse to send them and risk an Afghan defeat that could open the country as a base to al-Qaida terrorists, which would tar him and his party as weak.
“He’s got a really difficult problem there,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “The public isn’t terribly happy about our involvement in Afghanistan. His base isn’t anxious about sending more troops. There could be a political cost. And if he does send the troops, six months or a year later, what will he have to show for it?”
In the Middle East, Obama has found that Israel refuses to go along with his demands that it stop building settlements in the West Bank, and nobody’s accepting his invitation to jump quickly into peace talks.
Obama has tried repeatedly to jumpstart peace talks, most recently in face-to-face meetings in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Obama met with each alone, then together, but couldn’t move them.
Like many new presidents, Obama may have felt that his own charm and powers of persuasion were so strong that he could bend people his way.
“All presidents have that instinct,” Haass said. “That’s in part what made them president. But history suggests the personal side of diplomacy tends to be exaggerated. No amount of reason or charm is going to move a North Korea or an Iran. What matters is whether ... we’ve so arranged the incentives and pressures that they have little choice but to move in the direction we want.”