Barack Obama has never been a foreign policy politician. His political tradition is from Chicago, which is probably the US' least internationally oriented city of its size. So while his instincts on campaign were good, they did not spring from strongly held convictions or a substantial body of thought on foreign policy issues.
The result of that is that the people who surround him, who have more forceful ideas and agendas on foreign policy than he does, are able to shape his policies - possibly steering them away from where Obama would go if he had thought the issues through himself.
On foreign policy it might be more useful to think of the Obama administration as the Biden/Rahm administration, with Obama as a very effective spokesperson for their ideas. Neither Biden or Rahm could have won the Democratic primaries, especially in early 2008 when foreign policy was a major issue for voters, but sometimes in democracies people do not get what they thought they voted for.
If Cheney and Rumsfeld were Neocons who steered a Republican president without strongly held foreign policy views towards an Israel-first version of conservative foreign policy, then Biden and Rahm and Neolibs who are steering Obama towards an Israel-first version of liberal foreign policy. Neither is an expressed preference of voters and both are to the detriment of the United States.
So in their opinion piece, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett complain that Obama put together a foreign policy team that was inclined to work against the positions he took on the campaign trail and that put the US in a position where it does not have the flexibility to actually execute the ideas Obama campaigned on.
Because President Obama assembled a national security team that, for the most part, did not share his early vision for American-Iranian rapprochement, his administration never built a strong public case for engagement. The prospect of engagement is still treated largely as a channel for “rewarding” positive Iranian actions and “punishing” problematic behavior — precisely what Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, criticized so eloquently about President George W. Bush’s approach...They compare his approach to the approach of Richard Nixon, a politician who by the time he became President of the United States did have his own well-formed foreign policy views and agenda. Nixon had the huge relative advantage the that Taiwan lobby was not nearly as resourceful as the Israel lobby that Obama must deal with.
So where this leaves us is that Iran is sticking to a freeze for freeze agreement reached informally at the end of the Bush administration. This agreement is not a particularly good one for Iran. Eventually the US will be in a position to credibly threaten military strikes on Iran. The more uranium Iran has enriched by that point, the stronger its position to deter such strikes (even without actually building a weapon.)
At its current rates of enrichment, it will take around ten years to get enough LEU that it could be further enriched to 12 to 15 nuclear bombs - which if memory serves, is about all the uranium Iran has domestically right now. Cutting that time in half to five years now when any attack would face retaliation in Afganistan and US forces in Iraq would be a great strategic advantage for Iran. Iran for political reasons though would rather not be the party to break the agreement.
Enter the Neolibs who have this fixation on sanctioning Iran. This fixation boils down to punishing Iran for not accepting Israel. I have not read one proponent of sanctions say "I believe sanctions will stop Iran's nuclear program" because it would be an absurd assertion. What sanctions will do is create the accurate impression world-wide that the US is taking active measures to make more Iranians unemployed and it will allow Iran to increase its rate of enrichment.
Barack Obama goes along with this because there is nobody in the room when decisions are made who will say what his campaign advisers would have said, or what the Leveretts would say, which is that increasing the US hostility with Iran - which is the one possible outcome of the current US path - is short, medium and long term, the single most harmful thing the US can do against US interests in the region.
We can make several predictions today with reasonable confidence. I've been wrong with predictions before, predictions are difficult, but I expect the be borne out. 1) Iran will be enriching uranium when Obama leaves office. If Obama gets two terms, which I still consider likely, Iran will have enough LEU for nearly 10 weapons. 2) There will be a tightening of sanctions, both unilateral and UN in 2010. 3) From the moment sanctions are increased, Iran will within 90 days increase its rate of enrichment by at least 30%, by at least 50%, maybe doubling it, over that next 365 days from that point. 4) This chain of events will be to the detriment of the US, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the invasion of Iraq, a burst of US hostility with Iran accomplishes a short-term goal of Israel - in this case the punishment of the main country to challenge its legitimacy as an ethnic state - at substantial cost to other US interests.
The Leveretts also present a very interesting idea of why China and Russia have been going along with sanctions. I was surprised and disappointed when the first resolution was passed because it made mandatory what were clearly, explicitly and correctly presented by the IAEA as voluntary gestures that Iran had a right not to take.
For three years, Moscow has given just enough on sanctions to keep the nuclear issue before the Security Council, because Russian officials calculate that is the best way to constrain unilateral American action. But Russia has consistently watered down any sanctions actually authorized.Stunts like pretending Iran was forced to disclose the Qom facility and using that supposition to whip up hysteria for sanctions, as well as the connections Hillary Clinton admits the administration had to the election protests, as well as the US failure to cancel programs introduced by George Bush to fund and orchestrate movements in Iran committing acts of terrorism and other attempts to destabilize the country demonstrate that Obama is not capable of taking practical steps to reduce the hostility with Iran.
The entire region, including interests the US is concerned about will suffer for his inability.