As the Obama Administration has discovered, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism and insurgencies requires more than Washington’s willingness to “extend [its] hand.” As Heritage’s Kim Holmes points out, Iran’s foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil illustrates that Iran’s leaders don’t fear Barack Obama or the “isolation” his Administration promises. The plot also highlights the disturbing consequences of Obama’s “good cop/confused cop” strategy on Iran. While the Obama Administration continues to maintain that all options remain on the table, Washington’s public downplay of the military option undermines its ability to threaten consequences.

What emboldened Iran to attempt such a brazen act on U.S. soil?

In a 2009 video address aimed at Iran’s people, President Obama said his Administration was committed to diplomacy that pursued “constructive ties” between the two countries. But Washington’s willingness to hold diplomatic talks was never really the problem. President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, held the door open for such talks. Tehran’s rejection of diplomatic engagement has less to do with who is in the White House than with Tehran’s fears that opening up to America and the West will breathe life into the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

The Obama Administration has misjudged a dangerous adversary. The foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in our nation’s capital demonstrates that the regime’s threats are real, and it is willing to take considerable risks in launching a high-profile terrorist attack for marginal gains. Containing Iran’s ambitions will be difficult, particularly since Obama’s strategy has not garnered sufficient international support to impose the “crippling sanctions” that the Administration promised, and Russia and China continue to delay and dilute sanction efforts in the U.N. Security Council.

Washington can neither credibly threaten the use of force nor forge meaningful international pressure. And that is perhaps what is most disquieting about Obama’s strategy on Iran.

Emil Maine is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: