President Obama has detected "rumblings" that global sanctions against Iran are slowly prodding the country to rethink its nuclear ambitions, though he conceded that Iran continues to pursue a fully-fledged nuclear weapons program.
Obama said this after dropping by a Roosevelt Room briefing that senior administration officials were holding for a small group of reporters and columnists yesterday. His attendance was not advertised. He stayed for about 20 minutes, and his remarks were on-the-record.
The session, as envisioned by his aides, was designed to convince his audience that Obama's policy of engagement joined with sanctions is having the desired effect of isolating Iran from the international community even as the country's pursuit of a bomb has not abated. Iranian proliferation will be a key topic of debate at next month's United Nations General Assembly, and Israel continues to believe that nuclear proliferation in Iran is the singular existential threat to the Jewish state.
Acknowledging that it was difficult to divine the intentions of Iran's senior leaders, most importantly the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, twice Obama spoke of Iranian nationalism as a potential motivator, one that he acknowledged he could not change. He spoke frankly about the delicate dance of diplomacy that persuaded China and Russia to support unusually punitive sanctions against Iran.
"Changing their calculus," the president said of Iran, "is very difficult, even though this is painful for them and we are beginning to see rumblings in Iran that they are surprised by how successful we've been. That doesn't mean that they aren't working actively to get around it. But the costs of the sanctions are going to be higher than Iran would have anticipated six months ago, even three months ago."
"It may be that their ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they're not making a simple cost-benefit analysis on this issue," Obama said. If Iran's "national pride" drives their policy, "then they will bear the costs of that." The president said he would use "all options available to us to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region and to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran" -- the euphemism for military strikes.
A few days ago, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said on state television that he was ready to meet Obama "face to face" in a televised debate: "man-to-man -- free and in the presence of media -- to put the issues of the world on the table." Obama said he'd be willing to consider bilateral meetings so long as allies were on board and nuclear issues were front and center. On Tuesday, Iran's foreign minister called for "transparent" discussions between the two nations.
Obama's theory of the case for preventing Iran's proliferation arises from two central premises. One, by engaging Iran, the United States would no longer be seen as the aggressor. "It wasn't initiated because we were naive about it," Obama said. "It was to send a message to the world community that if they were acting in a reasonable way, we were prepared to work with them."