Obama Makes the Case That His Iran Policy Is Working

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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."

Secondly, the U.S. would isolate Iran by making the concept of nonproliferation "an international norm and value." That gives the United States "the moral high ground when we argue that Iran, too, has to meet its international obligations." China and Russia, which had developed significant economic and political ties to Iran, had to be convinced that it was in their long-term interests to dissolve those ties given evidence that Iran was proliferating. Obama wanted to give the two countries a better offer: "Leverage," he said.

For economic sanctions, leveraging Russia "was the only way that we could ever get China to go along with the same thing." The resulting sanctions "are as tough as anything that's even been in place," Obama said, noting that the European Union and the U.S. had layered sanctions on top of what the United Nations decided earlier this year to impose. Iran has a way out, he said. There is a "clear path." 

Obama said this even as administration officials fanned out across the world in an effort to build support for U.S., EU, and UN sanctions, and a day after the U.S. government imposed its first penalties on companies that did business with Iran under the new sanctions regime.

A procession of senior administration officials decoded some of the president's careful language.

The sanctions were designed to exploit Iran's over-reliance on its paramilitary force, the IRGC, for ways to evade the sanctions, and to prevent its oil industry from obtaining the foreign investment necessary for development. A U.S. official said that Iran was recently forced to abandon an effort to develop an oil field because the IRGC didn't have the expertise and the country could find no subcontractors who were willing to risk the penalties imposed by the sanctions.

"By continuing to expose their evasions and deceptions, we create the dynamic of a private sector reticence to do business with them," another official said, as well as disquiet within Iran's business community and its middle class.

Iran is not enriching enough uranium to produce a bomb; its centrifuges were outdated and its efforts to obtain newer ones are crimped because of the sanctions. An official said that the U.S. believes that Iran is at least a year away from having enough fissile material to explode a nuclear weapon: "Given the technical problems they're running into, I think we have time to play out the diplomatic strategy that the president laid out, both engagement and pressure."

The administration believes that Russia was persuaded to change its posture on sanctions in part because Iranian officials lied to Russian officials about the extent of their program. "The Russians were surprised by the Qum disclosure," an official said, referring to the secret uranium enrichment plant that had been discovered by Western intelligence agencies. Iran "invested several years of efforts in building the Qum facility. Interestingly, after it was exposed, they're not even moving quickly to finish it."

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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