Iran: Are Sanctions Working?

The president thinks so:

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. 

The fact that Russia and China are on board and the Europeans have beefed up their sanctions must also weigh on the coup government's calculus. And there are signs of small progress in Iran. Ignatius notes:

Officials said these signs include the strike last month by Tehran bazaar merchants who are unhappy about the battered economy, as well as recent signals through various channels that the Iranians want to come back to negotiations... What came through in Obama's upbeat presentation was the administration's view that for all Tehran's bombast, the United States and its allies have the upper hand.

One reason for this confidence is that Iran appears to be having serious technical problems with its enrichment process -- due to bad design, bad luck or deliberate sabotage. A senior official said that only 3,800 centrifuges were now operating at Natanz, at only about 60 percent of their design capacity, with another 4,000 in reserve to cope with breakdowns.

And so Obama, again, is offering an open hand to the coup regime to open its nuclear sites for effective and genuine international inspection, and to move toward shared anti-Taliban goals in Afghanistan. This may come to naught, but it turns the tables on Ahmadi on the international stage. And in the end, this matters. By tightening sanctions while keeping an open hand, Obama avoids the appearance of America being the bully, and prevents cooptation of national pride by the regime. The alternative - a military strike by Israel or the US - would unite Iran's opposition and regime, unleash a global religious war, intensify Shiite-Sunni polarization, kill countless civilians in the West, put US troops in an untenable position in Iraq and Afghanistan, and add turbo-charged gasoline to the Islamist brush-fire.

None of the current policy is emotionally satisfying or risk-free. But the real alternative is so much worse we should hang in, and hope. That's called pragmatic, realist government. And it's a relief to see it at work again in America's corridors of power.