Is Obama's Iran Strategy Working?

Commentators weigh the successes and failures

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President Obama came into office planning a two-track strategy on Iran: The promise of high-level political engagement combined with tough economic sanctions. His plan was that the sanctions would deter bad behavior—specifically, the ongoing nuclear program—while the potential for engagement would encourage good behavior. Has it worked? Yes and no, Obama told a recent gathering of national security reporters. Here's what he said and how observers are parsing his successes and failures on Iran.

  • Is Time Right for Engagement?  The Washington Post's David Ignatius writes, "Obama has tried to engage Iran before but has little to show for it. ... Obama's sense that the time is right for diplomacy is shaped in part by what he called 'rumblings' from Tehran that the sanctions are having a greater effect than the Iranians expected."
  • Will They Continue Nuke Program?  The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes, "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."
  • Will We Bomb Them?  The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Obama "acknowledged that the regime, for reasons of ideology or nationalist pride, might rather suffer the consequences of sanctions rather than give up its nuclear program." Goldberg adds, "There is no chance Obama will take the military option off the table; there is a small chance, in my opinion, that he would one day resort to the use of military force against Iran's nuclear facilities."
  • U.S. Has Cornered Iran  Time's Joe Klein is confident. "We are seeing real signs that the sanctions regime--far tougher than the Iranians anticipated--is having an impact on Iran and that a new round of negotiations may be coming after Ramadan in September," he writes. "It seems to me that the Obama Administration has made significant progress in forcing the Iranians into a corner. The President, again, did not rule out a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities--but the progress outlined by his senior officials seemed to promise that such a drastic--and, I believe, foolhardy--step might not be needed."
  • Too-Aggressive Sanctions 'Not Going to Work'  Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt sighs, "Obama made some good symbolic gestures at the beginning of his presidency, but he gradually reverted to the same fruitless approach that epitomized the Bush administration. In essence, the U.S. position on Iran remains: 'first you give us everything we want -- namely, a complete end to nuclear enrichment -- and then we'll be happy to talk about some of the things that you want.' This approach is not going to work, and that will lead war hawks -- including some inside the administration -- to claim that the only option remaining is military force."
  • Success With 'Weaker, Isolated Iran'  Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch writes, "While I would have liked to see more robust engagement back at the start of the administration, and less of a rush to the pressure track, the fact is that Iran today is far weaker and more isolated than it was when Obama took office.  He successfully built multilateral support for sanctions, and by all accounts the sanctions (including the additional unilateral ones) are starting to have a real effect.  He seems to have effectively convinced the Israelis to not jump the gun. ... There's a chance for a major positive development, such as Ahmedenejad being driven from power and/or a major uranium exchange deal, but even the status quo of a weaker, isolated Iran will look pretty good." 
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