Obama: Iranians May Be Impervious to Sanctions

President Obama, in a meeting yesterday afternoon with a handful of reporters, including The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and yours truly, said that he has heard "rumblings" that the muscular sanctions recently imposed on Iran by the U.N., the E.U. and by the U.S., might be influencing the regime's thinking about its nuclear program, but he 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.

Marc has posted a thorough write-up of the session. He described the impetus for the meeting this way: "The session, as envisioned by his aides, was designed to convince his audience that Obama's policy of engagement matched by sanctions is having the desired effect of isolating Iran from the international community even as the country seems to be to speeding up its efforts to obtain the equipment necessary to finish a bomb." I got the sense that this session represented something of a victory lap for his national security team, which had worked assiduously to implement stronger sanctions against Iran than skeptics had thought possible. On the other hand, the proof of the success of sanctions is not in their strength, or in their multilateral character, but in whether or not they convince the Iranians to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons."Changing their calculus is very difficult, even though this is painful for them and we are beginning to see rumblings in Iran that they are surprised by successful we've been," Obama said. "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."

He then said, "It may be that there are ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they're not making a simple cost benefit analysis on this issue. If Iran's "national pride" drives their policy, "then they will bear the costs of that." Obama reiterated, in language that struck me as slightly more cautious than usual, that "all options" are available to the U.S. to stop the nuclear-arming of Iran." 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.

David Ignatius, in his own, upbeat accounting of the meeting, thinks the Obama Administration, and not the Iranians, has the upper hand at the moment, and therefore might be right when it sees an opportunity for a new diplomatic overture to Iran, though he did recount the frustrating history of recent Administration attempts to reach out to the regime:

Obama has tried to engage Iran before but has little to show for it. Last year, he sent two secret letters urging dialogue to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This helped get the Iranians to the table in Geneva to discuss a plan for enriching uranium outside their borders. But Khamenei backed out, even though Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, initially supported the deal.

Obama said he hadn't had any direct contact with Khamenei or Ahmadinejad about renewing talks, but he said Iranian officials have said they want to rejoin the Geneva negotiations with the group of leading nations known as the "P5-plus-one," perhaps in September.

I am skeptical, though, about the possibilities of a diplomatic breakthrough, for two reasons, one structural, and one related to the state of Iran's opposition: The structural reason is simple; one of the pillars of Islamic Republic theology is anti-Americanism, and it would take an ideological earthquake to upend that pillar. And then there's the problem of the Green Movement. If the Iranian opposition were vibrant and strong, the regime might have good reason to be sensitive to the economic impact of the new sanctions package. But the opposition is weak and divided. The regime has shown itself to be fully capable of suppressing dissent through terror. So I'm not sure how much pressure the regime feels to negotiate with the West.

The President, in the 20 minutes or so he spent with us (the entire session with various senior officials ran more than an hour), was modest in his assessment of the new sanctions regime, both because it is early in the process and because he acknowledged that the Iranian regime might have as its paramount goal the joining of the nuclear club.