Obama's Iran Briefing Last Week -- What Was He Trying to Say?

Eight or nine of us hacks were called into the White House last week to meet with President Obama on the subject of Iran, and I think we all left the Roosevelt Room with completely different understandings of what we had just heard. The Washington Post's David Ignatius left thinking that the President was offering, in his usual subtle way, a new opening for diplomatic engagement. Robert Kagan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, left thinking the President was trying to underscore his toughness on the issue of multilateral sanctions. I left thinking, "Why no snacks?" They didn't even offer us fruit juice or water, and it was a hundred degrees outside.

I also left the room thinking -- and I later had my thinking confirmed by a (you should pardon the expression) senior administration official I spoke to that night -- that Kagan's interpretation of the briefing's rationale was more accurate than was Ignatius's. "We have some real achievements in seeing the sanction on Iran take hold," the official said. "The President said we are hearing rumblings of discontent on the Iranian street about the sanctions, and we wanted you guys to know that we feel the pressure we're putting on Iran is beginning to work."

But what about the idea that the briefing was called in order to issue a new invitation to the Iranians to engage? "That's not why you were there," he said. "But our policy is consistent. We're ready to engage. The President has said consistently from the beginning that he is willing to talk to the Iranians about the whole range of issues, but we believe that pressure through sanctions is a necessity."

The Obama Administration -- as I hope you will see in my upcoming Atlantic cover story -- has had a consistent approach to this issue throughout its term in office. The first year of the Administration, the emphasis was on clean-slate engagement. When the Iranians chose not to shake Obama's outstetched hand, the Administration did not drop in a huff the idea of engagement, but started layering in more and more sanctions, to stimulate Iranian interest in engagement and present to them the downside of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is the phase we are in today. The next phase is three-fold: The ever-present invitation to talk will still be on the table, but sanctions will become stronger and stronger, and, as we turn the corner into next year, keeping in mind that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said earlier this year that Iran is one-to-three years away from crossing the nuclear threshold, the discussion will include a possible military intervention. As you will see in the cover story (it will be posted soon enough, I think), I believe it is plausible that President Obama will one day consider a military option against Iran. I don't think it's likely, but I do think it is plausible.