Mr. Netanyahu, Meet Mr. Kristof

Nicholas Kristof, who has been traveling across Iran, has some insights about the effect of sanctions on the Iranian economy that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and his partner, the defense minister Ehud Barak, ought to read: Kristof is finding that sanctions are, indeed, hurting the economy, and that Iranian citizens are not blaming the West for the economic pain:

Western sanctions have succeeded in another way: Most blame for economic distress is directed at Iran's own leaders, and discontent appears to be growing with the entire political system. I continually ran into Iranians who were much angrier at their leaders on account of rising prices than on account of the imprisonment of dissidents or Bahais.

"We can't do business as we used to, and our quality of life is getting worse," one man, who lost his job as a salesman, said forlornly. "We blame our regime, not Western countries."

The economy, he finds, is issue number one:

Economic pressure also may be distracting people from other nationalist issues. For example, many ordinary Iranians side with their government on nuclear issues and are angry at assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But people are much more focused on lost jobs and soaring prices."The economy is breaking people's backs," a young woman told me in western Iran.

Kristof endorses, with some caveats, the sanctions regime:

I regret this suffering, and let's be clear that sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians more than senior officials. I'm also appalled that the West blocks sales of airline parts, thus risking crashes of civilian aircraft.

Yet, with apologies to the many wonderful Iranians who showered me with hospitality, I favor sanctions because I don't see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power. My takeaway is that sanctions are working pretty well.
I continue to believe that Netanyahu and Barak are a) serious about attacking the Iranian nuclear program, but b) hesitant to do so unless there is, in their minds, no alternative. Well, what Kristof has found, through on-the-ground reporting (I wish I could do some myself, but the bastards very agreeable and rational people who dispense Iranian visas haven't been interested in giving me one lately) is that there might still be an alternative: The sanctions are concentrating the attention of the regime in a way that nothing else has. If the people blame the regime for their straitened economic situation, well, that's a positive.

The ultimate solution here -- for Israel, the Arabs states, the West, and most crucially, the Iranian people -- is regime change. But short of that, if sanctions somehow make the regime feel that its grip on power is precarious, the Supreme Leader may look for a nuclear off-ramp. Is this likely? No, not particularly. The regime is committed, quite obviously, to its nuclear program. But a ratcheting-up of sanctions makes sense as a test of Kristof's reporting. And certainly, once the European oil embargo kicks in on July 1, the regime will be feeling even more intense pressure. It would be a terrible shame for someone to preempt what might be an effective economic campaign against the Iranian regime by dropping bombs on the country's nuclear facilities, which as Meir Dagan noted in this interview with Goldblog, would serve to unify the people behind a regime they otherwise despise. Don't get me wrong: I believe, based on what various experts say, that a strike on the Iranian nuclear program could set that program back in some sort of serious way. But it would also provide the impetus for Iran to drop the mask and pursue nuclearization with no brakes, and with the help of Russia and others, who surely wouldn't honor the sanctions regime if Israel were to attack preemptively.