With the start of the new year, pressure is building on the White House from assorted hawks, hardliners, neoconservatives, and pro-Israel lobbyists for President Obama to abandon his policy of engagement and dialogue with Iran in favor of a confrontational strategy.

So far, at least, it appears as if the president isn’t persuaded.

The intelligent approach to Iran, of course, is to relax and wait it out. During my recent visit to China, that was the message from several Chinese officials and analysts, who told me that the problem of Iran’s nuclear program is years away, since Iran isn’t close to being able to build a bomb, while political changes on the ground in Iran are more likely over the next several years. That was the message, too, from a discussion with a top Israeli official last summer, after Iran’s election crisis, who acknowledged that his own calculations had shifted, and that it was now more likely that Iran would undergo political change before its hawkish, Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime could develop a military nuclear capability.

The Obama administration may be smart enough to understand that it has no real option for confrontation with Iran. Military action is unthinkable; broad economic sanctions aren’t going to happen, since China and Russia won’t participate and other nations such as India, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates would resist them; and unilateral U.S. sanctions (such as a gasoline embargo) would only backfire. Smart or not, however, the White House doesn’t believe that it has the luxury of doing nothing about Iran’s bluster and defiance, so it’s settled on the idea of “targeted” sanctions that would focus on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Gary Sick, a leading analyst on Iran at Columbia University, points out on his blog that Obama has dealt cleverly with the pressure for a year-end reversal of his Iran policy. (The problem, of course, is partly of Obama’s own making: early in 2009, around the time of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama set a rough deadline of the end of the year for measurable progress in his opening to Iran, and so far at least it’s hard to find any tangible progress, although the talks that occurred on October 1 appeared at first to signal some positive gains.) In his blog posting, entitled “Strategic Leaking,” Sick makes the point that rather than cave in to right-wing pressure for a confrontational strategy with Iran, Obama finessed the problem by having top officials leak information to the Washington Post and the New York Times about his strategy for Iran policy in 2010.

“First, give an exclusive [leak] to the Washington Post just before the New Year’s ‘deadline’ that makes two major points: (1) The administration’s policy of engagement has succeeded in creating turmoil and fractures within Iran’s leadership, i.e. the policy has been a success, not a failure; and (2) the administration is planning for highly targeted sanctions that will hit the Revolutionary Guards rather than the average Iranian citizen. That sends a clear signal to the congress that its infatuation with petroleum sanctions is not replicated in the White House, for all the reasons listed above, and to the uber hawks that there will be no rush to war with Iran in the new year. At the same time, launch a major rhetorical campaign by the president in support of the civil and political rights of the Iranian opposition.”

Then, writes Sick:

“[As] many as six top administration officials meet privately and anonymously with two NYT reporters to let them in on some more secrets: (1) In another cunning success, the administration has outed the covert Iran bomb production facility at Qom thereby rendering it useless; (2) hint that the administration may be responsible for sabotaging Iran’s centrifuges, which accounts for the fact (completely unacknowledged until now, despite being reported for the past two years by the IAEA) that Iran is not actually using about half of its installed centrifuges; (3) reiterate that the coming sanctions are to be aimed at the Revolutionary Guards, not the average Iranian citizen, and are likely to succeed because the regime is so weakened internally; and (4) declare unequivocally that the Iranian ‘breakout capability,’ i.e. its ability to shift from nuclear energy to actually building a bomb, is now years away.”

A great deal of heat was generated by the December, 2009, vote in the House of Representatives in support of a bill by Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat, that would empower the White House to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, especially over its imports of gasoline and refined petroleum products. All year, this was a top priority for AIPAC and the Israel lobby. Since its passage, however, the White House has reportedly been letting senators know that it would prefer that the Senate not take up the House bill, in which case the Berman bill would be no more than an irritant in US-Iran relations. (Of course, even if it passed the Senate, Obama would not be forced to impose unilateral gasoline sanctions, since the bill gives him a chance to opt out.)

Iran is too politically divided at present to respond productively to Obama’s offer to engage. That doesn’t mean that the regime in Tehran is likely to collapse in the coming weeks, although despite intensifying violence the Green Movement is still acrive in the streets and opponents of the regime (including former Prime Minister Mousavi and Iranian professors and intellectuals) are speaking out more assertively.