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.