David Ignatius, Marc Ambinder and Jeff Goldberg have accounts of a White House session on Iran that I also attended yesterday. I tend to agree more with David’s assessment than with Jeff’s: we are seeing real signs that the sanctions regime–far tougher than the Iranians anticipated–is having an impact on Iran and that a new round of negotiations may be coming after Ramadan in September. Many of the points made by President Obama and his team were similar to those I made in a post here last week. Some other notable points:1. This was a pretty strange meeting. The President’s comments were on the record; his team’s comments were on background, meaning that the individuals speaking could only be identified as “senior Administration officials.” The Senior officials were, indeed, senior. The President arrived about five minutes after the briefing began in the Roosevelt Room across the hall from the Oval Office. He made about 15 minutes worth of comments and then took a half dozen questions. He seemed very much on top of the complicated material.
2. As I reported here last week, the President confirmed that “high level” Iranians have reached out to the Obama Administration over the past months, hoping to get a dialogue restarted. The President emphasized that neither the Supreme Leader nor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have attempted to contact us, and his aides later insisted that nothing concrete was in the works. (A senior official indicated after the President left that the Supreme Leader, not Ahmadinejad, was the man in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.) The President also seemed intent not being gamed again by the Iranians, emphasizing a “pathway” they could take if they were serious about making a deal–that is, specific actions they needed to take to get the talks started (or preconditions by any other name)–a consequence, the President said, of Iran’s “strong record of delaying tactics.” The tone was calm, the words were not hard-edged, but the message was a tough one: if Iran wanted to talk, it had to take specific actions in order to do so. This seemed, to me, a clear indication that the Administration believes that the sanctions and diplomatic isolation were having a profound impact on the Khamenei regime.
3. The two most interesting briefings that followed after the President left covered sanctions in greater detail and the troubles Iran was having with its uranium enrichment program. The U.S. officials expressed surprise and delight that the European Union’s sanctions were so tough. Iranian banks were having trouble finding overseas partners. The oil and gas sector was finding it impossible to get the overseas investment necessary to develop new fields and rebuild its decrepit infrastructure. The bazaari community–Iran’s business leaders, a crucial part of the ruling coalition–are quite upset by the restrictions on their international activities.
4. As for the uranium enrichment program, there seemed clear evidence that Iran was having big problems–the equipment at the Natanz enrichment facility was old and breaking down. The sanctions meant that no spare parts could be imported. The senior official didn’t mention this, but other Administration sources have said that sabotage by the U.S. and Israelis was slowing down the enrichment program considerably. Consequently, the senior official said there was no imminent threat of the Iranians putting together enough highly-enriched uranium to build a bomb.
In sum, it seems to me that the Obama Administration has made significant progress in forcing the Iranians into a corner. The President, again, did not rule out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities–but the progress outlined by his senior officials seemed to promise that such a drastic–and, I believe, foolhardy–step might not be needed.