As world leaders gather at the United Nations this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is up to his usual tricks. By using demagoguery to inspire fear and controversy, Iran's president is hoping to distract the international community from the internal Iranian political dynamics that are challenging his leadership. The combination of controversies brought on by Ahmadinejad's clumsy power grabs, turmoil in the Iranian economy and a nuclear program beset with technical problems and rising public doubts makes it clear that a large gulf separates the president's rhetoric and reality. These dynamics provide a crucial window of opportunity for the U.S. and its partners to press their advantage and to resume active negotiations with Iran over its nuclear activities. American national security leaders from across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. would "lose nothing" by pressing to restart talks.
President Obama surprised reporters yesterday when he, together with his national security team, briefed reporters about his administration's policy toward Iran. Their chief conclusion: U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran for failing to be fully transparent about its nuclear intentions are proving successful. Admitting that changing Iran's calculus is a difficult feat, Obama nevertheless described how the administration's efforts to isolate Iran have been more effective - both at garnering international support and influencing Iran's leadership - than had been widely expected. In a potential indication of the country's sense of its growing political and economic isolation, Iran's top diplomats have said that the country is ready to return to the negotiating table to discuss the country's nuclear program. This is an opportunity that should not be ignored, as a diplomatic solution, supported by the international community, represents the best course for dealing with Iran. What should not be heeded are calls for military action against Iran. A military option would jettison this new level of pressure on Iran, undercut broader American security goals in the region, harm the Iranian people and do little to degrade Iran's nuclear program. Even the discussion of a military option gives the regime a rhetorical foothold and undercuts the international consensus against the regime. The administration's pressure strategy, buttressed by effective diplomacy, should therefore continue to guide the way forward on Iran policy.
Since the UN Security Council passed a new package of targeted sanctions against Iran in response to the country's continued intransigence on the nuclear issue, there has been a wave of developments which confirm that the Obama administration has achieved strong international backing for its dual-track Iran policy of engagement and pressure. Specifically, countries such as Canada and Australia, as well as the European Union, have approved their own independent targeted sanctions measures intended to isolate the Iranian regime. In addition, longtime Iranian-supporter Russia has also announced that it will not move forward with the sale of a sophisticated air defense system to Tehran, marking a powerful signal of Iran's growing international isolation.