I asked Nicholas Burns, the career diplomat who handled the Iran file as undersecretary of state in Bush's second term, how he assessed Obama's strategy. Burns argues that both Bush and Obama pursued a "two-track" policy of carrots and sticks, but says that Obama "has been very effective in gaining the upper hand in terms of public opinion over [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership." Iran's president played up his anti-Americanism to achieve heroic status in Bush's last years. Now he is almost wholly isolated. Burns describes the Obama strategy, with something like professional admiration, as "very artful."
I can hear Romney sputtering, "Who cares if Ahmadinejad has no friends if Iran is still enriching uranium?" The goal, after all, is not to be artful but to stop Iran from producing a bomb. But isolating the Iranian leadership, like slowing down the centrifuges, is a means of buying time. And time does not have to be on Iran's side, though it has been so far. David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, compares the struggle against Iran to that against apartheid South Africa: a long-term campaign of isolation.
Administration officials say that their strategy is working because diplomacy has stripped away the Iranians' global standing, while sanctions have begun to cripple their economy. The White House responded to my request for comment by pointing me to a Washington Post story that quotes Ahmadinejad defending his economic record before Iran's parliament by complaining that "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore." The U.S. goal is to make Iran pay a high enough price for its nuclear program -- while at the same time holding out the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic rapprochement -- that the leadership will ultimately agree on some face-saving solution that allows Iran to pretend that all it was seeking all along was access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad may even have been making such a bid in his recent offer to stop enriching uranium in exchange for guaranteed access to a supply of 20 percent enriched uranium from abroad. It would hardly be unprecedented: In the past, leaders in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere have abandoned nuclear programs in the face of pressure.
Or maybe Ahmadinejad was messing with the West, as he has in the past. Iran is not South Korea; it is both a rising regional power and a revolutionary state, and its leadership, whatever it says, seems to be united in viewing a nuclear weapons capacity as an ideological and geopolitical necessity. Iran may be more like the Pakistan of the 1970s, whose people were prepared to "eat grass," as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, to get the bomb. Neither carrots nor sticks may induce the Iranians to abandon their quest. If that's so, then nothing save war, or at least the credible threat of war, will work. Obama, of course, has not foreclosed that option, but Romney vows that as president he would "prepare for war."
So those are our choices: a frustrating, second-best policy of playing by the rules in order to gather and preserve a coalition, gradually raising the pressure, buying time, and putting off the day of reckoning in the hopes that something will change and the Iranians will decide they'd rather not eat grass -- or prepare for war. But you can't threaten a war unless you're willing to launch one; and an aerial assault on Iran, whether carried out by the United States or Israel, would provoke a spasm of revenge attacks against America, and wreck the country's standing in much of the Islamic world and above all among the pro-American people of Iran -- all to the end of damaging, not destroying, Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It would purchase delay at an unimaginable cost. And it would guarantee that the Iranians would eat grass to build a bomb.
Compared to that, a second-best policy looks pretty artful.