Critics of U.S. policy toward Iran have long claimed that Iran's nuclear progress remains unimpeded, while the United States continues "fruitless" negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Diplomacy with Iran may not be the silver bullet that many would wish for, but the critics have it wrong. The U.S.-led sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic, along with deft U.S. handling of the Arab uprisings, has put Iran's leaders into a corner.
Not until the Obama administration had Iran faced sanctions with serious bite. The administration has managed to build a wide and deep international coalition against Iran: The European Union has ceased imports of Iranian oil, while major Asian economies such as Japan, India, and South Korea, have substantially reduced their purchases. Iran is now largely shut out of the global financial system. Even Russia and China have moved away from their longtime partner: Russia has cancelled important weapons contracts, and China has backed out of major oil and gas projects with Iran. These developments had had a major impact on both Iran's economy, and potentially its nuclear decision-making.
The success in building this coalition is due in large part to U.S. diplomacy. The Obama administration has been able to convince much of the world that a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a U.S. or Israeli problem, but one that endangers international security. In addition, America's willingness to pursue engagement with Iran, despite persistent obstacles, has enhanced its leverage. It is the Iranian regime, not the United States, that increasingly appears as more the intransigent party in the eyes of the world.
So far sanctions have reduced Iran's oil exports by as much as 40 percent. Iran's currency, the rial, has depreciated sharply, raising the price of everyday goods. Yes, Iran's economic woes have not resulted in the cessation of the nuclear program -- in fact, the regime has installed additional centrifuges in its heavily protected Fordo facility, near the holy city of Qom. But for Iran's leadership, the price of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is steadily rising.
Public dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime is at an all-time high. Iran's rulers, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are still reeling from the 2009 uprising that followed the contested presidential election. In addition, political divisions within the regime highlighted by the 2009 uprising have intensified, apparently due to U.S. policies. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has warned the regime not to ignore sanctions, and emphasized the U.S. ability to inflict still greater pressure on the Islamic Republic. Abdullah Nouri, a former government minister, prominent reformist, and potential presidential candidate, has said that sanctions are a "trap" Iran has fallen into and called for a national referendum on the nuclear program -- directly contradicting Khamenei's call for "national unity" on the issue. These divisions could serve as an important backdrop to the upcoming presidential election scheduled for June 2013.
The Islamic Republic has also lost influence in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings. Much of this is due to Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad's brutal response to the Syrian uprising. However, U.S. support for democracy in the Middle East has also played a part.