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.
The removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power has led to a more independent and assertive foreign policy in Cairo. Not all Egyptian policies shaped by the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood will suit U.S. interests in the region. But a more autonomous Egyptian foreign policy can serve as a better counterweight to Iranian influence in the Arab world than Mubarak's often lackluster opposition to Iranian ambitions. This was on prominent display during President Mohamed Morsi's Aug. 30 visit to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit -- the first by an Egyptian head of state since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In his speech, Morsi explicitly denounced the Assad regime, embarrassing his Iranian hosts and punching a hole in their claims of Islamic unity.
Iran's "axis of resistance" against Israel is slowly crumbling, and not just in Damascus. The Palestinian group Hamas has distanced itself from Tehran, and Iran's major partner in the region, Hezbollah, finds itself increasingly isolated from the Arab world.
America's diplomatic arsenal has included promoting democracy in Iran. The Obama administration supported the establishment of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran and has increasingly highlighted the regime's human rights abuses. In addition, the United States has helped Iranians beat government restrictions on the Internet by easing restrictions on technology exports to Iranian dissidents. Social media is a major tool for communication in Iran and could be used to organize and solidify future opposition to the Islamic Republic.
Granted, the Iranian regime has not made any major concessions on the nuclear program -- yet. But the regime's power and influence, and its ability to challenge U.S. interests in the region, have been deeply degraded by U.S. policies. Iran's continued progress on the nuclear program cannot make up for lost influence. And ultimately it is the regime itself that is the fundamental problem, and not merely the nuclear program.
Critics may portray the Obama administration as "soft" on Iran. But the Islamic Republic has not felt such intense pressure, and so many setbacks, since the early days of the revolution. Previous U.S. administrations were not able to create such a large coalition to pressure Iran. Indeed, Iran's political elite increasingly speak of a national crisis greater than any since the Iran-Iraq War, which raged from 1980 to 1988.
There is, however, one surefire way to reverse all this progress: An Israeli military attack against Iran would set U.S. diplomatic accomplishments back to square one. The international coalition against Iran could fall apart, many Iranians would rally around the flag, and Iran's isolation in the Arab could lessen.
The Iranian regime may indeed have fallen into a "trap," and the continuation of current U.S. policies could seal the escape routes. Obama's critics are wrong: The White House's efforts have made important strides in preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Given the economic toll, the Iranian regime is less likely to weaponize its program, especially as it would further alienate it from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic is becoming weaker at home and abroad. Khamenei's regime may not be able to continue on its current path for much longer.