U.S. in a foreign policy corner on Iran

Last week, after 16 months of relentless effort, President Obama finally achieved one of his major foreign policy objectives: a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing stronger economic sanctions on Iran.

But it wasn’t much of a victory. The resolution wasn’t unanimous, which diluted its intended message. And the sanctions themselves are modest, watered down to secure support from Russia and China. Even Obama isn’t promising much. “We know that the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight,” he said in a muted victory statement, “but [the U.N.] vote demonstrates the growing costs that will come with Iranian intransigence.”

If sanctions are unlikely to produce rapid change in Iran, neither has the administration’s other approach: engagement. When Obama entered office, critics mocked his offer to Iran of an outstretched hand as starry-eyed. But he made it clear all along that he didn’t expect engagement to bear instant results. That’s why he opted for a “two-track” policy: both engagement and sanctions.

The problem is that neither track has shown any visible sign of success. The problem of Iran is worse than it was a year ago. Back then, Iran’s uranium enrichment program was small and struggling; now, U.N. experts say, Iran has produced enough enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons (although it’s still many steps away from actually building bombs). Back then, the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was about to come under siege from a swelling democracy movement; now the “green movement” has grown dispirited under the weight of relentless repression. Instead of engaging with the West, Iran’s rulers appear to have concluded that defiance works.

Those setbacks have forced the Obama administration to look for new options. It is not abandoning the two tracks of sanctions and engagement, but it has added two new tracks in hopes of finding something that works. It’s a messier, more improvisational approach.

One new track is long term: democracy-building. After initial hesitation, the administration has quietly increased its indirect support for Iran’s democracy movement — very quietly, because the U.S. wants to avoid tainting the dissidents with charges of foreign sponsorship. Most of the help has come in the form of increased hours of Persian-language radio and television broadcasting into Iran, and in export permits for U.S.-made software to help Iranians evade their government’s efforts to block or punish Internet use. But that’s long term; nobody — not even the green movement — expects Ahmadinejad to be toppled soon.

The fourth track, which may be the most important right now, is short term: delay. If the United States and its allies can’t stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program, they hope to at least find a way to slow it down — to buy time. Although Iran has rejected a U.S. offer that would allow it to swap enriched uranium for medical isotopes, the U.S. is trying to marshal diplomatic pressure, especially from Russia and China, to persuade Ahmadinejad to slow his country’s progress toward nuclear weapons. The administration has enticed a handful of Iranian nuclear scientists to defect, officials say. And they hint that efforts have been stepped up to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by supplying it with defective equipment. (Indeed, Iran’s laboratories have run into technical problems, but experts outside the government say it’s impossible to know whether that’s because of foreign sabotage or simple mismanagement.)

It’s too early to know whether these efforts will bear fruit, but meanwhile, there’s more the United States can do. Last year, Congress authorized a $55-million program to increase broadcasting and Internet access in Iran, but it didn’t appropriate the money to pay for it. Some Iranian activists say the most useful thing the administration could do is to allow Iranians to buy U.S.-made satellite modems, currently banned under sanctions rules.

Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former member of Iran’s parliament and now a visiting scholar at Stanford, made another suggestion in a visit to Washington last week: The United States, he proposed, should announce that it has no intention of attacking Iran, even if the Tehran government builds a nuclear weapon. “Any kind of military act against Iran should be set aside,” he said. “This option should be taken off the table and set aside so we can move toward the goal of supporting the green movement.”

Administration officials aren’t likely to make such an assurance, since they believe the implicit threat of military action keeps pressure on Iran. But they acknowledge that they desperately want to avoid a military strike. They think an attack would not end Iran’s nuclear program, and would almost surely have disastrous side effects in Iran and the region around it.

Obama and his aides are in a foreign policy corner that is all too familiar. Their strategy toward Iran hasn’t worked. It’s not clear that it can. But so far no one has proposed an alternative that promises better.