President Obama yesterday gave a briefing to a small group of reporters in which he said that Iran seems to be becoming more uncomfortable under the sanctions that have been imposed on it. Here are the reports from Mark Ambinder, Jeffrey Goldberg, Joe Klein, and David Ignatius, all of whom attended the briefing.
Obama's diplomacy is totally different from what we saw under George Bush. Bush simplified the world down into good and evil and convinced us that strong and simple gestures would win the day. But effective diplomacy is a series of actions, small to medium-sized, hardly ever large, that all move toward a goal. It takes time, and, because it works at the margins rather than up the center, may seem irrelevant.
The sanctions against Iran, in this light, are actually a pretty big deal, but they were put together through a number of small actions that lined up China and Russia to participate.
Another characteristic of effective diplomacy is that not all of it is public, in order to allow changes in policy without loss of face. Further, everything is connected to everything else, so overall changes have to be weighed for specific actions. A big example of this is the rise of Iran with the downfall of Saddam Hussein, apparently not considered in 2003.
Iran has made a few moves lately that seem to indicate it would like further discussion. A week or two ago, it announced that it was ready to go ahead with the same deal that Turkey and Brazil brokered and the United States rejected. A non-starter, but a signal that negotiations might be possible. In yesterday's meeting, Obama mentioned feelers from high Iranian officials. According to Ambinder, President Ahmadinejad made a Bush-like offer on television to meet President Obama, man to man.
Brazil's President Lula da Silva last week implored his friend, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, to release to Brazil a woman condemned to death by stoning. Iran rejected Lula's offer.
Neither the Obama meeting with the press nor Lula's plea should be taken simply at face value. Obama is not only informing the press and the American public, he is sending a message to Iran. Likewise, Lula's offer could be a testing of the waters; If Iran had replied positively, that would be a very good signal for negotiations. The rejection says that some things haven't changed. It could also be an attempt to set a wedge between the conservative mullahs and those in the government who would like for Iran to rejoin the world.
The United States is very likely encouraging the continuing participation of Brazil and Turkey in side interactions with Iran. Brazil has an interest in helping to keep Iran's nuclear program within bounds short of weapons; Brazil itself has an enrichment capability that it would like to maintain and a peaceful face on that program that would become less credible if Iran moves too close to a weapons capability. Turkey has an interest in keeping Iran's power in the region from becoming too unbalanced. Obama has said that the United States can no longer operate in the world as an isolated power and needs others to do their part. The problem with the earlier agreement between Iran and these two nations seems to have been in the timing: the typical move by Iran just before action is taken against it to defuse that action. Again, we are not seeing the entirety of these interactions.
The apparent attempt at assassinating Ahmadinejad is undoubtedly being considered by those who develop American tactics. Who was behind it and what were their politics? Are there likely to be others? What is Ahmadinejad's reaction? The mullahs'?
And then there's the overall Arab reaction. Marc Lynch analyzes the annual survey of Arab public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami and finds little support there for an attack on Iran. But the results, it seems to me, support the idea that a peaceful limitation of Iran's nuclear program would boost Obama's standing in the Arab world.
Update: Interesting...Robert Kagan gives a different point of view on Obama's press get-together, more consistent with my interpretation. From what he says, other reporters heavily overlaid their preconceptions on what Obama was saying, something I'm seeing in other places as well.
More from Steven Walt.
And Christiane Amanpour.