WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s strategy today in talks with Iran is to convince both the Iranians and America’s partners at the table that it is prepared to take crippling measures if Tehran does not reverse course on its nuclear program.
Such an approach is evident in recent remarks, US officials and Iran analysts say — from President Obama’s words last week with colleagues at the United Nations Security Council to statements since then by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Secretary Gates said on CNN Sunday that the United States has “a pretty rich list to pick from” in considering stronger steps against Tehran.
“The message to the Iranians is clearly, ‘Guys, we’ve got a lot of other things we can do if you’re not prepared to take some very reasonable steps,’ ” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In today’s talks, set to take place in Geneva, the United States will be represented by William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs. Mr. Burns also participated in the last multilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program, in July 2008, but only as an observer.
So far on the calendar, the talks are for one day.
Among the measures the US is considering if the talks do not rapidly show promise:
- Expanding an existing freeze on some bank assets so that more Iranian banks are included.
- Lengthening the list of Iranian officials banned form international travel.
- Toughening and better enforcing existing restrictions on arms sales to Iran.
“A lot more could be done with what’s already on the books,” Mr. Clawson says.
A new measure under consideration is a ban on insuring and on “reinsuring” oil tankers that transport petroleum and petroleum products to and from Iran. The intended effect: Traders would have second thoughts about doing business with Iran.
One direction the Obama administration has yet to take is to zero in on actions designed to undercut and even topple the 30-year-old regime in Tehran. This is the approach recommended by a growing number of analysts and intellectuals on the right and the left.
“The boys that wanted to bomb Tehran are back on regime change, and they’ve been joined by some on the left who had been plugging their ears to those words,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
The idea that the problem is the regime — of which the nuclear program is only a symptom — grew out of the aftermath of Iran’s June 12 presidential elections. Violent repression of Iranians protesting the officially declared reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the subsequent persecution of political moderates, has galvanized an ideologically diverse international opposition to the regime.
“There’s been a paradigm shift, from targeting the nukes to doing something about political change,” Mr. Sokolski says.
Clawson sees the proliferation of “It’s the regime, stupid” commentaries in the US from neoconservatives and liberals alike as “a bit of catch-up with the Europeans,” whom he says “changed their thinking abruptly following the human rights abuses of the postelection period.”
But, he says, that thinking has not yet caught on in an administration that from the start promised dialogue with even the most intractable adversaries. “The president has made engagement his main focus, and that included talking to the Iranians while dismissing the notion of regime change,” Clawson says. “Then came the June 12 elections and their aftermath, and they [in the administration] are still trying to get their heads around what to do about that.”