President Barack Obama’s year of outreach to Iran has succeeded in putting it on the diplomatic defensive: that much was clear from Friday’s blunt reproach of Tehran by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board. But it’s less clear that Obama can convert that diplomatic advantage into sanctions that will curtail Iran’s nuclear program. “The question is,” says one senior Democratic aide in Congress, “Can Obama pivot [from engagement to sanctions] and succeed in changing conditions on the ground?” Iran is betting he can’t. On Sunday, two days after the IAEA rebuke, Tehran approved plans to build 10 new enrichment plants, ordering that work begin immediately on the first five.
The Administration insists it is still open to talks with Tehran, but behind the scenes it is stepping up its efforts to approve new sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. It is also encouraging even tougher measures among like-minded allies the European Union may adopt new penalties in mid-December. And the U.S. Congress is moving closer to passing new sanctions legislation. “We hope Iran will see the IAEA vote as disturbing” and will change course, a senior Administration official says. But for now, he adds, “We are now working to see what sanctions might be put in place.”