Plotting the Next Moves in Obama’s Chess Match with Iran


As President Obama surveys the perilous landscape of the Middle East after his first year in office, his next moves in the chess match over Iran’s nuclear weapons program could be decisive. While the President should be commended for vigorously engaging with the Iranian regime, now is the time for stronger action. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by this regime not only constitutes a grave threat to the United States and the security of our allies, but could also solidify the regime’s tenuous grasp on power, potentially dealing a fatal blow to the aspirations of the Iranian people for reform, freedom and human rights.

Obama would thus be well-advised to pursue broad economic sanctions against the regime while urging the European Union and Russia to join in meaningful sanctions. At the same time, the President should increase his rhetorical support for the protesters in Iran. By ratcheting up economic and political pressure on the Iranian regime while supporting the Iranian people, President Obama can synthesize his vision of a muscular American foreign policy outlined in Oslo with his landmark outreach to the Iranian people and the Muslim world at large.

First, the White House should not hold up or water down the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which the House of Representatives recently passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. This legislation directly targets companies that aid Iran’s petroleum sector, including shipping companies and insurers, and will be instrumental in exerting greater pressure on the Iranian regime. The strategic objective of sanctions against Iran is to alter the regime’s behavior and its cost-benefit analysis. By implementing broader, so-called “crippling” economic sanctions, the United States, in partnership with the E.U. and potentially Russia, must make the cost of developing nuclear weapons sufficiently high to outweigh the benefits of such a choice.

Although the White House has signaled a preference for focused, targeted sanctions, broad sanctions against the Iranian petroleum sector will serve as a powerful negotiating tool, both in deterring the regime from developing nuclear weapons and in encouraging tougher action from the European Union and Russia. The efforts of Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey in pursuing punitive measures against the Iranian regime’s financial assets should be strongly supported to complement the broad sanctions against the petroleum sector. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last month in Oslo, President Obama warned that “those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable [and] sanctions must exact a real price.” After multiple rebuffs to American diplomacy by the regime, broad sanctions will send a powerful message to the Iranian regime that consistently flouting the international community will have consequences.

Moreover, the President can use the threat of wielding broad sanctions in his efforts to lobby Europe and Russia to adopt meaningful sanctions as well. As Iran’s largest trading partner, the E.U. could effectively isolate the Iranian regime. In 2008 alone, the E.U. exported nearly $16 billion in goods to Iran. Meanwhile, Russia, which has benefited from large arms exports to Iran over the last decade, has also indicated it is amenable to sanctions against the regime. As China looks increasingly unwilling to join any UN sanctions, E.U. support and Russian cooperation on sanctions against the Iranian regime will be critical.

Finally, building upon his speech in Oslo and his historic overtures to the Iranian people, President Obama should deliver greater rhetorical support to the Iranian protesters. Obama was wise to take a cautious approach to the post-election demonstrations last June, given concerns that his public support could enable the regime to blame the U.S. for the demonstrations. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a broad swath of Iranians opposes the current regime. In June, the protesters chanted, “Where is my vote?” now they chant, “Death to dictator.” Where they once called for “Death to America, Death to Israel,” the Iranian people now shout “Death to Russia, Death to China,” a clear condemnation of Russian and Chinese opposition to sanctions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Since November of last year, Iranian protesters have chanted “Obama, Obama, either with us, or with them!” In his Nobel Prize speech, President Obama answered these calls, promising to “bear witness to the quiet dignity” of “the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” While pursuing tougher action against the regime, the President must continue to support the Iranian people in their efforts to reform their government, seek freedom and secure human rights. Such direct appeals by the President to the Iranian people could also be delivered via new/social media and communication technologies.

Skeptics have argued that sanctions could backfire by raising the cost of gasoline in Iran and enriching Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. However, direct appeals by President Obama to the Iranian people may offset propaganda disseminated by the weakened regime, especially given its disastrous management of the economy. Furthermore, targeted financial sanctions against the regime’s financial assets could prevent key members of the regime from profiting from the gasoline sanctions.

Without a constructive U.S.-Iran relationship, there can be no stability in the Middle East. However, public criticism of the Iranian regime and support for the Iranian people are not mutually exclusive with negotiating with the regime over its nuclear weapons program. American interests in an Iran free of nuclear weapons are directly in line with the interests of Iranians who seek democratic and social reform. Thus, hopes for a transformation of the current Iranian regime hinge on the chess match – a game that originated in ancient Persia – over Iran’s nuclear program. The next move is the President’s – and it could be decisive.

This article was originally published at

Sam Yebri ’03, former editor-in-chief of The Politic, is an attorney at Proskauer Rose and President of 30 Years After, an Iranian American civic action organization. Josh Lockman ’04 is an attorney at Latham & Watkins and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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