Is it too early to ease up on Iran?

Is it too early to ease up on Iran?

The Obama administration has Washington tied up in knots this week after an Aug. 4, invite-only briefing on Iran attended by editorial writers and columnists that seems to have only sewn confusion among the attendees.

The star of the briefing was none other then President Obama himself, who told the crowd that he saw signs that the sanctions were beginning to work and that he wanted Iran to understand that it had a clear "pathway" to escaping from them by complying with its international obligations.

First out of the gate with a writeup of the meeting was the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, followed by The Atlantic‘s Marc Amdinder and Jeffrey Goldberg, as well as another Washington Post writer, Robert Kagan. The New York Times editorial page weighed in with its own take today.

Kagan’s article was the most interesting, because he politely suggested that "some of the journalists present" (read: Ignatius) had gotten the story completely wrong. They (Ignatius) thought the president was "signaling a brand-new diplomatic initiative" when in fact, according to Kagan, "the ‘news’ out of this briefing was that the administration wanted everyone to know how tough it was being on Iran." (That seemed to be Ambinder and Goldberg’s impression as well.)

A White House official tried to clear up some of the confusion with Politico‘s Laura Rozen Friday, telling her that "what the president was trying to make very clear is that we have had a dual track approach" — both pressure and engagment.

Now comes New York Times reporter David Sanger with an interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who tells him the administration has been sending "very clear messages" to Iranian leaders lately (most likely via EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton) that it’s willing to talk. In other words, Ignatius was on to something.

"Clearly," Sanger writes, "the administration has decided to re-emphasize opening diplomatic channels." (Here’s hoping it’s more clear to Iran than it was to everyone else. Maybe the White House ought to release the transcript of the briefing, so we can see for ourselves what the overall tenor of the administration’s message was.)

One additional comment. I realize it takes some time to get diplomatic initiatives going, and the administration is trying to nudge the Iranians toward being productive in their upcoming talks with EU officials, and perhaps tee something up for the U.N. General Assembly opening in September.

But isn’t it a bit early to take the boot off Iran’s neck? The U.N. sanctions were passed on June 9, the United States added its own on July 1, Europe followed suit with surprisingly tough measures on July 26, and Japan is bringing up the rear. So they haven’t even been fully put in place yet, let alone implemented.

Meanwhile, Obama is already saying he hears "rumblings" that the sanctions are beginning to bite. Yes, as Sanger notes, there are signs that banks, energy companies, and insurers are starting to turn away from Tehran. But oil prices are still above $80 a barrel, the Iranian stock market hit an all-time high Monday, and who knows what China and Russia, let alone Germany, are willing to do. So it’s a mixed picture.

My guess is that Obama folks understand all this, but are worried that Iran will be able to adjust to the sanctions over time, so they’re trying to get a deal done before Tehran gets too comfortable. Still, I’m not sure Iran is feeling pressured enough just yet. We’ll see.