“I think there is little doubt that the Iranians have been taken by surprise by this. It’s something they didn’t think possible,” said Gordon, who noted that the sanctions began during the Bush administration and have intensified under the Obama administration.
Gordon and Singh both think the Bush administration in which they served could’ve ratcheted up sanctions more quickly, preventing Iran from adapting as fast as it did. The deep global financial crisis, oddly enough, gave the Obama administration more leverage over Iran. Oil demand plunged, leaving Iran, a major exporter, in a weaker position to threaten disruption of oil markets.
“There is no question that part of what has enabled sanctions in recent years is the economic crisis. It was much harder to do this (sanctions) when the world economy was bubbling along and you had a pretty tight situation on the oil supply side,” Gordon said.
Fearing blowback from high oil prices, the Bush and Obama administrations both resisted tougher sanctions, proposed in Congress, to target Iran’s central bank. The Romney campaign has criticized this reluctance as weakness.
“In the end, it’s not a terribly well-informed indictment of Obama administration policy,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy who also served the Bush administration as an Iran adviser. “Whatever the domestic politics of sanctions were last fall, this administration has been exceptionally successful in garnering international support and keep the coalition (against Iran) together. That is almost unprecedented.”
Maloney does rap the Obama team’s policy toward Iran – but not for being too soft. She thinks the administration should have done more to provide incentives to Iran to change its policy.
“It may be that sanctions relaxation in exchange for concessions is a preferable outcome . . . than using force to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold,” she said. “I don’t think the administration has developed a very good arsenal of incentives.”
Spare parts for aircraft, a “go-to offer” for the past 15 years, won’t do, she said.
“We have to find something they actually want, and something we politically are able to put on the table,” Mahoney said.