History would quickly intervene to put Iran’s actions in an even harsher light. In June 2009, Iranian authorities launched a brutal crackdown against hundreds of thousands of young Iranians who took to the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging in the reelection of Ahmadinejad. Muslims around the world recoiled at YouTube videos showing Iranian police beating and even killing unarmed demonstrators.
Then, that September, the Obama administration revealed the existence of a hidden uranium-enrichment plant near the Iranian city of Qom. The discovery of the plant — concealed inside a fortified mountain bunker — all but demolished Iran’s claim that it was interested only in developing peaceful nuclear energy under U.N. oversight.
In the months that followed, Obama saw a chance to unite the U.N. Security Council behind tough new economic sanctions that would isolate Iran diplomatically and pressure its leaders to accept a deal, former and current administration officials said.
“There was high-level, personal involvement” by Obama in lobbying Russian and Chinese leaders to support sanctions, recalled a senior administration official who participated in meetings and phone calls in which the sanctions were discussed. “We wanted to achieve the maximum, and Russian and Chinese help was crucial,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatic deliberations.
The U.N. sanctions, approved in June 2010, were only the opening salvo in a pressure campaign that would continue to gather steam over the following two years. Goaded at times by Congress, the White House enacted unprecedented restrictions on international commerce with Iran’s petroleum, shipping and banking sectors. The European Union adopted nearly identical measures and then went even further, imposing an unprecedented embargo on Iranian oil, effective July 1, 2012.
Although Iran has weathered sanctions in the past, independent analysts say the impact this time has been staggering. Oil exports have plummeted by a third, forcing Iran to shut down oil wells and close petrochemical plants, depriving the country’s economy of billions of dollars each month. Iran’s currency, meanwhile, is in free fall, driving up food prices and jobless rates throughout the country.
While remaining defiant, Iranian officials have been forced to acknowledge the sanctions’ severe impact.
“There are some problems in selling oil, and we are trying to manage it,” Ahmadinejad said in a rare admission on state television. He then accused the Obama administration and its allies of waging an “all-out, hidden, heavy war” against Iran.
Elusive diplomatic solution
Without question, the administration’s pressure campaign has sharpened Iran’s choices and dramatically raised the cost of its nuclear program. In addition to new sanctions, Obama has sold billions of dollars in military hardware to Iran’s rivals in the Persian Gulf region, while also authorizing the expansion of a secret campaign to disrupt Iran’s uranium production through cyberattacks and other covert means. Both strategies built on policies begun under President George W. Bush.