The headlines from the WikiLeaks dump of thousands of not-very-classified State Department cables have focused, understandably, on the embarrassment factor: It's not good for American diplomacy when foreign leaders see what they thought were confidential conversations reprinted on websites and in newspapers.
But the substance is another thing. Take Iran. What do the cables tell us? That the United States has been telling the truth about what it wants from Iran; that the Obama administration desperately wants to find a solution that doesn't include military action; and that a formidable alliance of other countries, not only Israel but most of Europe and Iran's Arab neighbors as well, shares the U.S. concerns.
The WikiLeaks cables report that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has implored President Obama to "cut off the head of the snake" — embarrassing for the king, perhaps, but no surprise to any of his subjects who have been paying attention. The cables also report the wry reaction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who insists that military action against Iran is a bad idea: The Saudis, he said, want to "fight the Iranians to the last American."
There is a limit, though, to how much a random assortment of cables can show. From reading every document released about Iran so far, you might miss the most important fact: The Obama administration's long campaign to increase pressure on Iran is actually showing signs of progress.
International economic sanctions are finally beginning to bite. Major European oil companies, including BP and Shell, have finally stopped supplying Iran with the refined fuel products it desperately needs. European banks and other businesses are reducing their profiles in Tehran.
And the measures are stoking dissension in Iran's government. "We have never had such intensified sanctions," Iran's former speaker of parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, complained in September, criticizing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for responding haphazardly to the challenge. One religious leader publicly questioned whether Ahmedinejad's government is telling the truth about the inflation rate — officially about 9 percent, but said by many Iranians to feel much higher.
Iran's economy is vulnerable. The country's most important source of income — oil production — has fallen sharply, partly because Iran can no longer attract new investment, technology and expertise from most countries.
If Ahmadinejad follows through on his plan to remove most of the subsidies that have kept essentials such as electricity, water, gasoline and bread artificially cheap (gasoline is still only 38 cents a gallon), Iranians will feel even more pinched.
Meanwhile, someone has been sabotaging Iran's nuclear research program. Ahmadinejad acknowledged last week that a foreign software attack "made problems" at the main facility that is enriching uranium and making it potentially useful for the nuclear weapons Iran says it doesn't want. Assassins on motorcycles killed one prominent nuclear scientist and wounded another by slapping magnetic bombs onto their cars in Tehran. No government claimed responsibility, but Israeli newspapers reported that their country has used that technique in the past.
Under all that pressure, Iran announced last week that it would resume nuclear negotiations with the major Western powers in Geneva starting.
The United States and its allies want to revive a proposal to move most of Iran's enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for safe nuclear fuel for medical use; Iran agreed to the idea last year but then backed away. Iran wants to expand the talks beyond nuclear issues; the Western powers are willing to agree as long as progress is being made on the nuclear front.
What's going on here is a high-stakes campaign to buy time — to slow Iran's nuclear clock. Obama administration officials doubt that the Iranian regime is susceptible to a sudden change of heart on the desirability of nuclear weapons, but they do think that it can be induced to slow down, and that, in this game, any delay should count as a success. In the best-case scenario, the longer Iran's nuclear work can be delayed, the greater the chance that a new government could assume power and decide on a change of course. The risk, of course, is that at some point Israel will decide that its survival requires a military strike.
The good news is that U.S. officials say there is still time for more diplomatic inroads. The Iranians aren't able yet to produce large amounts of weapons-grade uranium.
The Obama administration deserves credit for getting as far as it has. Critics dismissed Obama's offer of engagement with Iran as naive and his reliance on economic sanctions as ineffective. But the sanctions have had bite, and it was engagement that made the sanctions possible. The problem of Iran hasn't yet been solved, but the administration has made progress, the kind of progress that a collection of leaked cables can't always convey.