President Obama says international sanctions against Iran are creating "disquiet" there, and he suggested that the United States would seek to sketch out a series of steps that Iran could take to reassure the world about whether it intends to become a nuclear threat.
We have picked up "rumblings that there is disquiet about the impact" in Iran about the latest sanctions, the president told me Wednesday at the White House, although he did not go into specifics.
The President's comments to a small group of journalists come a day after the U.S. Treasury Department tightened sanctions against Iran to include an additional 21 entities tied to Iran's leadership and government, the latest in a series of measures including separate sanctions approved by both the UN Security Council and the U.S. Congress in June.
A senior administration official told ABC News that "we want to ratchet up the pressure, but there's always going to be an open door for Iranians to walk through."
This had been a contentious point during the 2008 election. Obama, as a candidate, said at the time he would be open to direct talks with Iran, and Republicans attacked him as naive about dealing with international adversaries. In this interview, Obama put that issue firmly back on the table for the first time in his presidency.
President Obama said he believes the costs of the sanctions are going to be higher than Iran could have anticipated, but he is not sure yet whether that cost-benefit analysis will override "what may be an ideological or nationalistic commitment to nuclear weapons."
At the same time, the President said it was very important for there to be a set of steps for Iran to show they are not pursuing nuclear weapons and that lays out a pathway whereby they know what they should say yes to.
While Mr. Obama said it would be "premature to map out, to lay out a precise roadmap," he added, "We should lay out with specificity" a series of steps Iran can take to convince the international community of its intentions.
Another US official said in addition to the hardship created by the sanctions, the administration believes that "Iran is having technical difficulties moving ahead with key components to produce fissile materials."
"Sanctions and engagement are not polar opposites," said another senior administration official, echoing the existing U.S. position that Iran is free to meet with United States officials within the context of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, known in diplomatic circles as the "P5 plus 1."
A senior U.S. official said the administration is waiting to see if Iran comes back to the negotiating table after Ramadan as it has publicly indicated in the past, but there have been no direct contacts with Iran about engagement.
The President refused to be drawn into a discussion on what the U.S. would do if Iran refused negotiations and continued development of its nuclear program.
"I'm not going to issue any public red lines. Iran should understand when I say we have all options on the table. I'm not going to announce any particular red lines at a meeting like this," he said.
He also sounded optimistic about the message that sanctions have sent. "We are seeing signs of actual enforcement," Obama said. The president said the actions of Russia and China, coming together and supporting the UN sanctions, have had a strong impact on Iran.
"Russia continues to do things that we would not have imagined two years ago," he said, including holding up military sales to Iran that have a direct commercial impact on Russia. "They were willing to stay with us and that ensured China could not wiggle out" and that enabled the U.S. to put through tough sanctions at the UN, he said.
"Engagement served our purpose, which was to say to them if you are willing to take a pathway" to being a responsible member of the international community then the U.S. would respond, he said. "We were sincere."
The President added that there are legitimate areas where with hard work the United States could achieve "a thaw in what has been 30 years of antagonism between our two countries."
"I consider Iran a country of enormous potential."