Will the Elections Change Obama's Iran Policy?

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From left: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images; Hassan Ammar / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Talks over Iran's nuclear program appear likely to resume in Europe later this month, but nobody's expecting Tehran to cry the only word the U.S. wants to hear: "Uncle." Indeed, U.S. officials are telling news organizations that they don't expect much from the talks to which Iran agreed to on Oct. 29 at the invitation of E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. That's O.K., a senior official told the New York Times; that will just give sanctions more time to bite, while demonstrating a U.S. readiness to talk that will help build international support for further coercive action. And with President Obama bloodied by his party's midterm elections setbacks, some in Washington — most notably senior Washington Post columnist David Broder — are even publicly suggesting that Obama's best hope of winning re-election may lie in uniting the country behind him in a showdown with Iran.

There's no indication that the President or other key decisionmakers have abandoned their skepticism of a military solution to the standoff, based on an awareness that the consequences of starting a war could be more dangerous than any threat currently posed by Iran. But the Times reports that a debate is under way within the Administration over whether Obama should be amplifying the threat of military action if Iran remains defiant. The Administration's Iran point man, Dennis Ross, has made clear in his writings on the matter that he believes Iran will back down only if it believes it faces a credible threat of military action. But there's no legal basis for military action — all relevant U.N. resolutions have been carefully crafted to avoid giving the U.S. the loopholes used by the Bush Administration to claim legal authority for attacking Iraq — because most of those nations supporting sanctions remain resolutely opposed to military action. So threatening force could potentially break up whatever diplomatic consensus currently exists, and that would suit Iran.

But even if Obama is inclined to resist any temptation to rally a more hawkish post-election legislature by ratcheting up confrontation with Iran, he'll find it even more difficult, after the election, to compromise with a regime so widely reviled on Capitol Hill. And without compromise, a diplomatic solution remains unlikely.

U.S. officials are prudently avoiding portraying Iran's agreement to a new round of talks, to be held either in Vienna or Geneva, as a victory for their sanctions strategy. That's because while they believe sanctions have been more effective than Tehran had anticipated, they're aware that Iran still has plenty of trade and investment from its neighbors and key players such as China, and it's unlikely to arrive at the table in a conciliatory mood. Indeed, among the topics the Iranians have insisted be discussed is the West's attitude to Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons capability — a clear signal that they aim to demonstrate what they see as Western double standards.

The U.S. is also not approaching the talks in a compromising mood. Administration officials are reportedly weighing a new fuel-swap proposal more onerous in its requirements of Tehran than the one initially accepted and then nixed by Iran a year ago — and revived last spring by Turkey and Brazil. Western officials are said to want a 50% increase over last year's proposal in the amount of uranium that Iran would be required to ship abroad in exchange for reactor fuel — in recognition of the fact that Iran has substantially increased its stockpile over the last year, and the deal's purpose is to restrict the material available to Iran should it seek to enrich to weapons grade.

Iran would also be required to suspend enrichment by 20% for a research reactor that produces medical isotopes, which it began doing after rejecting last year's fuel swap deal — although some Iranian officials have hinted they might be willing to concede that point. But there's some debate in the Western camp over any deal that could be taken as de-facto acceptance of Iran's ongoing enrichment to the 3.5% level for energy purposes. Such enrichment is currently in violation of a U.N. suspension order, although once transparency concerns have been satisfied, Iran would be allowed, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to resume. But the U.S. and its closest allies are unwilling to trust Iran to exercise that particular NPT right — although many Western officials, and even the likes of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have warned that this position is untenable, and the best that can be achieved is agreement to tighten the scrutiny and safeguards against Iran weaponizing nuclear material.

The fact that the Western powers lack consensus among themselves, much less with other key players such as Russia and China, on an acceptable compromise would only be a problem if there was any expectation of a breakthrough in the next round of talks. But neither side appears to be seeking one. For the U.S., the talks are an opportunity to send Iran a message that pressure will increase until Tehran is ready to yield; for Iran, the negotiations are an opportunity to make clear that it has no intention of backing down, confident it can ride out the sanctions and any other pressure the U.S. can plausibly muster.

The same stalemate persisted through the second term of George W. Bush's Administration, and resulted in Iran crossing the threshold to become a nuclear-capable state by mastering enrichment. But Obama, under pressure from an even more hawkish and assertive Congress, is unlikely to have the luxury enjoyed by his predecessor of maintaining a passive hard line while Iran's nuclear capacity grows.