Giving Iran another chance at diplomacy, deeply skeptical Obama administration officials return to nuclear negotiations this weekend looking for quick progress _ or at least enough hope to hold off urgent calls from Israel for military action.
The U.S. and other world powers are stopping short of saying the gathering in Istanbul is a make-or-break situation. But as they sit down with Iranian officials for the first time in more than a year to press yet again for an agreement on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, American officials say the window for a diplomatic breakthrough is closing. And in the event the talks fail completely, all U.S. options remain on the table.
Speaking Thursday after hosting foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Iran to prove to the world its claim that its uranium enrichment activity is for peaceful purposes. The U.S. and many other countries fear Tehran is trying to produce an atomic bomb and have challenged Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to substantiate his edict that weapons of mass destruction violate Islamic law.
"We're looking for concrete results," Clinton told reporters. "They assert that their program is purely peaceful. They point to a fatwa that the supreme leader has issued against the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We want them to demonstrate clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abandoned any nuclear weapons ambition."
The ball is clearly in Iran's court. Mounting U.S. and European measures are crippling the Iranian economy, with the rial depreciating dramatically under the weight of restrictions on petroleum exports and efforts to cut off Iranian banks from the world financial system. U.S. and European sanctions will get more severe this summer.
Ahead of the talks, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili vowed to present new initiatives, without specifying what they might be. Iranian officials have suggested scaling back on uranium enrichment while continuing to make nuclear fuel. It's unlikely such an offer would satisfy the demands of the U.S. and its fellow negotiators _ Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia _ but may illustrate enough of a compromise to justify follow-up talks over the next several weeks.
Iran has been skilled at using negotiations to stall for time. It has reneged repeatedly on understandings reached behind closed doors over eight years of talks, initially with European mediators and later expanded to include the United States and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. All the while, Tehran has intensified its uranium enrichment program.
Israel wants tougher action. The Jewish state sees a nuclear-armed Iran as the greatest threat to its existence and has made a point of reminding the world that it sees the threat more urgently than others and that it is prepared to strike Iranian nuclear facilities with or without international support. Israeli military officials believe they'd have to strike by summer to be effective.
The United States can afford to be a little more patient. But it is dealing with its own clock counting down the time left for diplomacy. The fact that President Barack Obama, too, has committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon _ and not simply containing Iran should it acquire one _ means the U.S. might similarly be compelled to act. Adding to the tension is an election season in which Obama's Republican rivals accuse him of being soft on Iran and weak on defending Israel.
Obama has underlined the need to give time for diplomacy alongside sanctions and fired back at his critics for "beating the drums of war." But the president also will need some signs of a possible breakthrough to show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he is to fundamentally change the Israeli calculus. And unless the Iranians break from the mold set at previous gatherings, he will be hard pressed to do so.
Speaking earlier this month in Istanbul, Clinton said Iran could demonstrate its seriousness in a number of ways. She suggested that Iran end its production of highly enriched uranium, which at 20 percent can more easily be transformed into bomb-making material. She also urged Tehran to ship out its existing stockpile of this uranium to another country and open up its facilities to "constant inspections and verifications."
The most feasible model for a deal may involve an arrangement Iran agreed to in Geneva in 2009, and then quickly walked away from. It involved the Islamic republic shipping out its highly enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel rods. Although Western officials see the contours of such an agreement as still viable, they say it must be updated to represent more than two years of continued Iranian enrichment. Another compromise could see Iran suspend its higher enrichment if the West holds off on some sanctions.
Failure of the process raises the possibility of a military attack that could lead to severe repercussions in the region and around the world. Even if it is the U.S. that chooses to intervene, Iran's retaliation could come through attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, attempts to block the strategic strait of Hormuz, or proxy terrorist activity against U.S. allies such as Israel or in instable states such as Lebanon. Conflict also could drive up oil prices beyond their $100-plus per barrel level today and raise gasoline costs worldwide.
For that reason, the U.S. and its European partners are prepared to show some _ but not much _ patience if they can create a framework for progress. It's an approach that aims to avoid the all-or-nothing stakes of previous meetings that have consistently left world powers with nothing. But they'll have to get to something quickly.