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US begins to reach out to Iran, but slowly and cautiously

Iran's nuclear program prompts Israel to signal possible action in 2010. More sanctions could become an option.

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The senior European official says he made the same point to his US counterparts, including Dennis Ross, who was recently named a special adviser to Clinton who will focus on Iran. The Iranians see the prospect of relations with the US in broader terms than their nuclear program, the official says.

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"In a sense, the future of the regime is at stake," he says. "Their first and only [concern] is the survival of the regime."

That means the Iranians are likely to move slowly on any diplomatic feelers the US may send out. Already, the Iranians are sending signals that they have no intentions of responding quickly.

A speech given by Ayatollah Khamenei last week, in which he called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and blasted the Palestinian Authority for working with Israel, "will only make life difficult in Washington for people arguing for engagement with Iran," Mr. Vatanka says.

Clinton has herself raised the prospect that the Iranians may decide they don't want to negotiate. She has also said they may overestimate America's interest in negotiations and the international community's patience with Tehran.

As a result, the US is also interested in convincing the Iranians that international powers are prepared to take up harsher sanctions if the diplomatic route quickly proves to be a dead end.

But whether the international community would be ready for tougher sanctions even after a failed US attempt at engagement remains in doubt.

The best way to get Iran's attention would be through sanctions on its oil industry, some Iran experts say, especially given the view of some that the Iranian economy is on the brink. Russia, who wouldn't mind seeing the higher oil prices that sanctions would probably spur, might be convinced, these experts say.

Others say that a broad improvement in US-Russia relations will be a determining factor in what the international community does. "China will follow Russia on this issue, so the key is Russia," says Nancy Soderberg, a former US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.

But China would be less likely to follow Russia's lead in the midst of a global economic downtown, some analysts counter. In addition, Vatanka of Jane's Information Group says, Western countries are already so little involved in Iran's oil industry that any action they take is unlikely to move Tehran.

"The Iranians have learned to live with the minimum," he says. "I really see nothing in terms of the oil industry that could be a game-changer at this point."