With prospects fading for tough economic sanctions against Iran anytime soon, the United States is shifting its stance even more solidly toward a diplomatic solution to Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
President Bush is sounding more conciliatory, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is approving more leeway for the Europeans to pursue talks with the Iranians – and everyone is insisting the aim is to allow Tehran the peaceful nuclear-power program it says is its only goal.
The US insists that the option of sanctions remains on the table, but the reasons for the softer approach appear to be twofold. First, Iranian officials are themselves sending mixed messages about their openness to suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for broad talks with the West. And second, international powers appear further than ever from joining to impose the sanctions they had agreed to this summer if Tehran did not suspend the nuclear activities that could lead to a bomb.
The question now niggling the US and others is whether Tehran is indeed debating the merits of backing off enrichment for the potentially more economically promising negotiations – or is just playing the international community for more time.
Iran's power circles are divided over what foreign policy to pursue, and that division is currently being played out in internal debate over the nuclear program, analysts say. What is less clear is when that debate might be settled enough to yield a clear answer to the countries – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – offering negotiations to Iran.
"Iran doesn't have a united front, that's clear," says Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "The problem is that the default for them [in the absence of unity] is a more aggressive approach, as opposed to accepting a deal."
Just last week, Mr. Bush warned the international community against falling into a trap set by Iran, and again on Tuesday, he said Tehran is simply stalling. If that continues, he added, "We will then discuss the consequences of their stalling." But in his speech to the UN General Assembly, the president refrained from any urgent language, saying the US accepts Tehran's right to a peaceful nuclear-power program.
At the same time, Secretary of State Rice convened a meeting Tuesday night of key foreign ministers – a meeting that was originally envisioned as the setting for the next steps towards sanctions. Instead, she allowed that preliminary talks between the Europeans and Iran will proceed. Her deputy, Nicholas Burns, said those talks are already in "extra innings," but there was no hint of a precise deadline for reaching a conclusion.
That approach reflects a consistent approach on the part of the administration, Mr. Wolfsthal says, which is to let Iran convince the world it ultimately is not willing to shut down its nuclear-weapons ambitions. "I don't think anyone in the administration really expects Iran to compromise," he says. "So the whole diplomatic path has been to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Iran never was serious about a diplomatic solution."
But other analysts say the American seesaw from tough talk to more conciliatory language reflects a hard-line/ pragmatist policy divide within the administration that is not unlike the split coloring Tehran's approach.
"Iran is another chapter in the administration's internal struggle for control of foreign policy," says Joseph Cirincione, a weapons-proliferation policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "Depending on where you sit in this divide, what we're seeing in terms of Iran is either the collapse of the Bush strategy [to arrive at international sanctions], or it's all unfolding according to plan."
Mr. Cirincione says "hard-liners" in the administration – starting with Vice President Dick Cheney – "have always thought Rice's strategy of going for sanctions would fail," but they have gone along as a way to prove the international community won't act. The objective, he says, is to let diplomacy run its course, especially with military action against Iran's nuclear installations so unpalatable right now.
"From their perspective, it's fine to have the president talking softly at the UN," he says, "as long as plans for military action proceed at the White House and in the backrooms of the Pentagon."
That does not mean the US is doing nothing more than sitting back while, from its perspective, Tehran hangs itself. Over recent weeks, the US has begun pressing other countries to pursue the kinds of unilateral measures it is already taking against Tehran, including freezing the assets of companies.
One Swiss bank, Union Bank of Switzerland, has already cut off relations with Iran, but the US would like to see more – especially since European intelligence reports earlier this year reported Iran was diligently looking throughout Europe and former Soviet countries for materials and technological know-how.
In the midst of the American and Iranian mixed signals, President Jacques Chirac of France came up with a new proposal this week that he said could break the diplomatic logjam: The Iranians would agree to suspend uranium enrichment once talks begin – not as a condition for talks as the US insists – and agree to honor the suspension as long as talks go on.
That suggestion took the US by surprise. But Mr. Chirac quickly reassured Bush publicly after a breakfast in New York Tuesday that he continues to see "eye to eye" with the US president on the necessity of forestalling a nuclear-armed Iran.
Cirincione says that Chirac, who saw the reality of the sanctions effort going nowhere fast, is "probably planting this as a face-saving solution" that could appeal to all sides.
But he adds that while he believes a deal is still possible, the conditions may be too much for Washington to allow. The US and its international partners would have to "accept some amount of enrichment activity in Iran," he says, while the US would have to cease "all talk and promotion of regime change in Tehran."
What that would amount to, Cirincione says, is offering the Iranian regime "the same security assurances we gave the government of Libya to get that deal" of forswearing nuclear-weapons goals.
All these issues will keep diplomacy around Iran's nuclear program percolating for a while, with some analysts predicting little movement well into next year.
Another reason for the lack of urgency – fewer officials even in the Bush administration are speaking of a "crisis" – is that more nuclear experts are concluding that Iran's progress toward mastery of nuclear weapons technology has slowed.
Despite a recent House committee report faulting US intelligence for failing to keep abreast of Iran's progress, most experts say Iran has slowed its rate of advancement in the nuclear field – either by design or as a result of mounting procurement difficulties in terms of technology and materials.
"It's increasingly clear through inspections and intelligence reports that Iran is making glacially slow progress on its program," Wolfsthal of CSIS says.
"Yes, they have surprised us before," he adds. "But from what we're able to see, it's pretty clear they are not months away, but years away, from having a nuclear bomb. And that is deflating some of the pressure to act on this one way or the other right now."