With evidence mounting that international pressure on Iran is getting results, President Bush prepares to deliver a State of the Union speech Tuesday night that could provide signs of where efforts against Tehran and its nuclear program will go next.
Although it remains debatable what exactly is working – sanctions, Western unity, the threat of force, targeted US actions, or even deteriorating internal conditions – Iran appears to be responding, analysts say.
"The sanctions and international pressure are having an effect," says Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
But Mr. Cirincione cautions against interpreting everything going on inside Iran as a direct response to international pressure on the nuclear program. "The sanctions are hurting Iran's economy, especially by [sowing] doubts among international investors and discouraging their involvement in the Iranian economy," he says. "At the same time, the pragmatists and reformers are using the sense of Iran's growing international isolation to strike back at [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, but for reasons unrelated to the nuclear issue."
In an unusual step, a majority in Iran's parliament has sent a letter to Mr. Ahmadinejad laying responsibility for the country's dire economic straits at his feet, and criticizing him for his high-profile foreign travel.
In addition, Ahmadinejad – who has made a global name for himself by defying the United States, European powers, and the United Nations Security Council with his nuclear-related taunts – appears to be coming under growing political pressure at home to stifle the brinkmanship.
Last week two prominent Iranian newspapers, including one owned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, rebuked Ahmadinejad over the nuclear issue and called on him to distance himself from nuclear policy. And in comments released Monday, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, joined the chorus of criticism.
Still, Ahmadinejad remained defiant over the weekend, dismissing criticism that his country's economy has been hurt by UN sanctions. Iran also announced new tests of short-range missiles.
While it is too early to say if Tehran will be ready to alter its nuclear course or is simply concerned about Ahmadinejad's extremist image, some experts say it is equally unclear how Mr. Bush will interpret the events in Tehran – and whether or not he will see them as the fruit of diplomacy.
"What we are seeing is the success of American and European pressure. It is not American pressure on its own," says Anatol Lieven, a foreign-policy expert at the New America Foundation in Washington. He sees growing Iranian isolation in the region "as a result of Iran's overambitious and menacing stance."
The turn of events is "an example of multilateralism, not of America working on its own," he says.
But will Bush see it that way?
It was in his State of the Union address of 2002 that Bush first spoke of Iran as part of an "axis of evil," for its support of what the US deems terrorist organizations. Since then, Tehran has advanced its nuclear program to uranium enrichment, while the US has developed contingency plans for taking out Iranian nuclear installations with air power.
Some analysts and a few prominent foreign diplomats – including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – have said they see unsettling parallels between US action and rhetoric on Iraq and America's Iran policy.
Yet since early 2005, the US has opened a diplomatic track, primarily with European powers, to stop Iran short of acquiring nuclear weapons through international pressure.
The Security Council approved a sanctions resolution against Iran late last year. The resolution was considerably weakened under veto threat from Russia and China – two of Iran's key commercial partners – but the move paved the way for the US to pursue tougher financial sanctions. It has also pursued action with a "coalition of the willing" of primarily European countries.
Earlier this month, the Treasury Department took action against an Iranian bank, prohibiting it from completing transactions in US dollars. The European Union is also considering tougher action against Tehran than the measures called for in the UN resolution.
At the same time, the US is taking some aggressive military steps: moving a second aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, for example, and detaining Iranians in Iraq, who it claims have links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that is allegedly supporting insurgents in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a number of US partners in the Middle East have adopted tougher stances vis-à-vis Tehran. Saudi Arabia is rebuffing Iranian efforts to engineer a cut in OPEC oil production that could stem a decline in the price of crude oil. And in a Jan. 16 meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, and several Gulf states issued a critical statement that, while oblique in its references, was clearly aimed at Iran.
The question now may be how long Bush – who has flatly ruled out allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons – will be willing to stick with an approach whose steering wheel is not solely in American hands.
Yet another question – raised to national prominence by the Iraq Study Group – is whether the US will eventually move to talks with Tehran as part of a regional effort to stabilize Iraq.
Mr. Lieven, speaking at a Washington forum last week, said that Iran is a "natural ally" when it comes to Afghanistan – indeed, the US worked with Iranian officials in the early stages of stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.