After a half-year of extending patient feelers to Iran, President Barack Obama has set a timeline — warning Tehran it must show willingness to negotiate an end to its nuclear program by September or face consequences.
If the West weighs new moves against Iran this fall, as Obama suggested Friday, it will likely mean new U.N. sanctions or unilateral U.S. penalties, rather than military strikes.
Obama told reporters in Italy, where he met with other world leaders, that there is now a September "time frame" for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program. While he did not call it a deadline, he said the world cannot afford to wait long for Iran to make its intentions clear.
"We're not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of the nuclear weapon," he said.
Obama said that in September "we will re-evaluate Iran's posture toward negotiating the cessation of a nuclear weapons policy." If by then it has not accepted the offer of talks, the United States and "potentially a lot of other countries" are going to say "we need to take further steps," he said.
The president did not say what steps he has in mind. He mentioned neither sanctions nor military force. But it seems clear that a next step to pressure Iran would entail some form of sanctions.
"The administration and the other powers would probably like to leave the toughest forms of sanctions to be used if they feel that diplomacy has not gone anywhere — not in this pre-diplomacy period," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which supports expanded U.S.-Iranian contacts.
Unrest in Tehran
Working against Obama's expression of urgency is the political paralysis in Tehran, where protesters this week sought to revive street demonstrations over the country's disputed presidential election. Iranian authorities, while accusing the U.S. and other Western countries of secretly instigating the protests, seem likely to put nuclear negotiations on the back burner until the election dust settles.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged as much on Friday, saying, "This (postelection turmoil) has clearly diverted the attention of the Iranian government from offers of engagement."
At the Group of Eight summit in Italy, world leaders issued a joint statement deploring Iran's crackdown on protesters. They also said they remain committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue and said that in September they would "take stock of the situation" on the nuclear front.
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center For Strategic and International Studies, said that if reports of rifts among some of Iran's ruling clerics are true, then it will be hard for the government to agree on a policy response to the West's offer of direct negotiations.
He sees the prospect of movement toward sanctions this fall. That could mean any combination of additional financial penalties, trade restrictions, limits on travel by Iranian government officials and other actions.
"Clearly the world is moving toward presenting Iran a choice" between diplomacy and isolation, Alterman said.
'I worry a great deal'
Before the June election, the Obama administration had figured that once the result was in, the Tehran government could be expected to make clear whether it intends to take up the offers of nuclear talks.
"All of that has been completely put on its head" by the postelection turmoil, said Parsi. He believes Iran's political paralysis will continue as long the protest movement is alive.
But the clock keeps ticking, moving Iran closer to obtaining the nuclear bomb that the U.S. and much of the rest of the world says it cannot be allowed.
By U.S. estimates, Iran is one to three years away from the capability to make nuclear weapons. Some think they are closer, and the fact is that no one outside Iran really knows. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — as well as Germany have offered Iran incentives to stop reprocessing uranium that could fuel a nuclear bomb.
Iran so far has ignored the offer and continues to amass enriched uranium, sparking grave fears, especially in Israel, which has not ruled out military strikes to deal with the threat.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists the program is intended only for peaceful nuclear purposes.
The U.S. has not publicly ruled out using military force against Iran, but it seems far from that stage.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that military action could backfire.
"I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets struck," he said. "It is a really important place to not go, if we cannot go there in any way, shape or form."