On Oct. 1, the United States and other great powers will restart talks with Iran, a new round in a long and so far fruitless effort to stop Tehran's march toward nuclear weapons. This may be the most important diplomacy President Obama has attempted -- a test of his policy of "engagement" with adversaries, with war and peace in the balance.
The negotiators have been here before. In earlier rounds, the Iranians made vague statements about world peace, said they needed more time to consider U.N. Security Council demands that they stop enriching uranium and then, after several months, quit returning the West's phone calls. (Literally. According to one diplomat, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana placed call after call to Tehran and got no answer.)
This time, though, the Obama administration and its allies say they're determined to prevent a repeat performance. "We are not willing to be played," said a top U.S. official involved in the talks but not authorized to speak publicly.
How will the U.S. and its allies make this round different? First, by insisting on action, not words. Iran will have to slow its work on nuclear technology in some tangible way -- if not the full enrichment freeze the West has been asking for, something else. "The measure of [the negotiating process] is that it affects their nuclear clock," the U.S. official told me. Second, the negotiators will set a deadline for Iranian action: the end of the year, with no wiggle room. "The end of the year means the end of the year," the official stressed.
That remorseless nuclear clock is very much on the administration's mind. U.S. officials say they believe Iran could achieve "breakout capability" -- the ability to quickly build a nuclear weapon -- in one to three years.
There's also an Israeli clock. When Iranian leaders say they'd like to remove Israel from the map, Israelis -- a sensitive people when it comes to their existence -- take it literally. Israel-watchers believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give the great powers until next summer or fall to get results. After that, the likelihood of an Israeli military strike against Iran goes up. Is the Israeli threat real? Nobody knows. But the U.S. and its allies are using it to concentrate everyone's mind, like the prospect of a hanging.
The October talks are designed to enable the Western powers to start a clock of their own: action from Iran or else "crippling sanctions," in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's words. That message isn't directed only at Iran but to the players who have been reluctant to impose sanctions in the past: Russia, China and the European countries whose banking, insurance and oil companies would lose business as a result.
On that front, there are signs that more nations are seeing things our way. Germany, once balky, has joined hawkish France and Britain to support tougher measures. Even Russia, officially opposed to sanctions, is keeping its options open; President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that he could imagine circumstances in which more sanctions would be needed. Obama's decision to scrap missile defense projects in Poland and the Czech Republic appears to have brought the Russians a little closer on the Iran issue, although the administration insists that wasn't the reason for the move.
The problem with sanctions, though, is that nobody knows whether they will work. The Iranian regime, now thoroughly in the hands of hard-liners who don't rely on the business class for political support, seems to care even less about the damage wrought by sanctions than it did before. "They just don't give a damn," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. But when sanctions are the main tool in your toolbox, sanctions are what you use.
The Obama administration has been waging Iran diplomacy on other fronts. The Security Council is likely to pass a U.S.-backed resolution stating that countries that violate U.N. rulings on nuclear proliferation (as Iran has) will lose their right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. The point is to strengthen the argument for more sanctions and show Iran that it's running out of friends.
Also, the U.S. and Israel believe they have won Russian agreement to hold off on selling advanced antiaircraft missiles to Iran. Netanyahu reportedly made a secret trip to Moscow to warn that those missiles would force Israel into a "use it or lose it" situation: strike at Iran's nuclear installations now or lose its chance forever. The Russians backed off for now.
The October talks will draw controversy over whether they help legitimize the Iranian regime. Obama's GOP critics, stepping up their overall critique of his foreign policy as too soft, will accuse him of making concessions to Iran, just as they accused him of making concessions to Russia on missile defense. Obama aides say these aren't concessions, they're decisions based on the U.S. national interest. The legitimacy of Iran's regime, they add, will be determined on the streets of Tehran, not in a European conference room.
Those are defensible positions. But there's nothing wrong with concessions if they lead to greater results in return. The confrontation with Iran is moving into a critical period. To Iran's nuclear technology clock, and Israel's existential threat clock, add a third clock: Obama's promised results clock. The clocks are running.