It's no great surprise that the Obama administration, as reported by today's New York Times, is considering letting Iran continue to enrich uranium even as potential talks begin over its nuclear program. Why? Maybe because there aren't a lot of other options. Even in 2006, when Iran's program was far less advanced, and Condoleezza Rice carefully planned out an offer for a bold new level of US-Iranian engagement--she worked at home through Easter weekend personally devising an elaborate, color-coded action plan, according to David Sanger's The Inheritance--Tehran more or less ignored the idea because it involved the suspension of enrichment. In 2007 Iran's foreign minister declared calls for an enrichment halt "illegal and illegitimate," and said his country would only talk without American preconditions.

The trouble is, unless and until the U.S. can win tougher sanctions against Iran, we simply lack the leverage to be making demands. Writing in TNR a year ago, Obama's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, made this very point:

America's readiness to talk to Iran without conditions provides leverage with those who want it to join the negotiations with the Iranians. In particular, the Europeans have been convinced, rightly or wrongly, that a deal with the Iranians on the nuclear issue is possible, but only if the United States is also at the table. It is the United States, they believe, that can provide what the Iranians most want in terms of full acceptance of the regime, security assurances, and an end to sanctions and calls for economic boycotts. Given this view, the next administration must go quietly to the British, French and Germans and make clear that while it is ready to drop the precondition on Iranian suspension of enrichment, join the talks directly, and put a credible comprehensive proposal on the table, it cannot do so until they agree to ratchet up the pressure on Iran at the same time. Europeans would thus need to agree on E.U.-wide sanctions that cut off investment in the Iranian oil and natural gas sectors, commerce with Iranian banks, and all credit guarantees to their companies doing business in Iran. [emphasis added]

Interestingly, the precondition was dropped before the EU stepped up the pressure. I don't know if that represents an internal defeat for Ross--or maybe just an acknowledgment that Iran holds most of the cards here.

Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) waves as he poses with officials outside a fuel manufacturing plant during its inauguration ceremony in the central province of Isfahan on April 9, 2009. Ahmadinejad inaugurated Iran's first nuclear fuel manufacturing plant, marking a major breakthrough in the Islamic republic's controversial atomic programme. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

--Michael Crowley