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Iran: Obama's Next Move

Barack Obama is reiterating his desire to negotiate with Iran, even in the wake of its post-election brutality. But Israel has all but abandoned hope for negotiations, Ha'aretz reports:  

Before the protests in Iran began, the official explained, Israel's assessment was that the planned American-Iranian dialogue had little chance of succeeding. But in light of the protests, and the need of Iranian hard-liners to shore up their rule, Israel's intelligence community believes the chances of the dialogue even beginning, much less succeeding, are near zero.  

Such a view inevitably leads to talk of possible Israeli airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Yesterday Joe Biden said the US can't prevent such an operation. But  one military analyst close to the administration recently told me that he believes otherwise--and that the Obama team would "never" allow such an attack. 

In the meantime, the Israelis are pressuring Washington anew to devise a specific "Plan B" for squeezing Iran, including what the Ha'aretz story calls "crippling sanctions. Such sanctions can come in different forms. One track would involve the European Union, and possibly a reluctant Russia and China via the United Nations--a job that falls to the State Department's senior diplomat, Bill Burns. (When it comes to Iran policy, Dennis Ross gets all the attention; but it's Burns who will do the heavy lifting in foreign capitals in the months to come.) 

Or we can start squeezing Iran ourselves. An AIPAC-backed bill punishing firms that export refined petroleum to Iran, which has struggled with gas shortages, has 60 co-sponsors in the Senate and, as of late June, nearly 200 in the House. Congress is waiting for Obama's green light to press ahead.

The big question now: How long is Obama willing to give the Iranians to demonstrate a good-faith negotiating posture before he starts turning the sanctions screws on them? I think we're probably still a few months and some complex maneuvering away. Even if Obama is skeptical about the prospects for talks (and I suspect he is), his  team believes it's critical that the international community perceive the US to have made a good-faith negotiating effort of its own. Even if Khameinei and Ahmadinejad are giving America the finger, an important kabuki dance remains. As Ross and his co-author, David Makovsky, write in their new book:

Tougher policies--either military or meaningful containment--will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion. In fact, if negotiations fail to prevent the Iranians from changing their current path, it will be important to show not only that that United States negotiated directly with Iran but also how much was actually offered.

The post-election crackdown in Iran may have changed this thinking--perhaps the repression itself has shot the Tehran regime's credibility on the nuclear question. But I'm guessing this is still what Ross, and many others in the administration, believe.

--Michael Crowley