Back in January, President Barack Obama announced, "We are going to have to take a new approach [to Iran]." The president made clear he felt "engagement is the place to start."
But it may not be where his administration ends up finishing. Despite a vaunted new approach and a willingness to talk, the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows no appetite for meeting U.S. hopes that Iran will end its nuclear and missile programs.
The United States now finds itself in a bind. On the one hand, Iran continues to keep the diplomatic process on life support. In a negotiating style reminiscent of the one employed by the Japanese envoys Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu prior to the outbreak of World War II, Iran is very good at countering U.S. proposals with counterproposals, or taking the offer of compromises only as the basis for further talks. But there is method to this madness. As we have seen, Russian and Chinese commitments to Washington to put further pressure on Iran have been carefully qualified; neither Moscow nor Beijing will impose harsher penalties on Tehran as long as they can claim negotiations for a settlement are ongoing. Even some European countries buy into this logic.
But the Obama administration is running out of time because of its own self-imposed deadlines. 2009 was supposed to be the year of diplomacy. Diplomatic engagement has not produced the results that the administration had hoped for-especially a suspension in Iran's nuclear-enrichment activities. The Obama team is rapidly approaching the "what next" moment when, if diplomacy fails, the question becomes what the next step will be.
Some of the current international realities aren't encouraging. The international community is not going to impose the drastic strict sanctions that might be able to put real pressure on the Iranian government, in part because other countries simply don't see Iranian activities as a threat to their national interests. The Obama administration has had no further luck than the Bush team in trying to convince Russia, China, India and other states that the Iranian nuclear program poses a direct, real and current danger to them. Nor has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton been particularly successful in encouraging other nations to take a harder line on Iran as a favor to the United States-and she has offered little in the way of quid pro quos that might convince other capitals to make it worth their while to change their stance on Iran.
So what does the New Year bring? The administration can continue with negotiations, and try to find new ways to entice Tehran to the bargaining table. It can quietly acknowledge the impending reality of an Iranian nuclear capability-a stance which is tantamount to political suicide. Or it will have to look at new ways to exert pressure on the regime.
Economic pressure can be tightening, but only up to a point. There is no way that Washington can unilaterally cut Iran out of the global economy-and a growing number of firms doing business with Iran don't do business in the United States, insulating them from the type of pressure envisioned in the 1996 Iran-Libya sanctions act.
That leaves covert, paramilitary action. This requires good intelligence to pinpoint the location of sites critical to Iran's nuclear program, and the teams and equipment necessary to infiltrate Iran and cause damage to the program, to either delay it or cause it to shut down altogether. But the administration has to be prepared for the risks and consequences of such a step. Iran's Revolutionary Guards can accelerate their proxy attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, raising the costs for Obama's team in both of these sensitive theaters of action. And Iran could easily escalate its mischief in the Persian Gulf, particularly around the Straits of Hormuz. In essence, the administration would have to be prepared to wage a secret, undeclared war targeting Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
This is an altogether unattractive proposition, for a variety of reasons. Yet failure to get the grand diplomatic victory needed to prove the wisdom of engagement leaves the administration with few other options, other than conceding defeat (or hoping that internal dynamics in Iran lead to an overthrow of the current regime). Obama and his team are going to have some very hard choices when it comes to Iran in the coming months.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.