The Clock Is Ticking on Settling With Iran

A security guard hides his face from a photographer outside the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, last month.
A security guard hides his face from a photographer outside the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, last month. (By Sajad Safari Via Bloomberg News)
By David Ignatius
Sunday, March 8, 2009

There's wide support, in principle, for a process of "engagement" between the United States and its adversaries in the Middle East. The Obama administration says that it wants to talk, and so do Iranian and Syrian officials. But then the complications begin.

Should the talks be slow and patient, or are they on an urgent timetable? Should the United States insist on concessions, in advance, on key issues? Or should emissaries just sit down, without preconditions, and see where the discussion goes?

And what about rhetoric? Does Iran really imagine that it can engage the United States when its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last week that Barack Obama was following the "crooked ways" of his predecessor and that Israel was a "cancerous tumor"? That's a recipe for stopping dialogue rather than starting it. Given the reports of intense debate in Iran over how to deal with America, maybe that's what Khamenei intended.

Despite inflammatory Iranian rhetoric and Syrian foot-dragging, the administration still favors contacts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's invitation last week to Iran to join talks on Afghanistan is the latest signal. But as they review Iran and Syria policy, administration officials are focusing on several key issues that will shape how the engagement process proceeds.

Let's start with Iran. The first challenge is what might be called the "two clocks" problem. Administration officials want a slow clock, in the sense that they favor a careful process of sustained, direct dialogue. But they also realize that a fast clock is ticking on the Iranian nuclear program and that by next year the Iranians could have enough fuel to make a bomb.

Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Mossad, the Israeli spy service, highlighted this problem in a recent e-mail to me. "The strategy of engagement will succeed only if the Iranians realize they do not have all the time in the world to negotiate." He argued that the United States should "limit the dialogue to a very few months." A senior Israeli official made the same argument in an interview last week: "If you want to engage, do it now, with a date certain."

The Obama team doesn't want a time limit on talks, but officials believe that Iran should move on its own to ease time pressure. "If they would like to have a more leisurely process, they need to take some steps that stop the clock," says a senior official. The administration hasn't decided yet what those steps should be, but they might begin with the International Atomic Energy Agency's demands that Iran provide more transparency and allow new inspections of its nuclear program.

Beyond the two-clocks problem, there's the larger issue of deciding on a bargaining position on the nuclear question. A few years ago, the United States and Israel hoped that they could stop the program before the Iranians mastered fuel enrichment, but in the past few months that effort appears to have failed. A fallback position would be to demand that the Iranians not cross the bomb-making threshold and that they allow inspectors to verify that enrichment remains at the low levels consistent with a civil nuclear program.

According to one Israeli official, this threshold option has support from one faction in Tehran that includes Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and now a senior adviser to Khamenei. But the official said that the Israelis oppose this approach, arguing instead for a rollback of Iranian technology.

The Syrian track is less complicated, but it has the same phasing issue. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants a firm assurance that Israel will return the Golan Heights before he moves to direct negotiations. The United States and Israel want a firm assurance that Syria will moderate its support for Hamas and Hezbollah before the Golan card is played. Each side is waiting for a show of the other's good faith.

Obama sent two emissaries last week to talk with Assad, so that process is beginning. The strategic rationale for the Syria track is that it may help separate Damascus from Tehran, but the senior U.S. official cautioned that this issue "is not the starting point" for U.S. talks and that a break with Tehran can happen "over time, as Syria sees the benefits of contact with the West."

These diplomatic subtleties are important, but you can overthink them. "There is an awareness that time isn't on our side," said the senior administration official. The reality is that if Obama wants dialogue, he will have to take the plunge -- soon -- and see where the process leads.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is

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