By Jamie Crawford
With international talks over Iran's nuclear program seemingly stalled, pressure is building for the Obama administration and its allies to restructure its diplomatic approach before the window closes on diplomacy.
"Negotiations are really supposed to be all about a process of mutual confidence building, and this is a regime that is convinced that [the United States is] bent on eradicating their very survival, and at the same time, we are convinced that they will never play straight because they are determined to get a nuclear weapon," Suzanne Maloney with the Brookings Institution told CNN. "I think this is a structural problem rather than a problem of approach."
The Obama administration is pursuing a two-track strategy of pressure and diplomacy as a means of getting Iran to be more forthcoming about a program it claims is for peaceful purposes but is suspected of being a clandestine effort to build a nuclear weapon.
The third round of talks in Moscow between Iran and the so-called P5 +1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, ended without an announcement for a fourth set of political discussions. Technical experts from each side will meet in Istanbul early next month to examine the fine points of what both sides are proposing in negotiations, but what happens after that remains unclear.
"We don't want to have talks for talk's sake. We want to ensure that if we're going to continue this process, that it's going to produce results," State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters this week. "If following this July 3rd session [in Istanbul] we are still not making progress, we're going to continue to work together on what more pressure we can bring to bear, including on the sanctions track."
On June 28, the United States is set to enact sanctions that target any transactions of Iranian oil processed through Iran's central bank. And on July 1, the European Union will put in place a complete embargo on the purchase of Iranian crude. U.S. officials maintain the multilateral sanctions, and the intense pressure it is putting on the Iranian economy, is a main reason for getting Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
The presence of long-time Iran backers Russia and China in the negotiation process has added a sense of urgency to the Iranians, U.S. officials say.
"One of the real successes of our diplomatic strategy toward Iran, which was to be willing to engage with them but to keep a very clear pressure track going, is that the Chinese and the Russians are part of a unified negotiating stance that we have presented to the Iranians," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday. "I think the Iranians have been surprised. They have expended a certain amount of effort to try to break apart this so-called P-5+1, and they haven't been successful. The Russians and the Chinese have been absolutely clear they don't want to see Iran with a nuclear weapon."
Some Iran watchers have gone so far as arguing for the United States and the EU to also pursue a complete embargo on Iran that would cut off any airline or shipping company in the world that lands or docks its vessels in Iran from the U.S. and European financial systems. The goals would be to eventually enact a total embargo on trade with Iran on a wide-ranging scale across the globe.
But as time goes on, and Iran increases its volume of enriched uranium that some analysts fear may be quickly bringing them to the threshold of weaponization capability, the looming possibility of Israeli military action to destroy Iran's nuclear complex makes a resolution in the talks more urgent.
Israeli officials have warned in recent days that the clock is ticking on negotiations with Iran.
"From my perspective, a military option is the last option," Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Wednesday in an interview on "The Situation Room." "It is an option. The U.S. should prepare it. Israel should prepare it. And from my point of view, I believe that it should be by the leadership of the United States, and I see the prevention of any Iranian nuclear program as the acid test of the Obama administration."
And earlier this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres told CNN's Elise Labott in Jerusalem that "time is beginning" to run out for Iran and expressed skepticism about the chances negotiations will lead to anything.
"I am not sure that something will happen there," Peres said.
At a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, former U.S. officials said a credible and visible military threat toward Iran is needed to supplement ongoing negotiations over the nuclear program.
"Two successive administrations have said that a nuclear weapons-capable Iran is unacceptable and that all elements of our nation's power will be employed," to keep it from happening, former Sen. Charles Robb, D-Virginia, said. "Merely talking about red lines and keeping everything on the table, however, is not by itself enough."
The United States should preposition U.S. military assets, including strategic bombers and bunker buster munitions, across the region, Robb said, in addition to conducting broad military exercises with regional allies.
Stephen Rademaker, a former State Department official in the Bush administration who worked with Robb on an Iran task force at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said there was also concern over the Iranian interpretation of U.S. policy.
"And for every time that President Obama has said all options are on the table, there's been a statement by some other senior Cabinet official or some other official of the United States government suggesting that the military option really isn't a very serious option for the United States," Rademaker told the committee. "Our task force worries that the Iranians actually pay more attention to those signs of equivocation than they do the mouthing of these words that all options are on the table."
But even with the prospect of crushing economic pain and possible military action on the table, some analysts fear the survival of the regime is really what weighs most heavily in decisions coming out of Tehran.
"It seems like the supreme leader realizes that this is a choice he is facing between destroying his economy or giving up this nuclear option, and it seems like he has made his decision," Matthew Kroenig a former Pentagon official now with the Council on Foreign Relations said in an interview. "They have faced this choice in the past. It doesn't seem like they have ever seriously considered putting serious curbs on the nuclear program under pressure."
Regardless of the path forward for the P5 +1 from here, Suzanne Maloney with Brookings says the closer Iran moves toward weapons capability, the U.S. electoral calendar might also become a challenge for the administration's decision process.
"The administration is going to have a decision point, I think, over the course of the August, September time frame as to whether or not they can amass enough pressure on Iran to see some sort of concession from the Iranian side, or whether or not they need to move decisively on the very eve of an American election," she said. "It will be a cataclysmic decision, I think, however they move forward."