BY ROSS COLVIN
WASHINGTON – Iran now appears almost certain to miss President Barack Obama’s September deadline to respond to his diplomatic overtures, but it seems equally unlikely Washington will rush to impose tougher sanctions.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office on Wednesday, greatly weakened and facing questions about his political future after a disputed election that sparked the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“To think that at the same time as putting together his cabinet in the midst of the largest uprising since the Iranian revolution, and oh by the way, figure out a way to respond to the United States, that is just not going to happen,” said Reza Aslan, an Iran expert and author in Los Angeles.
“He is going to have such a difficult time forming a government, let alone governing, and quite likely he will not even last another year. Any previous idea of a timeline needs to be thrown out the window,” Aslan said.
Obama’s offer of engagement with Iran if it “unclenched its fist” was in trouble after Iran accused the United States and other Western nations of inciting protests after the election, and Washington strongly condemned the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.
Obama had initially set an end-of-year deadline to review his administration’s policy of engagement with Iran but then brought that forward to late September, to coincide with the next G-20 gathering of rich and emerging nations.
U.S. officials have been watching the post-election turmoil in Iran, trying to assess how it might affect prospects for diplomacy with its long-time foe.
“They have been forced to see how things are going to shake out in Iran before taking any steps,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“I think the administration is going to have to wait longer than some of these deadlines to see what direction Iran’s system is going to go,” he said.
ISRAEL DRIVING TIMETABLE?
Even so, American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have kept up the pressure, emphasizing the September date and the threat of “crippling action” if Iran fails to respond in time.
Iran watchers see those statements aimed primarily at appeasing U.S. ally Israel, which has reluctantly backed Obama’s engagement policy while hinting it may take pre-emptive action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it believes U.S. diplomacy is going nowhere.
“One way and another, Mr Obama has been bounced into setting an early September deadline for Iran to reply to the U.S. offer of talks. (He) does not need to follow this timetable, which is dictated more by Israel than it is by a considered U.S. assessment of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper said in an editorial.
The Obama administration has been deliberately vague in talking about sanctions and has not publicly endorsed an effort in Congress to restrict Iran’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products. But no one is under any doubt that is one option being considered.
U.S. officials say that any sanctions would take time to negotiate with allies and put into effect. Getting Russia and China, two major trading partners of Iran, to agree to them will be difficult if not impossible, analysts say.
U.S. officials have all but ruled out military action, although they say the option “remains on the table.” The Pentagon said last week it was looking to speed up deployment of a new, ultra-large “bunker-buster” bomb that analysts say could potentially be used against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Brandishing sanctions while appearing to rule out military action, however, may reduce the credibility of the sanctions threat and even suggest that United States is only willing go so far in the use of pressure,” wrote Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Whatever doubts Obama has about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s election, analysts and administration officials say it is in the United States’ national security and economic interests to pursue negotiations with Tehran.
Washington accuses Tehran of supporting militant groups and seeking to develop a nuclear bomb under the guise of a civilian atomic power program — a charge Iran denies.
With Iran’s election turmoil, the difficulty of navigating a path to negotiations was illustrated on Wednesday when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he had misspoken a day earlier when he called Ahmadinejad Iran’s elected leader.
“The Obama administration’s challenge is to reconcile when and how to deal with a disgraced regime which presents urgent national security challenges without pouring water on the momentum of a popularly driven movement whose success could have enormously positive implications for the United States,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the dog days of summer, the Obama administration is sweating through Washington’s notorious humidity, trying to find a way forward that keeps the heat on the Iranians.
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