The international war of nerves over Iran ebbs and flows.
Talk that Israel, the United States, or both might launch a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities has been ever-present this year - but with the U.S. presidential election less than a month away, the idea of starting another war in the Middle East seems to have faded, at least for now.
Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense under both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, said in a speech this week: “The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."
“(A strike would) make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert," he said.
Iran and its nuclear ambitions present perhaps the most difficult strategic dilemma in the world today, directly affecting Israel, Arab states, Europe and of course the United States.
Bill Clinton not persuaded by Iran on nuclear weapons
The most important ingredient required to resolve this standoff would be a functional relationship between Iran and the United States, at least one in which officials from both sides could engage in extended and constructive diplomacy.
But they cannot.
The Iran-U.S. relationship was broken after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and has been dysfunctional ever since.
For 33 years, deep mistrust on both sides, coupled with election year politics in both countries, has made any meaningful diplomacy moot. So the name of the game has been nuclear management.
If President Obama wins a second term, will he revive his early first term offer of a new approach to Iran - to resolve once and for all the nuclear case - or will the war drums beat louder again?
So far Obama’s administration has launched covert actions and sabotage efforts against Iran's nuclear facilities.
It has also imposed the toughest sanctions ever on Iran. The European Union has done so as well.
Last week saw the collapse of the Iranian riyal and flash street protests in Tehran. The crippling sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians like never before. They are hurting the economy and therefore the state itself, but they have not changed the government's position: that it has the right to enrich uranium under international law.
Iran says its program is for peaceful civilian purposes, and a senior Iranian official laid out for me a detailed proposal for ending this nuclear impasse by improving trust and transparency.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, called for a step-by-step process whereby the U.S. and its allies would receive total transparency from Iran, in return for lifting sanctions and providing security guarantees among other things.
But the U.S. and Iran are at odds over sequencing.
President Obama has vowed never to allow a nuclear-armed Iran, but says he believes there is still time for diplomacy to work as the sanctions take their toll.
But several rounds of talks between the U.S., its allies and Iran have not been conclusive, and a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team told me that so far the U.S. is "offering peanuts for diamonds".
Governor Romney has a lower bar than President Obama, saying if he were president he would not accept Iran reaching "nuclear weapons capability."
But experts are divided as to what exactly that means and how it would be defined.
In his recent foreign policy speech Romney said: “I'll put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.”
The word "capability" means Romney’s red line is in a different place than Obama’s. Romney appears to be implying that any enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade would be prevented. So far, Iran has enriched uranium to 20 per cent, and has enough at that grade to produce four or five nuclear bombs, according to independent observers, should it decide to enrich that stock further. Highly-enriched uranium that would be usable in a nuclear weapon usually contains around 90% uranium 235.
On a visit to Israel this summer, Romney seemed to back a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran, and his rhetoric has been more bellicose than Obama's. But like the president, Romney calls for "crippling sanctions."
Iran is convinced that the U.S. nuclear pressure is really about “regime change” – a phrase Obama has steered clear of using. But Romney says it’s worth working with groups inside Iran “to encourage regime change.”
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Obama told CBS’ Steve Kroft, “If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so.”
No one is going to lose the U.S. election by sounding and acting too tough on Iran, but resolving this nuclear issue will require creative and comprehensive engagement, and direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Doing so would set the stage for a more stable and secure Middle East and the world.
It could be the next U.S. president's greatest foreign policy achievement.
First published in cnn.com.
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