If you have followed the covert and diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon over the past five years, you know that new or noteworthy movements from Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Washington are few and far between. Iran makes fantastic claims about advances in its civilian nuclear program, many of which are subsequently confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Israel threatens to attack Iran in a thinly veiled effort to impel the P5+1 negotiating group (China, Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) to increase economic and diplomatic sanctions; and American officials repeatedly pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, while the U.S. military gradually strengthens its capabilities in theater and deepens its cooperation with Gulf states in order to contain Iran.
Underpinning this rhetorical bluster is the recognition that negotiations to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA -- to demonstrate that the Iranian civilian nuclear program does not have possible military dimensions, forbidden by the NPT Safeguards Agreement signed by Iran in 1974 -- are not sustainable. Experts predict that the nuclear dispute between the P5+1 (predominantly the United States) and Iran will ultimately be resolved -- either through negotiations or the use of force. Some (including yours truly) have speculated this resolution will come this year, or the following year, or the year after that. During a press conference on Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged this enduring forecasting problem: "I think that it will happen during 2013, but I thought that it will happen during 2012, and saw what happened -- and 2011."
Last week, however, the United States made a significant shift in its strategy. This move, if it plays out, could finally result in the long-rumored and much-debated military attack on Iran's known nuclear sites. In a prepared statement to the agency's Board of Governors, Robert A. Wood, chargé d'affaires to the IAEA, said:
Iran cannot be allowed to indefinitely ignore its obligations by attempting to make negotiation of a structured approach on PMD [possible military dimensions] an endless process. Iran must act now, in substance.... If by March Iran has not begun substantive cooperation with the IAEA, the United States will work with other Board members to pursue appropriate Board action, and would urge the Board to consider reporting this lack of progress to the UN Security Council.
Later that day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Wood's mention of a March deadline. Her reply contained several interesting points:
What was meant about the March reference was either about the IAEA and its continuing work or the fact that we finished our election and now would be a good time to test the proposition that there can be some good-faith serious negotiations before the Iranians get into their elections, which are going to heat up probably around the March period, heading toward a June election.
It's a difficult matter to predict, because it really depends upon how serious the Iranians are about making a decision that removes the possibility of their being able to acquire a nuclear weapon or the components of one that can be in effect on a shelf somewhere and still serve as a basis for intimidation...We'll see in the next few months whether there's a chance for any kind of a serious negotiation.