Here, Clinton implies that the reason to "test" Iran now is not because of progress toward alleged weaponization, but because there is a window for negotiations, after the U.S. election and before the Iranian election. It is interesting that the Obama administration deemed it wrong to "test" Iran during the heat of the U.S. presidential elections but thinks it plausible that, during similar electoral uncertainty, Iranian leaders will reach a broad strategic agreement limiting the country's uranium-enrichment program.
Then, Clinton introduces a vague new goal for negotiations. Until now, Obama administration officials have repeated three claims about U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
First, Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. In February 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified, "We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." But, he added, "We do not know...if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." The following February, Clapper stated, "We don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon."
Second, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will make the final decision. As Clapper phrased it: "The decision would be made by the Supreme Leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of -- I don't think you want a nuclear weapon at any price."
Third, because Iran's nuclear program is an intelligence collection priority, U.S. officials would know when the Supreme Leader made this decision and what sort of evidence would reveal his intentions. Clapper: "[A] clear indicator would be enrichment of uranium to a 90 percent level." The declared nuclear sites where such enrichment occurs are subject to IAEA physical inventory verifications, which track progress in Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpiles and are published in quarterly reports.
Why did the Obama administration decide to set this new March deadline? Perhaps, like the Bush administration, it has simply become tired of confronting Iran. Here, the Bush administration's approach to Iraq is worth recalling. In a recent Foreign Policy piece reviewing U.S. policy options toward Iran, Steven Hadley, deputy national security adviser during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, wrote:
The U.S. military action [in Iraq] was not, as many suggest, either a war of choice or a war of preemption. It was, rather, a war of last resort. After 12 years of diplomacy, 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, increasingly targeted economic sanctions, multiple international inspection efforts, no-fly zones over both northern and southern Iraq, the selective use of U.S. military force in 1998, and Saddam Hussein's rejection of a final opportunity to leave Iraq and avoid war, the United States and the international community were out of options.