The beginning of September marks a shift into a decisive season for Iran. As the intensity of the post-election crisis in Iran wanes, the West expects the regime to turn its attention away from domestic politics and towards diplomatic engagement. The West is waiting for Iran to make a move with increasing impatience – signaling that the time for nuclear negotiations is now. With some estimates suggesting that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon within months, the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to live up to its September “ultimatum” and take concrete steps on the issue by the end of the month.
As President Obama’s end-of-September deadline for progress on nuclear negotiations looms, the debate over strengthening sanctions against Iran has picked up dramatically. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has affirmed that “initiatives must be taken during the month of September which take account of Iran's will or otherwise to cooperate.” If Iran does not cooperate, Sarkozy adds, “Germany and France will be united in calling for a strengthening of sanctions.” After a meeting with Sarkozy on September 1, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that "Iran should know that we mean this very seriously.” The Obama administration may pass harsher sanctions against in Iran in concert with multi-national efforts through the P5+1.
Perhaps to avoid increased sanctions, the Iranian regime announced on September 1 that it had “updated” a set of proposals designed to facilitate discussion on its nuclear program. The proposal was announced on the eve of the P5+1 meeting, which was held on September 2 to discuss recent developments relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Although Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, expressed the hope that the new proposal would resolve “common concerns in the international arena,” Western officials remained skeptical. German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jens Ploetner said that, with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, “nothing has changed.”  Iran has not yet responded to the P5+1 offer made in April, despite the fact that such talks are supposed to be held before the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The P5+1 will meet again on the sidelines of the General Assembly, most likely after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has delivered his speech there on September 23. Iran’s nuclear program will be reviewed further at the G-20 summit, on September 24 and 25.
The most recent Iranian proposal is unlikely to affect these discussions significantly. In the past, Iran’s packages for “constructive negotiation” have failed to address concerns over their nuclear program substantively. The Iranian proposal submitted to the P5+1 states in May 2008 did not even discuss domestic nuclear issues, but focused instead on international issues such as global disarmament. There is no reason to believe that their latest gesture will be any different; in fact, Iranian officials have confirmed that it will not be. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on September 3 that “it is wrong to think that possible talks with (the six world powers) would be about Iran's nuclear program.” Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who announced the proposal on state television, emphasized that talks would focus on "international cooperation, energy security and global disarmament.” The one addition that the package is likely to include, however, is a stipulation about Israel’s nuclear program. When preparing the proposal, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said that “[Iran] cannot speak of a Middle East without nuclear weapons while making no words about the more than 200 nuclear warheads of the Zionist regime [Israel].”
Rather than genuinely engaging with the P5+1, this latest gesture is most likely part of Iran’s ongoing efforts to convince the international community that it is a rational actor and is willing to talk. Before the cabinet confirmation on September 3, the Iranian regime adopted a more conciliatory posture on the nuclear issue, including granting U.N. inspectors broader access to key nuclear installations in Natanz and Arak. Directly after the confirmation, however, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters that “no one can impose any sanctions on Iran any longer.” Qashqavi reiterated this stance, declaring that Iran would not respond to deadlines set by “threat and pressure.” The cabinet confirmation seems to have restored a sense of unity and confidence amongst Iranian leaders, which may cause them to be more intransient during September negotiations.
In the absence of real change on the Iranian side, the United States will likely lead multilateral efforts aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran. If Obama continues to pursue engagement with Iran, U.S. policy may follow two tracks: continue to pursue negotiations while targeting Iran’s fragile economy through strengthened unilateral and multilateral sanctions. On September 8, U.S. law-making bodies will reconvene and eventually vote on the bipartisan Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which has widespread support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. At the same time, a White House spokesman acknowledged on September 2 that the Obama administration is communicating with Iran in “multiple ways.”
The Obama administration faces several obstacles in implementing these approaches. Engagement is challenging because it is not clear whether Iran is committed to the negotiations or simply buying time to complete its nuclear work. Initiating “crippling” sanctions poses additional difficulties: (1) given the unyielding position of Russia and China on Iran, the United Nations Security Council might not pass harsher sanctions, (2) if the sanctions are passed, they will be difficult to enforce, and (3) even if the first two obstacles are overcome, it is not clear whether the sanctions will produce the desired effect vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration is attempting to compensate for these problems by pursuing both routes simultaneously.
The European Union (EU) will likely also adopt this policy. On September 4, EU foreign ministers issued a statement urging Iran to return to international negotiations or face increased sanctions. Echoing the sentiments of U.S. and European officials, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband declared that “we are coming into a season of international meetings…we need a response from the Iranians.” This increasingly tough stance may well push the Iranians to come to the negotiating table. Whether they actually negotiate once they are there remains to be seen.