It's not clear why the Obama administration wants to leak its "opening position" in the upcoming nuclear negotiations with Iran, but doing so has helped clarify one issue:
Still, Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship. Other experts fear the tough conditions being set could instead swing the debate in favor of Iran’s hard-liners.
“We have no idea how the Iranians will react,” one senior administration official said. “We probably won’t know after the first meeting.” But the next round of oil sanctions, he noted, kicks in early this summer.
It could simply be that Iran will not negotiate away the option to develop a nuclear weapon no matter what. In that case, no clever combination of U.S. threats and sanctions will really work (and military force will only delay the inevitable). Unfortunately, no one knows what Iran's true intentions are - and it's possible that the Iranian leadership doesn't know either.
So if obtaining a nuclear weapon is still an active question among Iran's leaders, how does the West dissuade them?
The doves usually insist that only a good-faith negotiation aimed at rapprochement with Iran will yield anything on the nuclear front, while the hawks demand a confrontational approach with threats and promises of regime change.
While its critics will be loathe to admit it, the Obama administration is essentially reading from the hawkish script, betting that Iran will knuckle under to threats and warnings about "last chances."
It would be nice if this is seen as a test of the hawkish hypothesis. If Iran does yield under the combined pressure of sanctions and military threats (and assassinations and sabotage), then the hawks can point to a policy success. But what if this approach fails?
Again, maybe it was destined to fail because Iran simply can't be talked out of a nuclear deterrent. But in a rational world, we'd test the alternative hypothesis before taking costlier steps (and not the "single roll of the dice" diplomacy attempted in the opening weeks of the Obama administration). Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen both because it may be preempted by an Israeli strike and it runs contrary to logic (i.e. the dovish approach really needed to be explored comprehensively first, not second, when the clock is ticking).