Well, that didn't take long. Just weeks after the high-profile New York visit of Iran's "moderate" new president, Hassan Rouhani – and on the heels of cordial but fruitless talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Geneva – the Obama administration appears to be preparing to throw economic sanctions under the policy bus.
On October 25th, the White House's top Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman, used the Voice of America's Persian News Network as a platform to lobby for American lawmakers to institute a "pause" in sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Her rationale? That Congress should hold off on economic pressure against Iran in order to allow the administration's diplomatic outreach to "gain traction."
But it's far from clear what, exactly, this "traction" might be. Following its meetings with U.S. emissaries in Geneva, the Iranian regime announced a major expansion of its nuclear effort, with no fewer than 34 new nuclear sites now slated for construction along the country's Persian Gulf and Caspian coasts.
Iranian officials likewise remain defiant over the scope of their nuclear development. In a statement that assuredly reflects the thinking of Iran's supreme leader, the head of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, recently maintained that the Islamic Republic will never agree to shutter the Fordow uranium enrichment facility – a key concession that officials in the U.S. and Europe had expected Iran to make.
Meanwhile, a top expert on Iran's nuclear program has estimated that the Iranian regime has already passed the "point of no return," and can now enrich at least part of its existing stock of uranium to weapons grade in as little as two weeks, if it makes the strategic choice to do so. After that, according to Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian regime would be just a month or two from assembling a nuclear weapon, assuming it has the requisite know-how to do so.
Time, in other words, is in distinctly short supply. Yet administration officials remain exceedingly optimistic about their ability to talk Iran out of its national nuclear project. And because they are, the White House has begun lobbying Congress to defer applying more of the kind of pressure that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiating table in the first place.
Whether it will succeed in doing so is very much an open question. Lawmakers in the Senate, for example, are still actively debating new sanctions that would have the effect of eventually slashing Iran's current oil exports – already severely impacted by previous rounds of economic pressure – by as much as half. But Iran's regime, at least, is clearly banking on the administration to be able to successfully keep Congress in check, and as a result is now planning for a return to business as usual with the world.
Tehran has reportedly intensified its contacts with oil buyers, offering them sweetheart deals should sanctions indeed be lifted. Iranian officials, moreover, are confident that this will happen, and sooner rather than later. "Given the new circumstances, a large number of traditional buyers of Iranian oil are making the preparations and providing the facilities for raising their oil purchase from Iran," Mohsen Ghamsari, the head of Iran's official National Iranian Oil Company, has explained.
That's an ominous sign, because it suggests that Iran's leaders believe that the lure of "engagement" is enough to make the White House go wobbly on the extensive sanctions policy that it and its predecessors have painstakingly erected over the past decade-and-a-half. If they are right, meaningful sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic might be right around the corner. So, very likely, is an Iranian sprint to the nuclear finish line, with the regime in Tehran having received some much-needed breathing room from Washington.
Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.