Even if Iran changes its position over its nuclear programme, it will probably be too little and too late.
Iran's refusal on concessions renews the threats of war
If Iran had been clever in negotiations over its nuclear programme this summer, it could have tested, and probably broken, the unity of its six negotiating partners. But this would have required accepting limits that would make it harder to dash for a nuclear weapon.
Iran could have declared victory over the way in which the major powers since April have set aside Security Council demands that it suspend all enrichment-related activity. The E3+3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom plus China, Russia and the United States, otherwise known as the P5+1) instead focused on Iran's production of 20 per cent enrichment and the Fordow facility where most of that work is being conducted. The E3+3 had not forgotten about full suspension, but Tehran could have sought to interpret the emphasis on 20 per cent as an implicit acceptance of its right to enrichment at lower levels.
As interim confidence-building measures, the E3+3 asked Iran to reduce the immediacy of the threat by stopping production of 20 per cent enriched uranium, shipping out the accumulated 20 per cent product and shutting down the deeply buried enrichment facility at Fordow. If Iran indicated it could go along with the "three Ss" - to "stop, ship and shut" - then maybe half of the six powers would argue for lifting some sanctions. Not France, which is as tough on Iran under Francois Hollande as it was under Nicolas Sarkozy. But certainly Russia and China. And possibly Germany and the UK. In early summer, the UK floated the idea of delaying insurance-related sanctions, but backed off when its partners disagreed.
When asked whether his government had given any consideration to sanctions relief if Iran had been more forthcoming, an official in one of the key European capitals told me in midsummer: "Wouldn't that be a nice problem to have?" To date, there has been no need to grapple with the issue because the Iranians are so far from making the necessary concessions.
Iran is only willing to consider stopping 20 per cent enrichment. The New York Times reported two weeks ago that Iran had floated a nine-point plan that would have gone further. However, Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili promptly denied this: Iran's position has not changed since Moscow, when it rejected "shipping and shutting". Even if Iran suspended 20 per cent enrichment, it insisted it would keep Fordow open for other enrichment work.
The artful characterisation by some Iranians, such as former Iranian negotiator Hossein Mousavian, that the E3+3 offer amounts to seeking to trade "peanuts for diamonds" is a mirror image. It is Iran's offer to suspend 20 per cent enrichment in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions that better fits the peanuts-for-diamonds metaphor.
Dealing with just the 20 per cent level would leave in place the up to 5 per cent enrichment work that has been at the core of the nuclear crisis since the beginning. With the lower level of enrichment, Iran could get to the bomb in only a slightly longer time than if it started with a 20 per cent product. The threat posed by lower level of enrichment is getting worse every day. The stockpile, which now stands at 5,000 kilograms, is enough for over four weapons if further enriched. There is no civilian need for it.
After US elections, it is conceivable that Tehran may accept limits on its uranium enrichment programme. It's no surprise that Iran has been dragging out talks until it is known who will be in the White House come January. Iran's lack of interest in meaningful compromises is why there has not been a full meeting with the E3+3 political directors since the dismal talks in Moscow in mid June. To keep up a semblance of diplomacy, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton occasionally talks with Mr Jalili. Lower-level "technical talks" have been held. But there is not likely to be a meeting at the political level until after the US election.
Meanwhile the Americans and their European allies continue to ratchet up the sanctions pressure. No longer "targeted", the sanctions are having a devastating effect on the overall Iranian economy. Inflation of basic consumer goods is estimated at 50 per cent, unemployment is rising and the value of the currency is in free fall. Sanctions are not the only reason for these troubles, and may not even be the primary cause. But they are certainly limiting Iran's economic options. The central bank has difficulty supporting the rial when it cannot get access to 30 per cent of its foreign exchange reserves that are held in foreign banks.
If Tehran does look for a way to ease the sanctions pain by being more conciliatory in nuclear talks, it will probably want to wait until Iran's own presidential elections next June. This is not because the president is the key decider on the nuclear programme. It is because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does not want President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to claim credit for a diplomatic solution. When he is gone, the political forces in Iran will be better aligned to support a compromise.
If Iran's position does change, however, it will probably be too little and too late. The new Iranian president will not take office until August 2013, and any change of posture would not come immediately thereafter. Few states turn on a dime, and Iran is culturally disposed to take time to cogitate. Concessions will be tactical, not representing a decision to give up the weapons option.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted at the UN last month that by spring or early summer Iran would be 90 per cent of the way to being able to produce a nuclear weapon. In effect, he gave sanctions six to nine months to produce an Iranian change of strategy. That probably won't be enough time.
When next summer comes and goes, and Iran under a new president still isn't ready to make a deal, Israel may then attack, and alone if necessary. Depending on how close Iran is to the red line of weapons acquisition, the US might itself join in, no matter who is president, and lead the operation.
Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding worst-case outcomes