In late April the Swiss ambassador to Tehran arrived in Washington with a secret message for the small team in charge of Barack Obama's outreach to Iran. The rulers in Tehran were getting ready to release the American journalist Roxana Saberi, who had been charged with spying. But they wanted the U.S. to know that if she was freed, it would not be a concession; it would be a test. For more than two years, U.S. forces in Iraq had been holding three Iranian diplomats they believed were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, linked to terrorist attacks in the region. Iran was not asking for the three men to be released in exchange for Saberi. But Tehran would be watching for the U.S. response. (See pictures of the faces of Iran.)
The Swiss ambassador's message (Switzerland handles American interests in Iran, since Tehran and Washington do not have diplomatic relations) arrived at a delicate moment. Obama had personally launched a goodwill campaign to improve relations with Iran and restart negotiations over its nuclear program. But Iran was stalling on Obama's offer of nuclear talks, and now the U.S. team, led by veteran diplomat Dennis Ross, had to figure out where the Saberi gambit fit in. Her potential release could be a sign that moderates in Tehran were on the rise, in which case the U.S. should reciprocate. Or it could be a ploy by hard-liners in Tehran, who oppose détente with the West, to get the three Iranians released. In that case, the U.S. should stand pat. So which way to jump? The U.S. has never been good at making sense of Tehran's knotty power structure, and the distrust is mutual: many in Iran suspect that the U.S. is looking for an excuse to attack their nation, as it did Iraq.
In the effort to bridge the gap between two adversaries who do not understand each other very well, Obama has turned to Ross, who was appointed special adviser for the gulf and southwest Asia by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Taciturn and relentless, he is tasked with orchestrating a global effort to lure Iran to the table and persuade it to curtail its nuclear program. So far, there's little sign of success. Which is why the U.S. is not just hoping that diplomacy will work; it is also laying the groundwork for what will happen if it fails. And failure to find a solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions could result in war.
In so high-stakes a game, Obama and Clinton have at least bought experience. Ross, 60, has been at the center of high-level U.S. diplomacy since the 1980s. Throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, he led U.S. efforts to secure peace between Israel and the Arabs. Ross helped shape Obama's position on Iran during the 2008 campaign, and as the President makes a goodwill trip through the region, much of the business he is conducting in Arab capitals is in furtherance of Ross's Iran plan.
The diplomat has his work cut out for him. Iran, which in 2003 was found to have established a large-scale uranium-enrichment program, badly wants to be a nuclear power, though it claims its ambitions are peaceful. And the clock is ticking; after Iran holds presidential elections on June 12 (with a second round, if needed, on June 19), the U.S. and Europe will again push for talks on the nuclear issue, senior Administration officials say. If Tehran's diplomats haven't shown a real willingness to respond by September, the U.S. and Europe will announce tough new sanctions. The urgency comes from the possibility that with its centrifuges spinning day and night, Iran could have enough low-enriched uranium to make the highly enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon, according to an American analysis of a Feb. 19 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Senior U.S. and European officials say that Israel, which views an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat, has bluntly told the U.S., Germany and others, "If need be, we will have to act." That implies if all else fails, Israel would unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The consequences of such an attack would be dire.