Like the U.S. Congress, Iran has pushed its most pressing national problem until after the Nov. 6 presidential elections. Unlike Congress, Iran is indicating that it is then willing to sit down and deal.
Signals coming out of Tehran are conflicting, perhaps intentionally so. The New York Times reported late last week that the U.S. and Iran had agreed in principle to one-on-one talks about Tehran's uranium enrichment program, which, if it hasn't already, is apparently close to producing weapons-grade uranium.
Iran says the uranium is needed for peaceful purposes, its medical research and electric power reactors, but this talk has been belied by its bellicose rhetoric toward Israel. And that rhetoric has prompted the Western nations — the so-called P5 plus one, the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Russia — to impose new and stricter sanctions that have led to a near total collapse in the value of Iranian currency and a huge crimp in its oil exports.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has come perilously close to meddling in the presidential campaign on behalf of Mitt Romney, has called for preemptive strikes, preferably with the U.S. in tow, against Iran's nuclear facilities.
He has not found many takers, and now has pushed the deadline for the world to react until next summer, which post-election would give Iran and the West time to work out an agreement. The most important ingredient may be to devise a face-saving way for Tehran to bow out of the nuclear-weapons business.
In the meantime, Iran has threatened an all-out retaliation against Israel and U.S. interests in the Mideast if it is attacked. The reprisals would likely also involve Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of which have grown weaker because of the loss of Iranian patronage, funneled through Syria.
Iran's leaders are acutely aware that it took only a few days for U.S. air power to reduce Iraq, a nation Iran fought to an inconclusive draw after an eight-year war, to a third-rate power.
Something is clearly afoot in the Iranian leadership. Its noisy, embarrassing and anti-West president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has unceremoniously been shoved to the sidelines. And Tehran now insists it never broke off talks with the West. To hear Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tell it, his negotiators are standing by, ready to get right back to serious bargaining once the U.S. elections are over.
How President Barack Obama or a very green President Mitt Romney handles this ambiguous opening from Iran will do much to set the direction of our Mideast policy for the next four years.