The first thing that Barack Obama has to understand about Iran: there is no hurry.
The hawks outside the administration, and a few of those who might be inside — notably, Dennis Ross — will say that the situation is a crisis. They will argue that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon that will change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. And they will ring the Holocaust alarm bells that Iran will use the A-bomb to obliterate Israel. None of this is true. Obama has years to deal with Iran.
As a candidate, and as president-elect, Obama has declared his intention to open a dialogue with Tehran. Certainly, he will make a sincere offer of talks. But such talks are unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough. They could start, break off, re-start, and again be suspended. It’s possible that a US-Iran dialogue could take two years or more to make progress. That’s why Obama will have to ignore the hawks, who will say — at the first sign of trouble — that the talks aren’t working. And they will argue that Iran must be confronted with harsh economic sanctions, a blockade, or military action. Obama must resist these calls. He will have to ignore angry rhetoric from Iran, especially from its own hawks, who will issue thunderous denunciations of the United States. The new US administration will have to be prepared for a long, bumpy road in its dialogue with Iran.
The fact is that Iran’s nuclear program is still in a research stage. It has acquired a quantity of low-enriched uranium, but none of the uranium can be used for a bomb. Before it can be used for military purposes, it will have to be enriched to weapons-grade, a long and laborious process that Iran cannot hide from inspectors from the IAEA. (Alternatively, Iran could expel the IAEA team, which would not only make its intentions obvious but would result in a public relations disaster for Tehran.) Even if Iran further enriches the uranium it has, it will have enough for only one bomb, i.e., not enough to test a weapon and not enough — according to military experts — to provide it with credible threat. In addition, Iran may not have the technological know-how to actually construct a weapon, even if does manage to acquire weapons-grade uranium. And Iran does not, at present, have the ability to deliver a weapon.