For the past 30 years, the United States and Iran have been out of sync: When one side was ready for comprehensive negotiations, the other was not.
Now the Obama administration has asked the Islamic Republic to meet and clarify a vague proposal for talks that Iran made last week. In doing so, the United States is calling Iran's bluff at a difficult and delicate moment in that country's political evolution.
The proposal said Iran was prepared to "enter into a dialogue on negotiations in order to lay the ground for lasting peace" with the U.S. and five other world powers, but made no mention of U.S. and U.N. demands that it suspend a uranium-enrichment program that could give it the capacity to make nuclear weapons. On Saturday, however, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told Iranian state television, "Should the conditions be ripe, there is a possibility of talks about the nuclear issue with the West, given the new package we have presented."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the focus would be the nuclear program. "This may not have been a topic that they wanted to be brought up, but I can assure you that it's a topic that we'll bring up," he told reporters on Air Force One, Reuters news agency reported.
The U.S. decision to agree to meet with Iran without preconditions implements President Obama's campaign pledge to exhaust diplomatic efforts before resorting to new sanctions or military force.
Already, Mr. Obama has sent Persian New Year's greetings to Iran's people and government and two letters to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. All of this took place, however, before a June 12 presidential election produced the biggest mass protests against the regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution. With at least 36 people killed and more than 100 academics and political figures placed as defendants in show trials, millions of Iranians still believe that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi won the election, not the official victor, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Given this backdrop, many Iran specialists are skeptical that the Tehran government is really ready to engage and suspect it is playing for time to complete a nuclear weapons program, stave off more sanctions and bolster its legitimacy before an increasingly disaffected public.
"Iran policy is a conundrum with a capital C," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Obama administration faces the difficult task of reconciling how to deal with a disgraced regime, which presents urgent national security challenges, while at the same time not betraying a popularly driven movement whose success could have enormously positive implications for the United States."
Beyond curbing nuclear proliferation, Iranian cooperation could help stabilize Iran's neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, making it easier for the Obama administration to cap U.S. troop deployments and nip in the bud a gathering rebellion in U.S. Democratic Party ranks.
However, Mr. Sadjadpour said he doubted that Iran would moderate its policies "as long as Ahmadinejad is president and Khamenei is supreme leader. ... I don't think anyone at the White House is confident about the prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran."
In announcing the decision Friday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. was testing Iran.
"If Iran refuses to negotiate seriously, we - the United States and the international community and the [U.N.] Security Council - can draw conclusions from that," he said. "And then based on that, we'll make some judgments in the future."
Congress is already preparing new sanctions legislation that would cut off Iran's central bank from U.S. financial markets, pressure companies that sell gasoline to Iran to stop, and bar from U.S. ports international shipping companies that do business with Iran.
Israel, which sees Iran's nuclear program as an existential threat, is also putting pressure on the Obama administration to limit the time for talks.
"I think the real Israeli concern is how long the negotiation phase will last," said Avner Cohen, a nuclear specialist at the University of Maryland. "The current understanding is, until the new year."
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said Mr. Obama would take stock of the Iranian program at a meeting of 20 top economic powers later this month in Pittsburgh and that the end of the calendar year was still the deadline for progress.
On the sanctions front, the official said the Obama administration had been meeting with allies to discuss ways to punish Iran if it continues to enrich uranium. "If the effort to affect Iranians through direct talks will not be productive, we have to prepare the ground so we would be in a position where we could move," he said. While declining to give details, the official said that sanctions to this point have been "incremental" and that sanctions if talks failed would not be incremental.
Undersecretary of State William Burns will represent the U.S. in talks, to be conducted along with Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. Mr. Burns attended a session in Geneva in 2008 with Iranians, but Iran at the time was not ready for substantive negotiations with a lame-duck U.S. administration.
The senior U.S. official would not say how Mr. Obama would evaluate Iranian seriousness now.
"There has always been a basic assumption that this cannot be an open-ended process; we are not going to be talking for its own sake. How we evaluate the time is largely determined by Iranian behavior," the official said.
He added that the president's goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, an obligation that eventually also would apply to Israel, was not linked to these negotiations.
The U.S. decision to meet with Iran has caused consternation among human rights advocates, who fear it will demoralize Iranians who have finally stood up to a government that has denied them many of the freedoms they sought in the revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
"Right now, I can say most of the human rights and political activists in Iran are under tremendous pressure," said Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
He noted that advisers to Mr. Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have been arrested and said, "There are serious concerns that these leaders themselves could be arrested at any moment. Any offer or actual negotiation with the Iranian government at this time should not legitimize the criminal acts of the government in the postelection era. If these talks happen, the U.S. side should hold Iran accountable for grave human rights violations that have taken place."
Mohsen Sazegara, a participant in the 1979 revolution who helped establish Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards but has since become a prominent dissident, also said the U.S. decision to seek a meeting with Iran would bolster an unpopular government.
The government wants to meet with the U.S. to "say to the people of Iran that we are legitimate and look, 'President Obama is sending people to meet with us.' They are saying to the people of Iran, who don't think they are legitimate, that 'America thinks we are legitimate.' "
Asked about human rights concerns, the U.S. official said, "At the end of the day, it is society in Iran that determines the legitimacy of the government. What is going on in Iran will determine how it is perceived. We are dealing here with a nuclear program that has to be dealt with. There is time pressure to handle this."
"The clock is ticking, and the quick U.S. response may be an acknowledgment of the need to push the timeline," said Jim Walsh, a proliferation specialist at MIT who has participated in talks with Iranian and North Korean officials and academics.
John Limbert, one of 52 Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from 1979 to '81, also said the U.S. was right to offer to meet without preconditions.
"It's always going to be the wrong time" to negotiate, said Mr. Limbert, author of a new book, "Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History."
"To say you won't engage because this is a bad regime is an insult to our own intelligence," given that the U.S. deals with plenty of governments that abuse human rights, he said. "As much as you'd like to see Iranians get better treatment from their government, our not engaging will have little to do with it."
With talks, however, the U.S. can raise these issues and that of three American hikers and an Iranian-American scholar currently in Iranian custody, Mr. Limbert said.