The Obama administration and its European allies are setting a target of early October to determine whether engagement with Iran is making progress or should lead to sanctions, said senior officials briefed on the policy.
They also are developing specific benchmarks to gauge Iranian behavior. Those include whether Tehran is willing to let United Nations monitors make snap inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities that are now off-limits, and whether it will agree to a "freeze for freeze" -- halting uranium enrichment in return for holding off on new economic sanctions -- as a precursor to formal negotiations.
The moves are partly driven by concerns in Israel and among Washington's Arab allies that Tehran could drag out negotiations indefinitely while advancing its nuclear program, the officials said.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have stressed that U.S. overtures toward Tehran won't be open-ended. The administration is committed to testing Tehran's willingness to cooperate on the nuclear issue and on related efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq.
Whew! Less than five months to get all that? Honestly, I'll be surprised if this works.
One possibility is that Iran will make minimal moves at the end of September that fail to even approach the benchmarks, but the administration will insist this is enough hope of change to continue that path.
Or, the Iranians will show their utter contempt for our latest deadline and just blow us off.
Or, the "strong" sanctions will be to ban the Iranians from sending a delegation to the Tennessee Pork Festival in 2010.
The surprise will be if we then take serious action.