But if talks with Iran seem a long shot to produce peace, the Obama administration appears to be less worried about war than it did just a few months ago. Current and former senior administration officials privately say the threshold for military action is high. Foreign diplomats in Washington say that after three years of tough talk the administration is showing a softer face ahead of the talks. They read the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State and the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, both of whom were critical of the war in Iraq, as signs the administration is not in a hurry to go to war again in the region. On Feb. 2 at the same Munich conference Salehi spoke at, vice president Joe Biden said the U.S. would consider one-on-one talks with Iran, last offered in 2009 but then abandoned in the face of Iranian intransigence.
Part of the administration’s seeming calm may come from the fact that while it hasn’t stopped the Iranian program over the last four years, the U.S. and its allies have put some time on the clock. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. last September that the west must act by late spring or early summer to stop an Iranian weapon. But recent reports say Israeli intelligence believes covert action has slowed the Iranian program. The earliest Iran might get a bomb, according to these reports, is 2015. Former administration officials familiar with military planning describe a similarly extended time line for intervention.
At the same time, Iran is doing little things that could be read as opening the way to a deal. It reportedly slowed its production of enriched uranium to keep its stockpile under the amount needed to produce a single nuclear weapon, converting some into nuclear fuel rods for its research reactor, a move that is difficult to reverse. Also, by choosing to install its new centrifuges in Natanz, rather than the deeply buried facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, it is choosing to make them more vulnerable to a military attack.