Effective sanctions, say Administration officials, require participation by Iran’s key trading partners. That’s a problem, since neither Russia nor China is convinced that there’s an imminent danger of Iran producing nuclear weapons. Coalition of the willing–style sanctions of the sort envisaged by the congressional legislation may have limited impact because they’re unlikely to be implemented by neighbors such as Turkey and Iraq. And the use of naval power to enforce a blockade could easily provoke a war that the U.S. military is eager to avoid…

So what can the West possibly do? A number of Iran watchers recommend that in the postelection turmoil the Obama Administration should simply reset its clock. “We should continue to allow the rifts between political élites, and the rift between the people and regime, to widen on their own,” suggests Sadjadpour. “As Napoleon once said, ‘If your enemy is destroying himself, don’t interfere.’ The truth is, we don’t know how sanctions on refined petroleum could play out, and our bottom line should be to do no harm to the prospects for political change in Iran.”

Easy enough for policy analysts to say, but not for a President. “A lot of people are going to be putting immense pressure on President Obama to set a deadline and take firm action,” says Sick. The Administration may have no good options beyond continuing to explore diplomacy, he warns, but “it’s extraordinarily difficult to sell that to a chorus of people shouting ‘Do something!'”