Here’s a little secret about the future of U.S. Iran policy, regardless of who wins the presidential election: direct talks between Washington and Tehran may be inevitable — notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s insistence, in response to media reports last weekend, that no such talks are currently planned or the denials by Iran that it wants to talk. The reason that the winner on Nov. 6 may face little alternative but to try direct talks with Iran for the first time since 1979, is quite simply that both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have made clear their desire to avoid taking the U.S. into a third elective war in a Muslim country in the space of a decade…

But the problem with the sanctions favored by both the Obama Administration and the Romney campaign is that, while they are inflicting steadily rising economic pain felt across Iranian society, they remain unlikely to bring Iran to the point of capitulation. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei would urgently like to see sanctions eased or lifted, but the consensus among Iran analysts is that he’s unlikely to simply surrender on the nuclear issue in order to ease the economic pain. Absent some mutually acceptable compromise formula, therefore, the trajectory of the current policy could easily lead to war.

While he may be open to a genuine compromise, Khamenei can’t be seen to surrender on “nuclear rights” for which Iran has fought and suffered growing isolation over the past decade, notes University of Hawaii Iran scholar Farideh Farhi. “With the draconian economic measures imposed on Iran in the past year, the [domestic] political terrain makes quite impossible the acceptance of a deal that does not bring about some immediate, palpable, even if small, relaxation of the sanctions regime,” says Farhi. Imagining sanctions as an alternative to military action may be misleading, she argues, because Khamenei believes their purpose is regime change, and mounting economic pain could prompt the regime to become more reckless in its effort to break out of the noose.