It seems likely that as the sun sets today in Tehran, nothing will have changed on the nuclear issue. The deadline of August 31 set by the UN Security Council for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities will probably pass with Tehran doing nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Iranian leaders have kept up their posture of defiance, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurating a new heavy-water reactor last week. Ahmadinejad's call last Tuesday for a televised debate with President George W Bush was clearly part of this defiance.
However, taken in conjunction with a letter he had written to Bush, it could also be a reflection of Iran's wish to hold direct talks with Washington. Of the limited non-military options before it, the Bush administration seems keen on a new UN resolution to impose tough sanctions on Iran. These could include preventing Iran's import of equipment to help its nuclear programme and petroleum refining (while Iran is a major oil producer, it lacks adequate refining capacity to meet its petroleum needs).
A major problem for the US could be drumming up enough support for such an embargo. China and Russia, with their strong trade ties with Iran, are unlikely to support any harsh punitive measures, and it's no secret that Japan, whose economy depends on Iranian oil, is keen that any sanctions exclude oil exports. Maybe that's why Washington is already thinking aloud about imposing 'unilateral sanctions' on Tehran. Perhaps it's time Washington realised that strong-arm tactics, as the Bush administration apparently prefers, could only play into the hands of Iran's hardliners. A better bet would be to undercut their belligerence by, say, tendering clear inducements to open a dialogue with Tehran. This will put into practice Bush's avowed philosophy: that changing times call for 'bold leaders to make bold moves'. And what can be bolder for the US now than to ease sanctions, release Iranian assets frozen since the revolution and eventually restore diplomatic ties?