The upcoming elections in Iran are exuding little hope of a deal on Tehran's controversial nuclear program. On the contrary, Washington can expect a continuation of its long-standing difficulties with Iran.
In his 2004 book "The Persian Puzzle" Kenneth Pollack wrote that handling Iran, in particular its nuclear ambitions, was "a problem from Hell."
"There simply is no school solution," wrote Pollack, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Nearly a decade later, there is still not only no school solution, but apparently no solution at all to the long-standing conflict between the United States and Iran.
Many observers had been eyeing the upcoming elections on June 14 with a mixture of resignation and anticipation. The hope was that maybe things would take a turn for the better. After all, the era of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would finally come to an end. Extremely tight sanctions imposed by the international community were putting Iran under enormous pressure. Perhaps, observers hoped, the Guardian Council - the Islamic Republic's constitutional watchdog - would allow a more moderate candidate, such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to stand for election.
But the Council's decision last month to not allow Rafsanjani - or nearly 680 other candidates - to run has curbed all hopes of movement in the stalemate.
"The mood in Washington is very depressed at the moment," Patrick Clawson, Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told DW.
No deal in sight
The Obama administration found the developments in Iran's election process "extraordinarily discouraging," said Clawson, who directs the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute.
"We would have understood that Iran was ready for a deal if they had appointed someone who was a deal-maker, like Rafsanjani," said Clawson. However, the Guardian Council instead is spreading the idea that top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is the frontrunner.
According to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, Jalili's endorsement was "perplexing."
"No one in Iran knows who he is," Parsi told DW. "He's very uncharismatic and just shows up on television every couple of months in connection with the nuclear negotiations. This just shows the state's ability to frame the conversation."
This, said Parsi, demonstrated to the Obama administration that it cannot expect a dramatic shift of events in the conflict with Iran. "They are seeing Ayatollah Khamenei manipulating the elections so that there are no bad surprises," said Parsi. "I think the US government has very low expectations."
Few options for Washington
But the Obama administration does not have a lot of options open. It must continue with efforts to negotiate, no matter who takes over in Tehran, said Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst at the University of Hawaii.
"Given the ferocious sanctions regime it has imposed on Iran, Washington is in no position to have a favorite in this election, even if it is waiting to see if the result will affect Iran's foreign policy direction," Farhi said in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. "The bottom line is that the United States has to be prepared to engage any administration that comes to power if it wants to avoid a dangerous escalation of tensions."
According to Clawson, President Obama and Congress have put down a clear policy, namely no nuclear enrichment.
"The US message is: the longer this drags on, the worse things will get," he said. "At the same time, the US has to decide what an acceptable risk with Iran is. The US needs to make an offer to Iran. We're not going to stand by forever. But if the deadline passes, what then?"
Domestic hurdles for Obama
But as Parsi points out, Obama is also struggling with challenges at home in connection with the Iran conflict. The US president is aware that he would need to lift sanctions to get Iran to budge. However, Obama would need to convince Congress to do so - and doesn't enjoy wide support in Congress right now.
"The US has gone for far too small steps on the diplomatic side and so it can only ask for small steps in return," Parsi said. "This is not something to brag about in Congress." Obama would not be able to persuade Congress to lift or loosen sanctions if he only receives small concessions in return, according to Parsi.
There was no way Iran would agree to a deal of stopping production of 20-percent enriched uranium in return for no new sanctions. "The Iranians are not going to give up their major card in this game," Parsi said.
However, Parsi said it was now up to the Iranians to move - though any movement would take place bilaterally, not in the context of the P5+1 group (the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany). "If Iran agreed to a bilateral deal with the US directly, that would be positive," Parsi said. "Iranians have refused to sit down with the US and that is Iran's mistake. The ball is in Iran's court."
But a continuation of the full embargo on Iran could destabilize the situation even further.
"After four years, after some of the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a country in history, Iran is: more aggressive regionally, more advanced on nuclear level and Iran is more repressive at home than it was four years ago," Parsi said. "It is moving Iran in the wrong direction, the one-man dictatorship is strengthened. Our sanctions policy doesn't have an effect, but what will be left of civil society in Iran? The building blocks of true democracy are withering away."