Direct talks would also have implications for an existing series of negotiations involving a coalition of major powers, including the United States. These countries have imposed sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and many in the West believe is aimed at producing a weapon.
Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran policy for the White House until early 2012, says one reason direct talks would make sense after the election is that the current major-power negotiations are bogged down in incremental efforts, which may not achieve a solution in time to prevent a military strike.
Ross said the United States could make Iran an ‘‘endgame proposal,’’ under which Tehran would be allowed to maintain a civil nuclear power industry. Such a deal would resolve, in one stroke, issues like Iran’s enrichment of uranium and the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies — William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman — and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore.
Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium bears on another key difference between Obama and Romney: whether to tolerate Iran’s enrichment program short of producing a nuclear weapon, as long as inspectors can keep a close eye on the program, vs. prohibiting it from enriching uranium at all. Obama administration officials say they could imagine some circumstances under which low-level enrichment in Iran might be permitted; Romney has said that would be too risky.
But Romney’s position has shifted back and forth. In September, he told ABC News that his ‘‘red line’’ on Iran was the same as Obama’s — that Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. But his campaign later edited its website to include the line, ‘‘Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons capability.’’ He repeated that in a speech at Virginia Military Institute this month.
For years, Iran has rejected one-on-one talks with the United States, reflecting what experts say are internal power struggles. A key tug of war is between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator and now the chairman of the Parliament.
Iran, which views its nuclear program as a vital national interest, has also shied away from direct negotiations because the ruling mullahs did not want to appear as if they were sitting down with a country they have long demonized as the Great Satan.
But economic pressure may be forcing their hand. In June, when the major powers met in Moscow, US officials say that Iran was desperate to stave off a crippling European oil embargo. After that failed, these officials now say, Iranian officials delivered a message to their US counterparts that Tehran would be willing to sit down for one-on-one talks, provided they took place after the elections.
At the United Nations in September, Ahmadinejad hinted as much, describing the reasoning to American journalists.
‘’Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the US leading up to the national elections,’’ he said.