After US-Iranian nuclear talks reached another 'pause' earlier this month, Donald Forbes argues that the time for mixed messaging on the issue from the Biden administration must come to an end.

The United States is rethinking its Middle East strategy after walking out of negotiations with Iran in Vienna to revive Barack Obama's 2015 nuclear deal, renounced three years later by Donald Trump who restored economic sanctions because of Iranian cheating.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the move a pause but it may be permanent because Iran wants it that way:

"We will see if Iran has any interest in engaging seriously, but the window is very, very tight," he warned. If the Iranians are bluffing to test President Biden's weakness, they don't have much time to decide which way to jump.

The talks ? at which the Americans and Iranians were not in the same room and communicated through European go-betweens – began last March and resumed at the end of November after a break.

Blinken said the Iranians immediately wanted to undo the progress that had already been made earlier at which American patience snapped as the State Department threatened it would. He said that Tehran didn't seem serious.

Iran for its part may have decided to absorb the consequences of US sanctions while continuing to develop nuclear capability without outside interference. It has adopted an "economy of resistance" which relies on its internal market and trade with China and neighbours. The viability of this will depend however on impoverished ordinary Iranians remaining quiescent.

All this appears to have confounded the hopes of Obama to anoint Iran as a US proxy gendarme in the Middle East, a "frenemy" motivated by self-interest after a history of confrontation that dates back to the Iranian revolution and before. His aim was to allow the US to give fuller attention to the threat from China.

It's possible Biden's negotiators returned to Vienna with every intention of walking away quickly rather than be humiliatingly strung alone by the mullahs negotiating in bad faith, meaning that the Americans likely have an undisclosed Plan B ready.

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There were signs beforehand that Biden was serious about his pledge not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons despite having no way of enforcing it if military intervention is ruled out. It may no longer be. The State Department has always said, without being specific, that all options are open.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel and the Persian Gulf states to reassure them that they are not being abandoned. US Central Command staged a joint air force exercise that included Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. American B-2 bombers flew over Israel escorted by Israeli F-15s.

General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told Time magazine:

"Our president said they were not going to have a nuclear weapon. The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed."

No American foreign policy issue has been so opaque as Iran. Biden's administration has not spoken with one voice and the real status of Iran's nuclear capability is unknown. The chief negotiator in Vienna, Robert Malley, is on record as saying that Iran will go nuclear and that the US will put not stop it or maintain sanctions.

The time of mixed messaging seems to be over. The US is telling the Iranians that there will be nasty consequences if they do not return to Vienna prepared to co-operate, which is why Blinken spoke of a pause in rather than an end of negotiations. The door remains open but briefly.

Blinken said the United States would consult its allies including Israel about replacing its failed policy of appeasing Iran. Although Biden has distanced the US from Israel under his presidency, there is now an unsubtle hint that unleashing Israeli air and missile forces could be among the options open to Washington. Israel is equally determined to deny Iran its game-changing bomb.

The Americans meanwhile know there is a limit to the extent of withdrawing from the Middle East without creating an opening for Russia and China which buys Iranian oil despite sanctions.

There is no doubt that Iran will get a bomb at a time of its own choosing which is why Obama made a deal in the first place. It may have one already, it may have the technology to make one ready to go or it may be still completing development. No one knows for sure exactly but Iran is already a de facto nuclear power.

General McKenzie said the US believed Iran was at the least on the brink of making a bomb but not of miniaturising it sufficiently to provide the warhead of a missile which would be only means of delivering it. Iran's current top missile has a range of 2,000 km which puts Jerusalem at its outer edge but is working to expand this.

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