The New Year is unlikely to see a resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis, despite a deadline for Iran to show it does not seek the bomb. President Barack Obama had given himself until the end of 2009 to decide if Iran was serious about negotiating. Iran rejected this timing, as well as other pressure to get it to slow down its nuclear program.

Iran has so far rebuffed a deal to export enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for a research reactor. Iran would get new talks that could lead to trade and other advantages if it cooperated. The United States meanwhile refuses an Iranian compromise under which Iran would keep the uranium in country but isolated under UN monitoring. Washington says it wants the enriched uranium, a possible atomic weapons material, out of Iranian control as a necessary confidence-building gesture.

The result: the United States seems headed for a put-up-or-shut-up moment in its threat to impose sanctions on Iran. This is a battle no one wants to fight. Obama's team favors engagement and would like to pursue negotiations in the year or so left during which Iran is still short of actually being able to make a bomb.

Looking at the big picture, there are two reasons to go slow. First, a showdown with Iran could lead to higher oil prices that would be a severe blow to the world's nascent economic recovery. Second, continued unrest in Iran could persuade the regime to change its policies, or to change entirely. Some feel the confusion in Iran's leadership argues against applying pressure now.

There is a flip side to this. Despite economic and other caveats against cracking down on Iran, and short of a compromise agreement, world powers must show they are tough if they are to get Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

International sanctions could be unavoidable, even though Washington wants to avoid confrontation. Russia is reluctant to sign on to punitive measures and experts doubt whether sanctions are even effective. In any case, the United States has prepared an escalation in its unilateral effort to cripple Iran financially by having companies refuse to deal with Iranian banks. Iran has vowed to resist these measures.

The grace period of Obama's new policy of engagement is ending. Iran already has enough enriched uranium to make one bomb and adds to the stockpile daily. Still, the United States, restrained by its own concerns and those of its allies, will move carefully. There will be jabs and only jabs from the world's sole superpower, without a knockout punch in sight.

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