In a back-channel message to Tehran, President Barack Obama proffered a high-risk gambit: America will accept an Iranian nuclear program that forswears nuclear weapons if the vow is verifiable.
Later this week, in Istanbul, the Great Powers, hosted by Turkey and joined by Iran, will seek to defuse a looming confrontation which – if mishandled – could unleash Israeli warplanes to attack Iran's buried nuclear sites, doom Mr. Obama's hopes for a second term or even ignite a major war across the Middle East.
At stake is Iran's nuclear program. Both urgency and opportunity are in play with Mr. Obama's offer.
"The window is closing on Iran," Jay Carney, the President's spokesman, said Monday. "There is great concern around the world about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons."
And while Mr. Obama has made clear his is prepared to go to war if necessary to keep Tehran from tipping its arsenal of missiles with nuclear warheads, the President says his preferred option is a verifiable way of ensuring Tehran's nuclear pursuits are innocent. Trust isn't enough.
"Regardless of what the Iranians have said about what their intentions are, no one on the international stage has faith in those assurances," Mr. Carney said. "We need concrete steps taken by the Iranians to assure that they will forsake their nuclear weapons ambitions."
Mr. Obama's private message, delivered to Tehran by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holds out the prospect of ending decades of hostility between Iran and the United States – usually vilified as the "Great Satan." It could usher in, along with the Arab Spring, a new era of peace and prosperity in the Middle East.
But it could also go horribly wrong.
Mr. Obama's privately transmitted offer was predicated on a powerful, unequivocal speech made in February by Ayatollah Khamenei, according to The Washington Post's David Ignatius, who broke the story. "The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons," the Supreme Leader said. "Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous."
That echoes longstanding Iranian policy. But it was especially explicit. So Mr. Obama apparently wants to turn the Ayatollah's views on nuclear sin into a concrete, verifiable set of enforceable limits – not least because Iran wouldn't be the first nation to falsely foreswear nuclear-weapons ambitions and America wouldn't be the first nation to fall for a nuclear ruse.
Insisting that splitting atoms purely for peaceful purposes was the publicly proclaimed policy of every nation – India, Pakistan and North Korea stand out – that was subsequently discovered to have been secretly spending billions to covertly arm itself with outlawed nuclear warheads.
It's a road well travelled and those who've taken such assurances at face value have been invariably burned. Since 1974, when India reneged on its vows to Ottawa and set off what it disingenuously called a "peaceful nuclear explosion," proliferation has universally been concealed behind a camouflage of lies.
For Mr. Obama, the stakes are especially high. Iran poses unique and nightmarish echoes for a Democratic president seeking a second term. The last president to badly mismanage an Iranian crisis was Jimmy Carter in 1980. He was also the only Democrat incumbent to fail to win a second term since the Second World War, footsteps Mr. Obama won't want to follow.
No matter that the other four permanent Security Council members – Britain, China, France and Russia, along with Germany – will also be at the Istanbul summit. The Iran nuclear issue is fundamentally one for American handling, especially because Mr. Obama must, simultaneously, manage the war drumbeat from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who repudiates Tehran's assurances and disparages those who trust them.
Washington's opening demands are clear. Iran must open its underground Frodo site to international inspection and provide verifiable and ongoing means to ensure it doesn't enrich uranium anywhere near weapons-grade.
But Mr. Obama can't unilaterally lift the harsh sanctions already enacted by Congress and it's not clear what if any concessions or inducements the President has to offer.
If neither the U.S. President nor the Iranian Supreme Leader compromise at the nuclear talks, the risks of war sharply increase, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, warned Monday. "For the sake of world peace," she said, "both sides must compromise."
But Mr. Obama has little, if anything, to offer in an election year when he already stands accused of failing to back Israel and pandering too much to Tehran's mullahs.
"If Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon" – that is now a standard campaign accusation by his rival and Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
So the calculus in Istanbul, for the Iranian delegation as well as the other Great Powers, must include whether the best deal available from Washington will be on Mr. Obama's watch.