As the deadline for Iran to respond to the international community's offer regarding its nuclear program passed Thursday, the US has toughened its rhetoric and is looking increasingly to sanctions rather than diplomacy.
That has pleased Israel, which wants strong action against the Islamic Republic as it continues to enrich uranium in defiance of international demands and has rejected US President Barack Obama's outstretched hand.
The next step, according to Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, should be "imposing crippling sanctions" on the Teheran regime, which is in keeping with the pledge Oren said Obama made to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May that the US would end the engagement phase toward Iran if it were unsuccessful by year's end.
Oren told The Jerusalem Post that "there isn't an Israeli view and an American view" on the Iranian question, but rather "one view."
However, the Obama administration is showing signs that its approach to sanctions might not be in line with the "crippling" measures that Israel is expecting. Instead, a more calibrated approach has been emerging in which the US would press for another UN Security Council resolution this month and look at targeted sanctions rather than at disrupting Iran's energy markets and other more broad-based moves.
In addition, the US has repeatedly stressed that the door to diplomatic engagement remains open, notwithstanding Obama's pledge to review the process at the end of the year.
"The United States remains committed to a diplomatic resolution to the international community's concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program," a State Department official told the Post Thursday, though he added, "Unfortunately, thus far, our efforts have been rebuffed."
He also said, "We would welcome Iran taking concrete steps to build confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program," particularly by "Iranian acceptance of the IAEA's standing Teheran Research Reactor refueling proposal."
That deal - in which Teheran would have sent most of its enriched uranium abroad for processing so that Iran could then use it for medical purposes - was worked out by global leaders in October, who gave Iran until Thursday to accept the deal. There have been reports, however, that Turkey is working to provide a compromise proposal even though the US has in the past ruled out any modification to the offer, which Iran has not approved.
American officials have several times referred to "consequences" Iran would face for rejecting the efforts at diplomatic solutions, and in recent days have spoken increasingly about the option of sanctions.
Along with the track of ongoing diplomatic efforts, "we are moving on the pressure track in consultation with others," an administration official told the Post Thursday. "The United States will continue to implement its dual-track strategy to achieve its goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. We continue to consult with our partners on how we will give full meaning to the dual tracks."
He added that "a variety of options are being explored" on implementing the latter track and that "the discussions are continuing."
Earlier in the week, a senior US official fleshed out some of the approach on the pressure track, telling The Washington Post that the administration would like to use fine-tuned measures. "We have never been attracted to the idea of trying to get the whole world to cordon off their economy," he said. "We have to be deft at this, because it matters how the Iranian people interpret their isolation - whether they fault the regime or are fooled into thinking we are to blame."
Though Obama has been more forceful in his criticism of the Iranian regime as the crackdown on opposition forces has turned bloodier in recent days, the administration doesn't want to see sanctions policy hurt average Iranians or fuel the government's anti-Western charges.
"There's strong support for sanctions on regime figures. Beyond that it gets to be more complicated," Iran expert Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said of popular Iranian attitudes toward such measures.
More targeted restrictions - on the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its economic enterprises in addition to the Iranian leadership - could also be an easier sell with many of the international countries that have at time been wary of sanctions.
The US is looking at leading another sanctions resolution through the UN Security Council once it reconvenes in the new year, a process that could take weeks or even months and in the past has resulted only in weak measures due largely to Russian and Chinese opposition.
Oren, speaking to the Post, expressed optimism over the possibility of such a resolution getting through. "All the indications we have are that the Russians are more cooperative now" on possible sanctions, though he indicated it wasn't clear whether China, which imports a large quantity of Iranian oil, would also cooperate.
Oren also referred to several other paths that could be taken, including targeting the financial activities of the government, curbing the import of refined petroleum and limiting the ability of Iranian leaders to travel around the world.
The US Treasury has already been going after some financial companies that work with Iran, including winning a $217 million settlement with Lloyds TSB Bank and a $536m. global settlement with Credit Suisse in December because of prohibited dealings with Iran. And designating leaders as personae non grata would be in line with a more focused approach.
But stemming refined petroleum imports is the kind of measure that the White House and international community might balk at. Though bills to do just that have been wending their way through Congress, some legislators have privately said they would prefer measures more focused on the regime than the people. In addition, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, who sponsored the House bill, said he wanted to give time for the Security Council process to work before passing any law.