'I was surprised by the extent of their knowledge and understanding of the Iranian issue," said former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, after meeting with a group of senators and with Vice President Dick Cheney this week. In his brief visit to Washington, the Israeli opposition leader got the same impression most everyone who hears American decision-makers these days gets: They are very serious about Iran - from President Bush declaring that "Iran must face consequences," through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that it is time for the Security Council to "understand its obligation," and on to any other politician and administration official making clear that the time has come. But time for what? The passing of the deadline set for Iran to freeze its nuclear program took place less than two weeks before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The connection between the two may seem vague, but in the American public perception they have much to do with one another. This is not only because Iran sponsors terror, or due to the fact that conflicts in the Middle East all "look alike," but also because President George W. Bush, whose presidency began with the terror attacks on New York and Washington, will end his tenure with Iran. If the American people judged him harshly for the way he has handled the war on terror, the road to restoring his credibility goes through Iran. The question troubling those who follow the Iran situation in the American capital these days is just how committed Bush is to stopping Iran from achieving nuclear capability. There is no doubt that the US wants to take the Iran crisis into the next stage and finally take action - diplomatic action - to stop the Iranian bomb. But moving ahead is not all that easy, and involves delicate negotiations with Russia and China. THE AMERICAN strategy for achieving its goal is comprised of two elements: making Russia and China live up to their commitment to impose sanctions if necessary, and showing the world that sanctions aren't all that terrible, as they are no more than another form of diplomacy. The extent of Chinese and Russian "commitment" is now a matter of interpretation. While leaders of these two countries don't necessarily believe that supporting the resolution calling for Iran to stop its nuclear activity means that sanctions are the next stage, the US sees things differently. "The fundamental bargain has been struck and that bargain is reflected in the Security Council resolution from 31 July," said Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph in a briefing to the foreign press, "and that does say that the intention is to move to appropriate measures under Chapter 7, Article 41, if Iran doesn't meet the deadline. Iran didn't meet the deadline; that's where we are now." In order to make China and Russia join hands with the US as the international community steps into the next phase of the conflict, the US is willing to sugarcoat the entire notion of sanctions, both in definition and in content. The US is emphasizing the concept that sanctions aren't the end of diplomacy, but rather the extension of diplomacy, since they do not involve force and are done in an international setting. The administration is also now specifying what the sanctions will look like, making sure that they do not come out as collective punishment against the Iranian people. The US is assuring its allies that sanctions will target only the Iranian leadership, and that initially they will focus only on banning material and money used for procurement related to weapons of mass destruction and missiles. SENIOR OFFICIALS estimated this week that the process of approving a sanctions resolution against Iran might be over by the end of the month. Some diplomats voiced skepticism, saying that since the Russians are holding the cards now, the process could drag on for several months. Whatever the timetable, the key is the political willingness in the US to go forward. "My impression," said Netanyahu this week, "is that there is a big debate going on over Iraq, but not over Iran." In general terms, his impression is right. Both Republicans and Democrats are on the same page about the need to be tough on the regime in Teheran. Yet there are other voices, too. Former director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council Flynt Leverett this week presented his critique of the administration's policy in the region. According to Leverett, who served under Bush in his first term, the US should now offer Iran a "grand bargain" according to which it will promise not to attack the country and not to try and change its regime, in exchange for an Iranian agreement to accept limitations on its nuclear activity and to stop sponsoring terrorists. This view, so far, is not echoing in mainstream American discourse, but it might surface as an alternative to sanctions and military action, when the time comes for the US to decide if it is going all the way with Iran and making clear it will use military force if necessary. Even if there is no debate on the need to be tough with Iran, this does not mean that Bush has the backing to take action. When the time comes to make the decision, the president will have to look back and see if the American people are behind him - and that will be much more difficult. One person who was absolutely confident this week that Bush would not go all the way and attack Iran was former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who is on an unofficial visit to the US. "America will not make the mistake of attacking Iran," he said in an interview to The Washington Post, adding, "Iran is not Iraq." While his analysis may be accurate, the reasoning is not. If anything can save Iran from an American attack down the road, it is precisely the fear of the American public that Iran <> Iraq, and that entering an armed conflict with it would result in the same dire consequences as those that emerged from the confrontation with Iraq.