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Debate Iran? No, but talks are possible

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama has a chance to make good on the campaign pledge he made during the CNN/YouTube debate back in 2008: to sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This week Ahmadinejad offered to meet "face-to-face" in a debate before the media "to put the world's issues on the table to find out whose solution is better."

The regime in Tehran has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. attempts at engagement, thwarting the international community as it continues to pursue its nuclear program, which it claims is for peaceful purposes. The United States and its allies maintain Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.

The White House dismissed Ahmadinejad's offer as a theatrics, saying Iran isn't serious about discussing its nuclear ambitions. But senior administration officials say there are serious discussions taking place between the European Union foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian nuclear negotiators about resuming talks.

Officials say that Iran has been surprised by the extent of the fourth round of tough sanctions imposed against it in the recent U.N. Security Council resolution. Additional unilateral sanctions passed by the United States to tighten curbs against Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support for terror groups, along with measures passed by the European Union, and possibly other countries to come, have further put the financial squeeze on Tehran, which is finding it increasingly difficult to conduct business internationally.

Just as Iran feels the bite of the new sanctions, Ahmadinejad's policy to phase out subsidies on staples such as fuel and food will be implemented in September. Together, these could have a significant economic impact, which could make Ahmadinejad more willing to return to talk.

But after more than a year and a half in office, the Obama administration has had little effect in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and there are questions about whether a fresh round of talks with Iran would offer anything but a stalling tactic for Iran as its nuclear program develops.

If the international community is unable to stop Iran from going nuclear, the United States and its allies will be in for some tough choices before long. The United States and, more importantly, Israel have said they would be unable to live with a nuclear Iran. As that situation inevitability approaches, the military option looms. And that's a discussion Obama would probably like to avoid if he runs for re-election in 2012.