High stakes, low hopes for Iran nuclear talks

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The stakes will be high when diplomats from six world powers meet with Iranian officials here over the weekend to discuss the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program: War or peace, the global economic recovery and a U.S. presidential election may ride on the outcome.

Expectations are much lower. It will be enough for the diplomats if there is sufficient common ground with Iran to keep talking.

As recently as a week ago, there were doubts that the long-delayed talks would even take place. They will test whether crippling economic sanctions, the West’s best shot at avoiding military action, are persuading Tehran to negotiate over a nuclear enrichment program it views as a national treasure. Many nations fear Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability, though Iran insists it wants reactors only for medical, energy and other peaceful uses.

This is unlikely to be Iran’s last chance to negotiate, but Western officials say the meeting Saturday might provide the leadership’s best opportunity to compromise — if it is inclined to. They fear that Iran’s leaders will find it even harder to explain a compromise to its people in coming months if tightening sanctions on oil exports, the mainstay of the economy, make it appear that cooperation is a surrender to foreign pressure.

The talks are also a daunting test for President Obama in the heat of an election season. He must dissuade Israel from taking its own military action, while shielding himself from Republican charges that he is weak on Iran. He wants to avoid a drift into a war that could cause oil prices to skyrocket, and sink the world economy and his reelection bid.

Obama has ruled out a containment strategy — living with an Iranian bomb — so failure in Istanbul would force a reluctant Pentagon to take a more serious look at the prospect of American military action.

“It would pose difficult questions for all sides,” said one European diplomat. “It’s not clear what would come next.”

The administration’s view is that Iran hasn’t yet made a decision to build a bomb, although it is conducting research on how to do it. And the official U.S. view, which is not shared by everyone in the government, is that U.S. intelligence could detect well in advance an Iranian decision to build a nuclear device, and move to stop it.

The six powers in the talks are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, a group known as P5 plus 1. They have set a modest goal for Istanbul: They want to see if Iran shows enough interest in cooperation to justify a second meeting, probably in Baghdad in a few weeks, where negotiations could begin in earnest.

Western diplomats will look for a sign in Istanbul that Iran would take limited “confidence-building” steps to slow its expanding and semi-hidden enrichment program. The ultimate goals are full disclosure of Iran’s nuclear efforts and stronger controls through the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, in return for nuclear assistance and other aid.

Western diplomats say they won’t start the meeting by making demands, since their goals are largely known, but will ask for assurances that Iran is willing to discuss its program and take steps to show it is serious. They expect the Iranians to probe what they could expect in return, potentially including an agreement to postpone or cancel additional economic sanctions.

Only if the Iranians want to start detailed discussions will Western negotiators lay out their demands. They want Iran to halt production of 20%-refined uranium, which could be converted relatively quickly to weapons-grade fuel; to surrender their existing stockpile of 20% uranium; and to shutter a new enrichment facility hidden inside a mountain near Qom.

Given the stakes, and the low initial demands, Iran would seem to have an incentive to cooperate in Istanbul, if only to buy time to continue enriching uranium and help stave off more sanctions. Many experts fear that is Tehran’s intention.

Yet Western diplomats say they are unsure what to expect because of Iran’s intransigence in the past, and the absence of clear interest from the country’s top leadership.

In 33 years of on-and-off negotiations with the Islamic Republic, Western diplomats say, they have been challenged, berated, confounded and ignored. In their view, Tehran’s emissaries rarely have shown interest in any real dialogue.

Several senior Iranian officials have recently made what have seemed like positive overtures, including one by the head of Iran’s nuclear energy organization that the regime might halt production of 20%-enriched uranium. But Western diplomats are reluctant to read too much into those statements.

Some Iranian officials, especially those responsible for managing the economy, clearly are worried about sanctions and favor negotiations. But while a debate is underway inside the leadership circle, there is no certainty that the official who counts — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — is considering compromise.

Khamenei long has been convinced that Western pressure to eliminate the nuclear program is really aimed at regime change, and he appears to believe that Iran can ride out the sanctions, Western government and outside experts say.

“There are clearly many people in the regime who are worried about the economy and the trend line,” said a Western diplomat. “But those aren’t the people who are calling the shots. The supreme leader is calling the shots.”

Diplomats say they expect Iran to try to drive a wedge between the six countries. The fault lines are clear: The Russians and the Chinese, while more eager than in the past to resolve an issue that threatens their commercial interests in Iran, are more ready to ease sanctions than is the West.

The United States also has differences with its European allies.

France and Britain have pushed harder than the Obama administration for tough sanctions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems more inclined now than Obama to demand an early suspension of Iran’s production of the less-worrisome 3%-enriched uranium in addition to the 20%-enriched.

The dismal history of recent talks offers little encouragement.

In October 2009, Iran appeared to agree to send its enriched uranium overseas temporarily. But the deal quickly came under fire from domestic political opponents, and it was abandoned.

The last round of talks in Istanbul broke off in January 2011, when Iranian officials said they wouldn’t talk about the nuclear program until world powers had lifted all sanctions. The negotiator berated the Western countries and failed to show up for one meeting.

Talks with Tehran since the Iranian revolution that toppled the American-backed shah in 1979 “have been incredibly unpleasant experiences,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department planner now at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.

Given the rocky history and what’s at stake, the Istanbul meeting is an important moment, she said. But she added that no one should expect it to produce a “light-bulb moment … or a clear guide path for a sustainable process of dialogue.”