EU sanctions / Next goal - talks in Istanbul
Iran will have to come up with an acceptable proposal in negotiations over its nuclear program by July. The talks' success will hinge on whether Iran finds alternative customers for the oil it exports to Europe, and at what price.
Iran's tough public response to the new European Union sanctions isn't surprising. "If Iran's oil exports are hindered, we'll block the Strait of Hormuz," Mohammad Kossari, deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said Monday.
"Iran will not be harmed by the sanctions," declared the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, a few days ago. And Iran's former intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, suggested a "counter-embargo" on oil sales to EU states.
But despite this unyielding public stance, Iran is working to defuse the crisis in two different ways. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi held talks with Turkish officials to prepare for negotiations with the West, which are due to begin at the end of the month. Iran will also allow an International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to visit its nuclear facilities on January 29.
Meanwhile, it is also taking steps to ease the economic pain the sanctions are expected to cause.
It is not clear what concessions Iran has offered Turkey ahead of the planned talks, but a Turkish source said that "Iran will come with goodwill and the intention of finding a solution to the nuclear enrichment issue."
Though past negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have been exercises in foot-dragging, this time, the timetable is relatively tight: Iran will have to come up with an acceptable proposal by July. The talks' success will hinge on whether Iran finds alternative customers for the oil it exports to Europe, and at what price.
The West is striving to persuade South Korea, Japan, India, Turkey and especially China to stop buying Iranian oil, and Saudi Arabia has agreed to increase its own output to replace Iranian exports. Nevertheless, Iran's competitive prices could cause those countries to continue buying its oil, sabotaging the sanctions.
Iran's leaders can also rely on domestic quiet. Two months ahead of its parliamentary elections, the opposition has yet to make itself heard. And infighting among Iran's leadership has died down, supplanted by the need to close ranks against the West.
Iran is capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz or even the entire Persian Gulf. But shooting at tankers, mining the strait or attacking oil facilities in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait could lead to war against Iran. And despite its threats to close the strait, there are no indications that Iran is ready for an all-out war.
So for now, the most likely outcome is another round of the usual posturing - more discussions, more delegations, more proposals and counterproposals. Only as July approaches will we learn whether Iran has an alternative market for its embargoed oil exports, or is heading for a lengthy recession combined with more enriched uranium in its storehouses.