What to Expect When You're Expecting Iran to Compromise

With Iran and the superpowers poised to hold their second round of nuclear talks in a month, the U.S. is reportedly expecting results, but some experts and domestic Iranian politics suggest the waiting game may not be over quite yet.

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United States Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Iran's situation was simple at a press conference Wednesday ahead of multilateral talks with the Islamic Republic.

"They have an ability to rejoin the community of nations, to get out from under this isolation, if they will choose the simple ways of proving, as other nations proved, that they have peaceful nuclear energy. It's that simple. It's not complicated" Kerry said.

At the end of the week, Kerry will enter talks between the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – and Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It will be the second round of talks in a month and, at least according to reports in the American media, is expected to produce new ideas. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Iran is expected to stop the enrichment of uranium beyond the 20 percent threshold to keep its stockpile below 250 kilograms – which Israel estimates is the amount that would allow it to quickly create a nuclear bomb.

But Javier Solana, the European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy from 1999 to 2009, says not to anticipate real developments from the upcoming meeting. In a lecture at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. Monday, he said there is a dispute among the Western countries, France, England, the U.S. and Germany, on one hand, and Russia and China on the other hand, regarding the demands to be made of Iran.

"We have not played the Russian card sufficiently tough," said Solana, who headed the mediation efforts in his previous position.

Gary Samore, U.S. President Barack Obama's former weapons of mass destruction coordinator, is doubtful Iran and the West will be able to bridge the wide gaps that remain between them. He says the West is demanding Iran close one of its uranium enrichment facilities. But Iran is only willing to consider stopping uranium enrichment beyond the 20 percent limit in exchange for the removal of all sanctions against it.

Neither Solana nor Samore attribute much importance to the holding of a second meeting, even though Iran has proved willing to discontinue talks when it does not like the direction they are taking.

With those involved keeping their cards close to their chests, it is hard to judge either the optimism of Kerry and The Wall Street Journal or the pessimism of Solana and Samore. As usual, the prospects for a resolution can be found in guesses – some more and some less intelligent – about Iran's opaque internal politics. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei faces a dual dilemma: Should he reduce the enrichment of uranium to avoid dragging Iran into a military confrontation on the eve of the presidential election in June? And if so, should he make the concession at the upcoming meeting or at the next one, which will take soon before or after the election?

Reports by Western organizations, like the Federation of American Scientists and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Organization, say that Khameni has already decided not to increase the amount of uranium enriched to the 20 percent limit. But, they say, he will not send enriched uranium abroad or close any enrichment sites.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirms Iran's claims that it has not enriched enough uranium to a high-enough level to create a nuclear bomb. But at this stage, the U.S. and European countries are not satisfied with indirect reports without a commitment by Iran. They are demanding Iran make a public statement and sign an agreement. But this would require Iran to publicly abandon its position that the enrichment of uranium is an independent Iranian policy that cannot be influenced by external pressure.

If Iran has truly decided not to exceed the 20 percent limit, what remains is the question of timing. The U.S. and Israel have given Iran an extension until the summer – that is, until after the election. If Khamenei – whose country has so far invested over $100 billion in its nuclear program (factoring in the loss of income due to sanctions), according to a report published by the Carnegie Institute and the Federation of American Scientists – compromises now, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters will get a popularity boost. On the other hand, if Khamenei, who despises Ahmadinejad, waits until after the election, his candidate – perhaps Saeed Jalili – may have a better chance of taking office and reaping the benefits himself.

In any case, the next president will have to devote his energy to solving Iran's economic problems, most of which stem from international sanctions. It is possible that this will provide a good political opportunity for implementing the change in Iran's nuclear policy. But the West – particularly the U.S., which is pushing for direct dialogue – does not expect to be kept waiting.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is facing both external and internal pressures.Credit: AP