Waiting for a Meltdown Ahead of Iran Talks

Don't get your hopes up for the upcoming Istanbul talks on Iran's nuclear project - Tehran and Washington are both upping the rhetorical ante instead of laying the groundwork for a compromise.

Despite the dramatic media reports, don't get too excited about the next round of talks between Iran and six nations regarding Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Those discussions are scheduled to start in Istanbul late this week. Anyone who calls this encounter "fateful" is likely overlooking the fact that meetings like this were held in the past.

The unlikeliness of a breakthrough can be surmised given the rigid declarations in Tehran and Washington. Also, as of Wednesday, the U.S. government intended to send only mid-level professional diplomats to Istanbul, further attesting to the low expectations. Were Barack Obama's administration to believe the Istanbul discussions - which include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia - would be fraught with potential to guarantee regional peace, it would send a top-caliber representative, perhaps even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself.

A float depicting Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Germany two weeks ago.

Last year's talks halted when the Iranians refused to engage in an in-depth discussion about their nuclear program. Iran conditioned the discussion on international recognition of its right to enrich uranium and the lifting of sanctions. This time Iran appears to have relented on these preconditions.

Another change has to do with the timetable. That issue may not be as pressing as Israel's government insists it is, but the international community, including Russia and China (which display the most indulgence toward Iran ), does realize that Tehran is still working toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

No less important is the change in America's approach to the issue. Around November, when Israeli officials began voicing concrete threats to attack Iranian nuclear installations, officials in Washington apparently had their eureka moment and grasped the seriousness of the issue.

Overlooking the Iranian threat is no longer an option, Obama said at the AIPAC gathering in March. His government has toughened its stance on Tehran, and this change has been felt on the ground, he said. Proof of this is the tougher banking sanctions and the gradual consolidation of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf; a veritable armada has been deployed there.

The factors motivating Obama go beyond a potential Israeli raid, which the U.S. government seeks to forestall. Domestic U.S. political events cannot be ignored. The long series of primary debates between Republican presidential hopefuls has made Iran an urgent foreign policy issue. With Republicans vying among themselves to come off as hawkish as possible on Tehran, the incumbent Democrat could not really stand idle. Conventional U.S. political wisdom holds, however, that presidential elections are decided based on domestic issues, particularly economic ones, as opposed to foreign policy matters.

Yet Obama has two reasons to look anxiously toward the Persian Gulf. First, an Israeli attack before the elections would trigger an oil crisis that would directly affect American consumers. Second, since Iran appears likely to become the supreme test of Obama's foreign policy - as opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the president is inclined to act with both prudence and urgency. Should he be reelected, which seems likely, he would not be able to blame his predecessor George Bush for the Iranian morass.

Iran is liable to go nuclear during Obama's second term. No U.S. president would want this to happen under his watch. Though the Americans are still a long way from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities themselves (this would appear to be an option only after the election ), Obama's new stance is indisputably an achievement for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. If, as some skeptics suspect, it turns out that focusing on Iran is nothing more than a ruse to deflect world attention from the Palestinian issue, then Netanyahu has pulled off one of recent history's most adroit machinations.

Americans get tough

The Obama administration gave conflicting messages ahead of the Istanbul talks this week. The United States will demand the closure of the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom, and that the Iranians halt uranium enrichment beyond specified levels, according to a leak published in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Dennis Ross, until recently a close Obama adviser and now a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published an article detailing all the demands the six nations should make of the Iranians. Ross, an authority on the American and Israeli positions, added some points that Israel may look upon favorably: He advocated international agreement to low-level uranium enrichment of 3.5 percent via no more than 1,000 centrifuges, and letting the Iranians possess up to 1,000 kilograms of 3.5-percent enriched uranium.

Ross expressed doubt about the prospects of forging an agreement, but also broached a proposal for an interim arrangement: that the Iranians assent to the most imperative demands (halting enrichment beyond specified levels, and closing the Fordow facility ) in exchange for the easing of sanctions and the lifting of a military threat.

The day after these proposals were published, Iran rejected the American conditions. The White House responded by stiffening its demands, calling for the complete cessation of any uranium enrichment.

Michael Singh, director of the Washington Institute, published an article saying the U.S. government positions reported by The New York Times were tepid. Obama, Singh claimed, is in a good bargaining position: an Israeli military raid has become a possibility, and the sanctions are devastating Iran's economy. But Obama is not taking advantage of this unprecedented momentum, and is merely issuing weak demands that would let Tehran proceed with its nuclear program and enjoy implicit international recognition of its right to enrich uranium, he said. America should demand that uranium enrichment stop altogether, and that Iran consent to full transparency and unfettered International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA ) monitoring, Singh added.

Adding to the confusion, top Israeli officials have recently presented conflicting positions. While Netanyahu demanded that enrichment be halted entirely, Barak stated he would agree to limited, low-level enrichment. The defense minister's office called the discrepancy "tactical differences."

Negligible as it might be, this is the first public difference of opinion heard between the two officials on the Iranian issue in the last three years. Still more interesting is their relative restraint over the past few weeks regarding threatening Iran. In November, ahead of an IAEA meeting on Iran, Israel dropped a number of rather belligerent. In March, speaking to the AIPAC convention and then the Knesset a week later, Netanyahu climbed to new rhetorical heights, almost sounding as if he was promising an attack. Since then, a welcome silence has surrounded the issue.

Two weeks ago, Amir Oren commented in Haaretz about the importance of a Pentagon statement that Israel would receive more financial help to buy Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. This display of public generosity helped reinforce the ties between Jerusalem and Washington, and happened shortly after Netanyahu and Barak visited Washington. A military raid on Iran despite Obama's express request, and despite the significant boost from more Iron Dome systems, would probably be viewed as an ungrateful Bronx cheer.

In the flood of reports over the past few weeks, one other significant leak did not escape Israel's attention: U.S. battle and contingency planners presume that an Israeli raid on Iran would risk the lives of U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf. In the complex web of relations between the two countries, almost no warning could be more severe: Israel is being blamed in advance for the loss of American life.

It's hard to say whether officials in Jerusalem and Washington have reached an explicit or implicit agreement regarding Iran. Whatever the level of understanding, it cannot be denied that the harsher financial sanctions, the start of the European oil embargo in two months, the funding for more Iron Dome systems and explicit American warnings to Tehran - all have had an effect. In exchange, Israel may be willing to give more time for negotiations. As the 1980s public service commercial for preventing road accidents put it, together we'll get through the summer in peace.

Iranian red lines

Meanwhile, the Iranians made their own statements ahead of the Istanbul talks. The country observed a "national day for nuclear technology" this week. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, gave a celebratory interview on national television, and released a trial balloon: Iran has decided to start enriching uranium to 20 percent, but will not seek to go beyond that, he warned. Plus, Tehran will be happy to offer its nuclear services to the international community, he said.

Abbasi-Davani, a nuclear scientist, has been directly involved in Iran's push to obtain nuclear weapons, according to Western reports, and is likely to be the person who guides Tehran toward its first nuclear bomb. In 2007, he was one of a few Iranians who faced personal UN Security Council sanctions for involvement in "ballistic or nuclear" activity. In November 2010, he was injured in an assassination attempt in Tehran.

This did not deter him. In the interview, Abbasi-Davani announced that Iran would deliver all 20-percent enriched uranium to the Fordow facility this year, and suggested that Iran will speed up production of this uranium. Should this happen, and Iran accelerates its uranium enrichment via 1,200 advanced centrifuges, by the end of the year it will have sufficient material to create enough 90-percent enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb, say nuclear experts. Once it has this material, it will need only three months to actually assemble a bomb.

Abbasi-Davani's pronouncements were probably not intended to help forge a compromise. Instead, he set red lines. First, he explained that his country would halt 20-percent enrichment and return to 3.5% only after it has enough material for its "consumers."

"Enriching uranium to 20 percent beyond the quantities needed for a nuclear reactor in Tehran is not part of the country's long-term plan," he said. The 20-percent enrichment is being done to meet a specific need, and "once we meet this need, we will reduce production, and perhaps also return to 3.5% enrichment," he declared.

These statements lead to a few conclusions. First, Iran is willing to negotiate over how much uranium it will enrich to 20-percent level, yet it is unlikely to allow foreign inspectors to monitor this process, as the six nations have demanded. Should the materials remain in Iran for enrichment, as opposed to being taken out of the country, Tehran would be only a few months from producing a bomb. Second, the international community cannot expect Tehran's enrichment project to halt entirely. Third, as Abbasi-Davani explained, Iran does not intend to cease activity at Qom.

Clearly, Tehran will try to prolong negotiations. Iranian television has reported that a second round of international talks has been scheduled in Baghdad. In the meanwhile, 20-percent enrichment will continue.

Abbasi-Davani's statements can be interpreted as having a domestic purpose, too: telling citizens that the regime intends to be flexible, and that it's the Western powers that are being unjustifiably intransigent. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, is conscious of mounting internal opposition, led partly by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This month, Rafsanjani declared that Iran should hold talks with the United States and not undertake an adventurous policy that uses Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies. Indeed, Khamenei should be worried that obstinately clinging to the nuclear program could lead to stronger sanctions, which could ignite domestic protest and encourage efforts by people like Rafsanjani to undermine his rule.