Smiles Do Nothing to Dull Enrichment

"Iranian diplomacy is sometimes like a Persian rug - one must wait to see its beauty," said the head of Iran's delegation to the nuclear talks in Geneva, Saeed Jalili, when asked why Tehran has still not made a decision about the offer of incentives in return for freezing its uranium-enrichment activities. Was this yet another exercise in empty rhetoric? An answer to this is expected in two weeks, after yet another round of talks.

Iran considers its nuclear program its legitimate right, so the assumption is that it will stick to it. What is uncertain is the degree to which the threat of economic sanctions or a military strike will alter its stance on nuclear enrichment. The show of force that Iran exhibited in recent weeks in the Persian Gulf - the launching of ballistic missiles and the naval exercises - were meant to clarify that Iran will not be the only one losing out if it is attacked. The more realistic option, according to Iranian assessments, is that there will be another round of economic sanctions - which far from constitute a threat to topple the Iranian regime.

During the past six months, despite the Western sanctions on Iran, nearly $54 billion poured into Tehran's coffers. Iran can still use its cash reserves without taking loans, funding new projects for the development of oil fields. Tehran also believes that China will not be in a position to give up on the amount of petroleum it imports from Iran (exports to China increased by 11 percent compared to last year) and that the planned gas pipeline to India will serve as yet another tremendous source of cash.

Domestic criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policy should not be confused in the West; on the nuclear issue there is nearly no disagreement. Officially, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that on the nuclear issue the matter is entirely up to Ahmadinejad. Opposition forces also agree that nuclear technology is a matter of national interest, and that Iran is entitled to develop nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes.

Criticism is directed at Ahmadinejad's aggressive style, which paints Iran as a threat to world stability.

This image is something that Jalili will try to alter during the negotiations. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki spoke positively of the "American presence at the talks" and the blunt tone disappeared in a sea of smiles. But these are not likely to be enough to dull uranium enrichment.