After an eight-month hiatus of high-level nuclear diplomacy, Iran
and world powers are poised to resume talks later this month in
One hurdle has been overcome: The runup to the US presidential
election last November was seen by diplomats from both sides as
limiting Washington's ability to offer any concessions that might
pave the way for a solution with Tehran.
Yet now a new hurdle looms: Elections in Iran in June will see
the departure of the divisive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the
take-no-prisoners jockeying has already begun to dominate Iran's
"Make no mistake, the nuclear issue is intricately connected to
the presidential election, because right now there are too many
factions opposed to any deal under Ahmadinejad," says Mohammad Ali
Shabani, a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African
Studies in London.
"The factionalism that is paralyzing decision making in Iran is
not going to go away in June, but with the next president at least
he won't initially be as divisive as Ahmadinejad," adds Mr. Shabani,
who recently returned from a visit to Tehran.
What's at stake
At stake during the talks are demands by the so-called P5+1 group
(the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) that Iran
accept limits on its advanced nuclear program, so that it never has
the tools to make a nuclear weapon.
Iran has yet to formally confirm participation on Feb. 25-26, as
suggested by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton,
who leads negotiations on behalf of the P5+1. Yet on Sunday, Irans
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the proposed date was good
Mr. Salehi today in Berlin confirmed that he was "optimistic"
that bilateral talks with the US were possible, Reuters reported. "I
feel this new [Obama] administration is really this time seeking to
at least divert from its previous traditional approach vis-a-vis my
country," he said. "I think it is about time both sides really get
into engagement because confrontation certainly is not the way."
Iran says its only desire is to peacefully produce nuclear
energy, and so is demanding that its "right" to enrich uranium be
recognized and that a host of sanctions that have crippled its
economy be eased. Key issues have not changed: the fate of Iran's
growing stockpile of enriched uranium, cooperation with the UN
nuclear watchdog agency, sanctions relief, and a deeply buried
facility south of Tehran at Fordow that is largely impervious to US
and Israeli attack.
Three high-profile rounds of talks last spring failed, amid
maximalist conditions first demanded by Iran, and then a maximalist
offer put forward by the P5+1, which requires Iran to give up key
aspects of its nuclear program before any sanctions relief would be
"Washington appears perplexed about Iran's foot-dragging on the
nuclear talks," says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the
International Crisis Group in Washington. "Interpretations vary;
some attribute it to internal [Iranian] divisions and electoral
politics, while others believe it stems from Iran's aversion to
signal weakness by appearing too eager for talks."
Both America and Israel have stated that "all options are on the
table," including military strikes, to prevent any Iranian push for
"The US and its allies are likely to offer targeted sanctions
relief to Iran during the next round of negotiations," says Mr.
Vaez. "These measures are, however, unlikely to resolve the
standoff, as the two sides remain poles apart on sequencing and
The problem is compounded by a "fundamental lack of understanding
about how sanctions can contribute to a positive outcome," he says.
"While Washington believes that symbolic sanctions relief will
demonstrate the P5+1's seriousness, Tehran views such an offer as a
tactical move to impose an unfair bargain on it."
Adds Vaez: "If [P5+1] demands are not disentangled into
individual steps and rewarded with the lifting of sanctions of
equivalent value, talks will hit a wall again and the vicious race
of sanctions against centrifuges will continue. …