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Friday 13 April 2012
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany are set to meet with Iran in the next attempt to resolve the conflict over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. A breakthrough is unlikely.
The consensus among experts is that a paradigm shift will be needed if the P5+1 group of nations (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) are to reach a deal with Iran when the two sides meet in Istanbul for talks this weekend.
The P5+1 and particularly the US, want Tehran to cease enriching uranium to potentially weapons-grade levels and to grant the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, access to its nuclear facilities, especially the underground plants near Fordow and Natanz.
In return, Iran would receive nuclear fuel for energy and medical-research purposes, and international economic sanctions against Tehran could be lifted.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, and that attempts to limit it represent a violation of Iran's national sovereignty. Iran now had its own fuel stock and has rejected similar proposals as recently as January 2011, the last time the two sides talked.
That hardly bodes well for the negotiations in Turkey. But most experts say there is no option but to continue the discussions.
"Previous rounds of talks have not gone well, but that seems to me to be all the more reason to keep at it," John Limbert - former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran in the US State Department - told DW. "With all the mistrust and hostility - particularly the US-Iranian relationship - one or more disappointments is no reason to give up. To quote Samuel Beckett: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"
Indeed, there are some political reasons that may encourage a "better sort of failure" in Istanbul. And ironically, rising international tension over the issue is at the heart of many of them.
Khamenei is key
The talks come against the backdrop of economic and potential military conflict. Many countries have stopped buying Iranian oil, and Iranian banks have been shut out of international finance mechanisms. In addition, Israel has repeatedly invoked the possibility of a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Thus far, Tehran has remained defiant and has vowed to withstand all external pressure.
"Whoever wants to violate the rights of the Iranian nation will be dealt a blow to the mouth," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters with characteristic bluster ahead of the Istanbul talks.
But experts say that Iran's supreme spiritual leader, and not Ahmadinejad, is the one the P5+1 need to win over.
"The nuclear program belongs to Ayatollah Khamenei and him only," Meir Javedanfar - Iran expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel - told DW. "So it's very important to ask: why is he handling the nuclear program in this way? Why doesn't he just reach a deal with the P5, get the sanctions removed and bring Iran back into the fold of the international community?"
Unfortunately for those who want to see an end to the stalemate, Khamenei may not be interested in altering the status quo and reconciling Iran with an old adversary.
"Peace with the United States would take away one of the last pieces of the (Islamic) revolution, one of the last bits of glue holding the regime together," Javedanfar explained. "The revolution has otherwise been a failure, and if America has good relations with the people of Iran, the regime will lose its legitimacy."
The sanctions debate
Getting Tehran to compromise may then be a matter of putting pressure on Khamenei, and opinions are divided as to whether the economic sanctions, strongly supported by US President Barack Obama, are having the desired effect.
Detractors argue that the measures only hurt ordinary Iranians and may increase their sympathy with the government. But the value of Iran's currency has fallen to record lows, and the banking restrictions make it very inconvenient for Tehran to do business.
And supporters of sanctions hope that pressure is beginning to boil within the Iranian state.
"The biggest reason why sanctions could work is that they are not in the interest of the Revolutionary Guard, the pillar of support for Khamanei, and the biggest reason why they are loyal to Khamanei is business interests," Javedanfar said. "Sanctions are going to hurt those business interests, and sooner or later, the Guard could put pressure on Khamanei to change. If he doesn't, the whole economy could collapse."
The strategy, from the American standpoint, is to create a situation in which Khamenei must choose between Iran's economic future and its past antagonisms toward the West and particularly the United States.
But what about Obama's own conflicting interests?
Faced with the US election later this year, Obama cannot risk appearing weak toward Iran and has pointedly refused to rule out military options for breaking the nuclear impasse. At the same time, it is extremely unlikely he would authorize the use of US force against Tehran.
"Most importantly, he does not want to see the US dragged into another military and political fiasco in the Middle East," Limbert explained.
That reluctance could be seen to weaken Obama's hand in the upcoming talks. But Javedanfar says that Obama's relative popularity compared to his predecessor within Iran puts him in a stronger position vis-à-vis the Iranian leadership.
"If the regime could, it would bring President Bush back," the well-regarded Iranian-born analyst said. "He was their dream ticket. He gave the regime exactly what it was looking for, a justification for adopting an anti-American policy."
By that logic, should the US convincingly show to ordinary Iranians that it is interested in finding a peaceful solution to the impasse, progress could be made in Istanbul - even if a resolution to the nuclear standoff looks like a goal too far.
On the other hand, the Iranian theocracy may decide to play a waiting game and hope to be dealing with a more bellicose US president in 2013, someone who better fits the image of the evil enemy.