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Can Iran, world powers build on recent progress in nuclear talks?

Tomorrow's 'technical-level' meeting in Istanbul will give a quieter, closed-door venue for six world powers and Iran to try to turn diplomatic progress into concrete measures.

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For Khamenei, talks part of rivalry

In the Almaty meeting, Mr. Khamenei said, the P5+1 “did nothing important which can be considered giving concession to Iran, but they only owned up to a small part of the rights of the Iranian nation.”

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Nader says it can be argued that “Khamenei sees this as his legacy, not just having a nuclear weapons capability, but in beating the West at this game, because that’s what he sees it as: competition between the two sides, which is embedded in Iran’s concept of strategic rivalry with the United States."

Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign-policy chief who leads negotiations on behalf of the P5+1, on Saturday called on Western negotiators to be “determined and creative” in finding ways to build “trust” with Iran, to encourage further “real discussion.”

But the optics of success for both sides depend upon how they can present them back home. Senior US officials say the fundamentals of their package have not changed and do not amount to “concessions” to Iran. Many in the US Congress want sanctions increased, regardless of what steps Iran takes short of giving up its nuclear program altogether.

For Iran, it has been critical to present the adjusted P5+1 proposal as the result of a new realization by the P5+1 that sanctions and pressure are pointless – and that its own unbending stance has paid off.

“While everybody expected Iran to first change its strategic calculations and then its proposal, it was the West which finally changed its proposal,” wrote Mahdi Mohammadi, a former political editor of Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper now attached to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, in a March 7 analysis.

“I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran,” writes Mr. Mohammadi on the Iran Review website.

Past rhetoric repeated

Still, ahead of the Istanbul talks, both sides repeated past rhetoric. Mr. Obama told Israeli television last week that a nuclear Iran was a “red line” for the US, and that Iran was just “over a year or so” from making a nuclear weapon, if it chose to. Iran officially rejects nuclear weapons, with Khamenei frequently saying they are "sin" and un-Islamic. 

Likewise, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, on Saturday deliberately echoed a common formulation by US and Israeli officials.

“Mr. Obama, do not make a mistake: We have all our options on the table,” said Jazayeri, according to a Guard website. “Our commanders have been authorized to respond to any kind of hostile move by the enemy.”

Last Thursday, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amir Kochavi, stated that Iran was making progress on its nuclear program, but “has not yet decided to build a bomb.” That also remains the prevailing assessment of US intelligence agencies. 

* Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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