Iran nuclear talks depend on the bite of sanctions

The Iran nuclear talks that start Monday in Geneva come after a long year of tougher sanctions and other setbacks for Iran. Obama needs to be cautious about Iranian delay tactics.

A very long year has passed since Iran last sat down with the West to talk about its secretive nuclear program.

The Islamic Republic has since become more isolated over its violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It has suffered tougher sanctions that now pinch the economy. It has experienced serious setbacks to its nuclear capability – such as bomb attacks on leading scientists and a computer virus that halted uranium enrichment.

All of this and a 2009 rigged election have widened a political rift within the dictatorial Islamic regime and weakened Iran’s ability to support terrorists in the Middle East.

Most of all, this reversal of fortune has brought the regime back to the negotiating table. On Monday, Iranian officials will sit down in Geneva with diplomats from six major powers (the US, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and China).

Is Iran now serious about a deal to suspend its enrichment? Or will it simply buy time again with delay tactics in order to finish an atomic bomb?

The Obama administration, which has expanded on the engage-but-squeeze strategy of President Bush, says it wants “tangible steps” from Iran if the talks are to continue. Those steps aren’t clear, but at the least they should include an even more robust version of last year’s failed deal that called for Iran to hand over low-enriched uranium in exchange for “safe” fuel to run a medical research reactor.

President Obama’s ultimate aim is to slow down Iran’s program before it ignites a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or forces Israel to attack Iran’s well-hidden atomic facilities. But he’s up against a ruthless religious leadership in Tehran that appears willing to suppress rising Iranian dissent and endure economic hardship.

The ratcheting up of international sanctions this year has had noticeable effects. In a hearing about the sanctions before Congress Wednesday, US officials said Iran has seen an 85 percent drop in imports of refined petroleum products. It has lost nearly $60 billion in foreign investment in its energy sector. And Iranian banks are now hard-pressed for money from foreign institutions, curtailing trade.

The resulting drop in revenues has forced a government plan to reduce the costly subsidies for fuel, electricity, bread, and other basic commodities. But the plan has been delayed as domestic pressure mounts on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His opponents are more vocal.

“We have never had such intensified sanctions,” says former speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The current leaders may be calculating whether the race to become a nuclear power is worth the risk of losing power from social unrest and a political uprising. They may also fear an Arab-Israeli alliance – as odd-fellow as that may be – to justify a military strike on Iranian nuclear plants.

The United States has smartly brought along many countries into supporting the sanctions that are now taking their intended toll. Keeping that coalition is key if Iran plays a game to divide the big powers.

Mr. Obama should also be open to discussing Iran’s larger security issues. But only if Iran first effectively ends the threat from high levels of uranium enrichment.

By the end of talks next week, it should be clear if Iran is sincere enough – and unified enough among its leadership – to start building up enough trust with the West to make sure a deal can stick.

Patience is deservedly thin in the West toward Iran. But then Iran may be impatient to end the sanctions. It can choose to be a great power without nuclear weapons instead of a great pariah with them.

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