Iran offers nuclear talks. Why the West may prefer to wait.

While the West is insisting Iran demonstrate its seriousness this time, experts do expect a new round of nuclear talks. Some say starting them too soon could send the wrong message.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with journalists at Tehran's Mehrabad airport after his visit to Latin American countries January 14. Ahmadinejad made a lukewarm declaration on Thursday that Iran is ready to return to international talks on its nuclear program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s lukewarm declaration Thursday that Iran is ready to return to international talks on its nuclear program – albeit on its terms – is all part of a diplomatic chess game that most Iran experts and Western officials assume will lead to the resumption of talks at some point in the coming weeks.

What those officials and experts seem much less confident about is that those discussions, whenever they occur, will produce the results necessary to head off an eventual military attack on Iranian nuclear and related installations, for example: strict limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment, greater access for international inspectors to Iran’s nuclear facilities, and access in particular to its newly operational underground facility near Qom.

Public grandstanding over the talks suggests both sides are positioning for advantage. The Iranians want to appear reasonable and open to meeting with world powers – the talks would be held with the so-called P5+1 group, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany – while also standing firm on what it considers its “right” to enrich uranium for what it insists are purely peaceful civilian reasons.

But Western powers, led by the United States and the European Union (France, Britain, and Germany) – are taking the “fool me once” approach to Iran and insisting that Tehran must demonstrate its seriousness about talks by, for example, agreeing to suspend its enrichment activities while talks go on.

Iran has used negotiations in the past to buy time for advancing its nuclear program, and Western countries are adamant that this time things must be different. As one senior Western diplomat in Washington said recently, “The Iranians’ actions totally contradict their nice words” about a willingness to return to the negotiating table.

“It’s nice to come back [to the table] to have a nice lunch,” the diplomat continued, “but nothing they do suggests they are serious.”

The French have probably been the most specific about what Iran must do for talks to resume. They say Tehran must suspend its “sensitive activities” including uranium enrichment and modernization of its centrifuges, and must allow the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors complete access to nuclear facilities and activities.

Some experts, like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh, note that Western powers have allowed their red lines with Iran to slip in the past in order to get talks going, and there is an assumption that, when it comes down to it, whether a few weeks or a few months from now, this slippage will be repeated to get Tehran to the table.

The ramping-up of economic sanctions on Iran that has kicked in this year – the US is targeting Iran’s central bank, and the EU just this week surprised many by approving a full (though phased in) embargo on Iranian oil imports – is designed to convince the Iranians that the international community is serious about halting its advance toward a nuclear weapons capability.

The concern for some experts and former officials with close knowledge of the issue is that returning to talks before Iran really hurts economically, and before it really feels compelled this time to modify its behavior, will send the wrong message.

First to Iran, which will assume that, once again it can “fool” the West into talking while it enriches.

And second, to Israel, which will see that its agreement to go along with the US and “give diplomacy a chance” changed nothing, and will decide that Iran’s spinning centrifuges and missile assembly sites must be knocked out.

Some experts have argued that this won’t happen because Israel understands, as does the US, that Iran’s nuclear program could not be destroyed, only set back, and that bombing it would only intensify the Iranian determination to get the bomb.

But anyone resting on that reassurance might consider that Israel’s approach to its adversaries has often been to set them back, recognizing that destroying them is not realistic. This has been true with the Iraqis and their nuclear program under Saddam Hussein, and it has been true with closer enemies like Hamas.

Today’s chess game may result in talks on Iran’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to be the key to reversing what appears to be a slide toward military intervention.

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