Iran nuclear talks: why, this time, both sides are staying positive

Iran hopes that success in nuclear talks will ease the bite of sanctions, while President Obama aims to show that his policy of tougher sanctions and diplomacy will produce results.

Tolga Adanali/AP
Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator, Saeed Jalili (l.), and representatives of six world powers seen during day-long talks to discuss Iran's nuclear plans in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday.

Iran on Monday sought to prolong the good vibrations from the weekend’s initial meeting with world powers on its nuclear program, with the Iranian foreign minister declaring that the disputes between the two sides can be resolved “quickly and easily” at a second round of talks next month.

That may prove to be an oversimplification of what US officials and Iran experts still expect will be arduous negotiations before any diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be reached.

The upbeat tone coming out of Saturday’s meeting in Istanbul between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of countries – the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France plus Germany – suits all parties to the talks. But it is perhaps especially music to the ears of President Obama, who is keen to reach November’s US elections without a military confrontation with Iran.

Mr. Obama’s goal over the coming months will be to demonstrate that his administration’s two-track policy of diplomacy accompanied by toughening sanctions is yielding results.

A second objective, some analysts say, will be to demonstrate to a war-weary public that what Obama recently called the "drums of war" over Iran by his GOP presidential rivals were reckless and dismissive of a preferable diplomatic solution.

Officials from the P5+1 countries will continue to sound cautious about prospects for the next round of talks set for Baghdad on May 23, analysts say, both in a bid to keep the pressure on Iran and to convince skeptics – Israel first among them – that world powers are not simply caving in and accepting a nuclear Iran.

“There is no reason to believe yet that we will make all of the progress that we want to make,” a senior US official told reporters in Istanbul, then added: “There is urgency for concrete progress [because] the window for a diplomatic resolution is closing.”

As Obama said Sunday, “We’re going to keep on seeing if we make progress," before adding that “the clock is ticking.” Responding to critics, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who said the upshot of the Istanbul talks was to give Iran a “freebie” to continue enriching uranium for another five weeks – Obama said: “We’re not going to have these talks drag on in a stalling process.”

Some Iran analysts predict the cautious optimism after Istanbul will crash and burn when the two sides get down to specifics in Baghdad. But others say that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s prediction Monday of a “quick and easy” resolution – or at least an initial accord that takes the Iran crisis off the front burner for a matter of months – may not be so far off the mark.

“I think it’s quite possible to reach some kind of interim measure, if not a full agreement, in Baghdad, that basically allows the US to say, ‘We’re stopping the clock,’ ” says Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran might agree to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity – a level that can be rather quickly converted to the 90 percent enrichment required to fuel a nuclear weapon – while in return, the West might agree to suspend implementation of the most draconian economic sanctions set to take effect this summer, Mr. Clawson says. Such an initial deal would start to address what has been the West’s biggest worry about Iran – its stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium, which it says it needs to create isotopes for medical treatment.

A second part of any initial deal might be Iran’s agreement to exchange its growing stockpile of 20 percent uranium for a guaranteed supply of the fuel rods it needs to operate the reactor that creates the medical isotopes. That would ease enrichment concerns because fuel rods are not easily converted for other purposes – for example fueling a nuclear weapon.

Clawson notes that Mr. Salehi suggested Monday Iran’s openness to some form of a fuel swap, which appears to be a reversal of suggestions from Iranian officials before the Istanbul meeting that Iran was no longer interested in the kind of fuel swap Western powers last proposed in 2009.

Just how far Iran will have to go to win an easing of economic sanctions from the West remains in doubt. It's just one of the issues that experts say the two sides will be working on in the weeks before the Baghdad meeting. But the overarching goal of that meeting, Clawson says, will be to allow “six months or so” of negotiations on a broader set of issues with Iran to proceed.

Of course a six-month time frame would – perhaps unsurprisingly – take the Iran crisis to a point sometime after the US elections, although Clawson says he does not believe anyone is tailoring the talks to the US electoral timetable.

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