Europeans set low expectations for Iran talks

Historic negotiations set for Oct. 1 will showcase an emboldeneded Tehran angling to buy more time to develop its nuclear capabilities, European analysts say.

The terms offered by Iran for negotiations with the US and other powers now scheduled to take place in Istanbul this October are seen by some in Europe as a bid by Tehran to buy time for its nuclear program – and an expression of growing Iranian confidence.

While Europeans give points to the Obama administration for a tactical approach to Iran that they say makes sense – "you want to say you've tried everything before turning the screws," is how Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris puts it – the consensus here is that Washington lacks a clear strategy on Iran.

Talks in Turkey?

Top European Union diplomat Javier Solana on Tuesday said that Turkey was the likely venue for the Oct. 1 meeting that includes the five United Nations Security Council members, plus Germany.

Tehran's diplomatic letter last week stating a willingness to talk made no mention of its nuclear program, though Tehran has subsequently stated that it did not consider the subject forbidden. Washington officials have said bluntly that Iran's centrifuge program is in the its final stages, and that the US would raise the nuclear issue in any forthcoming talks.

By accepting talks without a commitment to deal with the core issues, Iran is under no obligation to turn its efforts to satisfy them, European specialists say.

"The headline in Tehran is that 'Iran won,'" argues Mamoun Fandy of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "They see themselves talking from a position of strength not weakness."

That strength, analysts say, runs in numerous directions. Iran believes Russia and China are not strongly in the American or European camp, even though Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday he did not rule out fresh sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. There is also deep skepticism that the US is open to a military option, with Iraq and Afghanistan still in play for the Pentagon.

Tehran also has far more reach in the Middle East and Gulf states than the Americans often admit or understand, say analysts like Mr. Fandy. In recent years, US forces have indirectly aided Iran by removing the Taliban from Kabul, and by reordering Iraq in a way that gives Iran strategic clout in much of that country.

"Iran feels emboldened at the moment," Fandy argues. "The Sultan of Oman, an influential individual, and the prime minister of Qatar have recently been in Tehran" to confirm their acceptance of the elections outcome, he said.

Not-so-great expectations

US officials had hoped elections in Iran would bring a different look and tone – but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained in power amid caustic charges from European leaders of fraud and abuse and human rights violations by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

"From the Iranian point of view, there are few reasons to believe there is more pressure on Tehran," says Mr. Tertrais. "They believe ... that a US military option is off the table. They are definitely trying to buy time. That's what they've always done. Their approach has not changed. Their offer is a sign Iran has absolutely no intention for meaningful negotiations. After six years at this with the EU, the UN, they well know such an 'offer' is off the mark. If they want serious talks, they know what to say."

Some analysts say Tehran's diplomatic letter last week, which described a desire for peace and harmony among nations, is a statement that Iran will stick with what it calls it's "natural rights," and does not want to participate in talks only because it has a nuclear program.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said of the talks at a Monday dinner with his counterparts in Brussels: "Alas, I am not expecting much from them."

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