Iran nuclear talks in Geneva: What is Tehran's strategy?

At a midday break, diplomats said the tone has been "civil" but a US official says Iran's delegation lacks the 'cohesion and confidence' to make a deal.

Keystone Dominic Favre/AP
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, (2nd l.) sits with members of its delegation at the opening of the Geneva nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers Thursday.

Iran says it has come to Geneva with "goodwill" for talks Thursday with six world powers, and diplomats confirmed at midday a "cordial and businesslike" tone in the first session.

"We want these talks to be successful and we want logic to dominate the atmosphere of the talks," an unnamed Iranian official told Reuters.

But Tehran's recent declaration of a secret second nuclear enrichment facility and new missile tests this week will likely affect its strategy in the meeting with the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China – the permanent five members of the UN Security Council – plus Germany, a group known as P5+1.

"Now with the second installation revealed, it may be that [the Iranians] allow more transparency in some of the recognized [nuclear] sites, in order to divide the P5+1 and to stop the momentum against them," says Shahram Chubin, a Carnegie Endowment nonproliferation specialist based in Geneva.

US Undersecretary of State William Burns is heading the American delegation at the first such high-level talks since President Barack Obama took office on promises to pursue dialogue with Tehran. Unlike the last such meeting in July 2008 – held during the final months of George W. Bush's presidency – Mr. Burns has been given authority to engage the Iranians directly in what is expected to be a one-day affair, but could extend through Friday.

But Iran's domestic political scene has changed dramatically since the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which sparked the biggest mass protests since the early years of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The bloody crackdown that followed left 72 dead, according to an opposition count, and thousands imprisoned.

The postelection conflict – and accusations of fraud and torture and rape in prison – has exposed deep divisions among Iran's political elite, and raised unresolved questions for many Iranians about the legitimacy of the regime.

The opposition, led by the defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, has decried Stalin-style show trials of scores of its top supporters, which have aimed to prove that Iran was the target of a "velvet revolution" backed by the US, Britain, and Israel to bring down the Islamic Republic.

The violence has weakened Iran's hand in any negotiations, analysts say, and lowered expectations that Obama's two letters to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – along with an overture to the Iranian people last March – will bear much fruit now.

"There's no sense that the Iranian team has the cohesion or confidence to make any kind of deal," says a US official in the region with knowledge of the negotiations. "Most people are prejudging that it's not going to go anywhere."

'An opportunity and a test'

Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said before leaving Tehran that the talks were an "opportunity and a test." Chosen by Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Jalili is a known hard-liner, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who Western diplomats have said specializes in "monologue."

A host of issues – chief among them continued confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, and the possibility of "crippling sanctions" – have raised the stakes for diplomats on both sides.

The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran now has 8,000 centrifuges spinning to enrich uranium, to create nuclear material that can be used to fuel power plants – as Iran says is all it wants to do – or, if enriched to a far higher degree, for use in weapons, which some Western governments suspect is Iran's hidden purpose.

Those suspicions were heightened last week by Iran's acknowledgement that it had been working secretly for years on a smaller uranium enrichment facility, a belated admission that was "on the wrong side of the law" and a "setback to the principle of transparency," according to Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency. The facility is adjacent to a base of the Revolutionary Guard, the same elite force that oversaw testing this week of Iran's most advanced medium-range missiles, which – like previous missiles – are capable of reaching Israel as well as US military bases in the Middle East.

Ahmadinejad on Wednesday slammed world leaders who had called for quick inspections of the new site: "Who are you to tell the [IAEA] and Iran what to do?"

What the U.S. may offer

In the lead-up to the Geneva meeting, both sides played up their own agendas. The Iranians said its nuclear program was nonnegotiable and therefore not on the table. But US and Europeans emphasized the need for progress on the nuclear front.

UN Security Council resolutions – backed up by three rounds of sanctions – require Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities. But Iran has stated categorically it will not stop the program, and with so many centrifuges already working, analysts say Washington may have little choice but to accept the program under exceptionally stringent safeguards.

"I do think the Americans are willing [to] accept some enrichment – not a [complete] rollback – in exchange for very intrusive inspections," says Mr. Chubin, author of "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions." "But I don't think the Iranians will accept very intrusive inspections. They don't want to be singled out."

The US side may offer "little bits of candy," says the US official, such as upgrading an underutilized research reactor built decades ago in Tehran. That upgrade would provide the kind of medical isotopes that Iran says it plans to supply itself by building a heavy water reactor at Arak – which will produce plutonium that could also be used to speed any weapons effort.

More broadly, the US side is uncertain whether meaningful progress can be made with the current Iranian government.

"We're not back explicitly at regime change," says this official. "But incrementally there is agreement, a [growing] realization within the administration that this is not a regime that can make the compromises we want them to make."

In fact, the Obama administration has been widely reported in the past week to have stepped up its examination of various sanctions options. US officials in Washington have begun to speak of the president's outreach efforts in the past tense.

Deepened mistrust

Iran wants the UN Security Council to repeal three layers of modest sanctions – resolutions that require it to suspend enrichment activities – and to have its nuclear portfolio withdrawn from the Council and returned to the exclusive purview of the IAEA. But the newly declared enrichment facility, which raises the possibility of other undeclared sites, has deepened mistrust.

Cracks of light began to appear in the Iranian position this week, as Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested that Iran was open to "technical" talk. He traveled to Washington – the first visit of any senior Iranian official for 30 years – to inspect the Iran interest section run by the Pakistan Embassy, but met no US officials ahead of the Geneva talks.

"I think we're not going to get any substantive discussions," says Chubin, noting that Iran may simply say inspectors are welcome at the second enrichment site, dug into a mountain south of Tehran near the religious center of Qom.

"I don't see them making the kind of intelligent compromises in which they would keep their program, if they have nothing to hide, in exchange for confidence-building measures for the international community," says Chubin. "I don't think they feel they have to."

Tehran argues that it was only required to declare the second enrichment facility to the IAEA six months before it introduced nuclear material, and because the site was far from complete, they had gone out of their way to declare the site one year earlier than necessary. Iranian officials have said repeatedly that they are in complete compliance with the rule of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Ahmadinejad has declared the IAEA's years-long investigation of Iran to be "closed."

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