In a sealed-off conference room at an unpublicized Istanbul hotel, experts from Iran and world powers met today for a critical "technical meeting" on Iran's nuclear program. Out of the media spotlight, specialists from both sides met to narrow the chasm between competing proposals, the fourth and lowest-level installment of a series of talks this year aimed at curbing Iran's controversial nuclear efforts.
Progress here will determine whether the diplomatic track eventually resumes at a high political level, or whether the differences are so great that negotiations fail altogether – over Iran's level of uranium enrichment, safeguard measures to prevent any move toward a nuclear weapon, and the quid pro quo expected by Iran of relief from crippling sanctions that tightened over the weekend.
It was not clear if experts narrowed the gap while exploring technical details. Agreement was reached, near midnight, for a meeting in the near future of top negotiators' political deputies, diplomats close to the talks said. That meeting will focus on charting next steps and continuing discussions that in the one-day talks only addressed part of the proposal put to Iran last May.
The risks of failure were abundantly clear in military "messages" sent by both sides: Iran launched a series of medium-range missiles today in the midst of a three-day exercise; and the US was reported to have made "significant" military reinforcements in the Persian Gulf.
"Sometimes I think that neither side understands each other," said one Iranian official close to the talks. Western officials often expressed similar sentiments during previous rounds in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow.
"The atmosphere is quite mixed," the Iranian official told the Monitor about the meeting. "Both sides want to show that the talks have some outcomes, even if it is [just] to set a date and venue for the next expert meeting."
This Istanbul meeting was agreed to during high-level political negotiations in Moscow last month between the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represented the P5+1 group (comprised of the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany), and Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator.
During the Moscow talks, neither side budged from their stringent demands of the other. Today the P5+1 group focused on its demand that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent – which is a few steps from bomb-grade of 90 percent – and on closing a deeply buried enrichment facility at Fordow, where that level of enrichment occurs. Iran says there is no reason to close Fordow, which is under safeguards by inspectors of the UN nuclear watchdog agency but is largely impervious to bombing.
Western officials have voiced frustration at what they say is Iran's unwillingness to match talk of making a deal – even if only on 20 percent enrichment – with actions they think need to be taken first.
"We hope Iran will seize the opportunity of this meeting to show a willingness to take concrete steps," Ms. Ashton said in a statement yesterday.
Iranian officials reply that the P5+1 proposal requires Iran to suspend all enrichment, which Iran considers a deal breaker. Tehran argues that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) classifies enrichment as an "inalienable right" that it should not be expected to, nor will it, give up.
Iranian officials also state that they will not stop their most sensitive nuclear work without some relief from the economic sanctions that have grown for years and badly shaken Iran's economy. However, an easing of the sanctions are not among incentives offered by the P5+1 in the proposal.
Despite "opening salvos based on maximalist demands" from both sides, writes Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, prospects of a limited negotiated solution "may not be as bleak as they appear."
"Although the two parties remain poles apart, getting rid of chimerical expectations could be an achievement in itself," says Mr. Vaez, in an analysis published yesterday by the Al Monitor website. "Tehran now knows that the damaging momentum of sanctions cannot be stifled with a few reversible confidence building measures. Similarly, [the P5+1] have realized that while sanctions are taking their toll, they are unlikely to force Iran to compromise."
Threats fly both ways
Still, a European embargo on Iranian oil – the country's economic lifeblood – kicked in in recent days week, as did US measures against oil sales and Iran's central bank. Iran's currency has lost half its value in the last six months; oil exports that once totaled 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) are now down to 1.5 million bpd.
In response to the new sanctions, Iranian lawmakers yesterday proposed closing the Strait of Hormuz – a threat frequently issued in previous years which never came to pass.
And during war games today, Iran's Revolutionary Guard test-fired dozens of missiles, including some medium-range versions that can travel 800 miles, at models of enemy bases, according to Iranian news reports. Iran's longest-range missiles can reach 1,200 miles.
"It is a response to those who speak to Iran using politically impolite remarks and say that all options are on the table," Gen. Hossein Salami was quoted as saying, referring to a common refrain from US and Israeli leaders that indicates military action against Iran is possible.
On the eve of the war games, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Guard's aerospace division, said the exercises would be a message "that the Islamic Republic of Iran is resolute in standing up to... bullying and will respond to any possible evil decisively and strongly."
Any Israeli strike against Iran would mean "they will hand us an excuse to wipe them off the face of the earth," said Gen. Hajizadeh, according to the state news agency IRNA.
On the other side of the equation, the US has "quietly moved significant military reinforcements" into the Persian Gulf in a "long-planned" upgrade that aims to "deter" Iran from any effort to close the Strait of Hormuz and "reassure Israel," The New York Times reported today.
The boost in firepower includes a purpose-built ship designed as a floating operations base that can host US Special Forces; a doubling of minesweeping vessels to eight, and an increased number of jet fighters deployed since late spring capable of striking deeply inside Iran.
"The message to Iran is, 'Don't even think about it," a senior US Defense Department official told the Times. "Don't even think about closing the strait. We'll clear the mines. Don't even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We'll put them on the bottom of the gulf."
The display was also meant to be "tangible proof" to the US allies that Washington's pivot toward Asia would not detract from vigilance in the Mideast, the official told the Times: "This is not only about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but about Iran's regional hegemonic ambitions."