Iran Talks: Amid Ticking Clocks and Closing Windows, What Would Success Look Like?

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends an unveiling ceremony of new nuclear projects in Tehran in this February 15, 2012 file photo

One danger, of course, is that while the Administration wants to avoid the standoff devolving into a potentially catastrophic war, the tough talk and escalation of coercive measures and threats actually creates its own momentum towards confrontation. The Iranians also get a vote in how the standoff plays out, and nobody’s optimistic that Tehran’s negotiators will arrive in Istanbul ready to simply concede to Western demands. They may be ready to move towards some sort of deal involving confidence-building steps between the two sides that could lay the groundwork for further agreements, but that will likely be a protracted and complicated negotiation — and Iran will expect a quid pro quo for any steps to which it agrees.

Reports have suggested the Western powers will focus on stopping Iran’s enrichment to 20% level for a medical research reactor (which at the same time creates nuclear materiel substantially closer to bomb-grade than the 3.5% enrichment Iran has undertaken to create reactor fuel), and will offer a concession on the lines of halting moves for further U.N. sanctions in exchange. Such an offer is unlikely to impress the Iranians, however, since the U.S. knows as well as Tehran does that sanctions passed through the U.N. system are narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program, and have very little impact on its economy — that’s precisely why the Obama Administration has spent most of the past three years mustering a growing array of unilateral sanctions targeting Iran’s energy exports and banking sector. Those sanctions are more painful because they stifle Iran’s economy, and it’s on those measures that Iran can be expected to seek concessions if it is to offer substantial concessions of its own.

(MORE: Five Tips for President Obama on Nuclear Negotiations with Iran)

Needless to say, the question of what concessions might be made to Iran has not been part of the public discussion on Iran in Western capitals, given the political calculations and game plan. But a senior Israeli security figure is worried that there may not have been sufficient planning on that front even behind the scenes. In an interview with the pro-Netanyahu daily Times of Israel, former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy echoed a last-chance-closing-window outlook on the coming talks, but fears the Western powers may not have grasped the depth of the diplomatic challenge.  Halevy offered a sobering assessment of what it will take to produce a diplomatic solution:

“I think Iran could now be malleable. That is not to say that they have lost their pride. There are many things which have to be done in order to assuage the Iranians in terms of reform. You must remember the Iranians for years have been treated very badly by the international powers, going back to the days of World War II. They have an account to settle. I don’t justify them or not justify them. I understand them. In order to talk to somebody you have to understand him, the way he thinks… Don’t think of it in your terms. Try to the best of your capabilities to put yourself in his shoes…Try and be a Khamenei. See what your options are. And maybe that way you can devise some creative ways of meeting some of his concerns without necessarily paying something exorbitant.

“I’m hoping that somewhere in the smoke-filled rooms in Washington and maybe in other places people are sitting and [making the necessary preparations for a successful negotiation]. I don’t have any evidence of it, but I’m hoping that suddenly they’ll come to the talks and we’ll see that all this has been streamlined and taken care of…

“There will not be agreement without some level of trust here. And don’t expect [the Iranians] to lead (the building of) the trust. It’s you. You have to start creating trust with your enemy. It’s difficult. It’s almost inhuman. But you have to do it, otherwise there’s no basis for anything. Unless you go for unconditional surrender. With the Nazis there was no need for trust, because in the end they had to sign an unconditional surrender. This is not going to be the case. If we could get the Iranians to sign an unconditional surrender, walla, let’s do it. I don’t see it. I don’t see it now.”

Building trust with Iran may be vital for prospects of a diplomatic outcome, but its hardly likely to be a winner on the campaign trail. And the Israelis will be tapping their watches and demanding influence over the Western negotiating position as the price for holding back their strike force. And then there’s the fact that the Iranians are well aware of the reluctance in the Administration, and in the U.S. military, to go to war on the basis of a threat that hasn’t yet materialized.

(MORE: Mossad Cutting Back on Covert Operations Inside Iran, Officials Say)

If there is a deal to be done in Istanbul, it’s unlikely to be one that matches the dramatic rhetoric of the buildup to the talks, but instead would likely involve substantial steps that would start a confidence-building process that might change the dynamic, but would be unlikely to produce a comprehensive deal before Americans go to the polls in November, or even some time after. Even starting a process that reverses the ostensible “closing of the window” carries  considerable political risks, because even in the best-case scenario, both sides are going to be going to the table with a “yes, but…” message rather than a simple yes.

MORE: Another War in the Middle East?

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