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

The clock is ticking and the window is closing for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Saturday, ahead of talks scheduled for April 13 in Istanbul. “We are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Clinton declared. Speaking of the planned meeting between Iran and the P5+1 group comprising the major Western powers, Russia and China, she added: “We enter into these talks with a sober perspective about Iran’s intentions. It is incumbent upon Iran to demonstrate by its actions that it is a willing partner and to participate in these negotiations with an effort to obtain concrete results.” And, as if to underscore the sense of mounting drama, President Obama last Friday authorized a tightening of sanctions against countries buying oil from Iran.

But just what is closing the Obama Administration’s metaphorical window is not exactly clear: The President made clear earlier this month that he would be willing to take military action if that became necessary to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but in the same breath he noted that Iran is not currently building such a weapon, and has taken no decision to do so.

As such, Iran remains on the right side of the “red line” drawn by President Obama for a military strike, even if its steady expansion of its nuclear infrastructure puts put the capacity to make a weapon closer to hand. And Iran is effectively declaring its intent to stay on the right side of Obama’s red line: Both the President and the Secretary of State noted the recent public reiteration by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei of a fatwa that declares nuclear weapons a sin against Islam, and called on Iran to come to the table to negotiate the creation of mechanisms through which Tehran can verify to the world that its nuclear program conforms to Khamenei’s stated edict.

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If the window slams shut at the point that the U.S. decides to take military action, then it would occur only when U.S. intelligence assessed that Iran has made a qualitative shift towards weaponization in its current nuclear work. Meanwhile, Obama would, through a series of coercive disincentives and diplomatic incentives, seek to create conditions that prompt Iran to forgo the option of building nuclear weapons by tightening international scrutiny over its program.

But there are other factors “closing the window”

  • threats by Israel to take unilateral military action according to its own red lines and timetable;
  • election-season optics in which the White House may deem it necessary to deny Republican opponents an issue with which to berate the President by hanging tough on Iran; and
  • a U.S. strategy based on the premise that pressing Iran up against a wall, through imposing an economic stranglehold and danglng a threat of military force, is the key to a diplomatic solution.

While Obama draws the red line at Iran building a nuclear weapon, the Israelis have decried as intolerable the current status quo, in which Iran maintains the technological capacity to build nuclear weapons. That has made it until now opposed to any outcome in which Iran retains the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, even as part of an energy program under international scrutiny. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of a timetable based on Iran’s nuclear facilities entering what he calls a “zone of immunity,” in which some of that existing nuclear infrastructure is placed in hardened underground facilities, such as the one at Fordow near Qom, that are beyond the reach of the ordnance available to the Israeli Air Force.

Taking a demonstrably tough line on Iran is also clearly in line with Obama reelection campaign priorities, in order to neutralize the Republican clamor that the President is somehow feckless in the face of a gathering Iran danger. Creating a sense of minutes-to-midnight urgency about the next round of talks certainly demonstrates that the White House is prioritizing the issue over all other foreign policy concerns, and the “last-chance” rhetoric plays to the notion that Iran must fear devastating consequences from its continued defiance if a breakthrough is to be achieved.

MORE: The Ayatullah vs. The President

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.

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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.

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