Robert Dreyfuss

All things considered, it’s highly unlikely that the just-resumed talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers will result in a breakthrough. According to analysts in Washington, the best result that might come from this week’s talks in Istanbul are an agreement to continue negotiations in a second round, possibly within weeks, in search of a compromise over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.

But success is likely to be postponed until the summer of 2013, at the very earliest, even though Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has hinted that he’ll bring new ideas to the table.

That’s because neither the United States nor Iran, whose domestic politics are roiled by hardliners and who both face presidential elections, have manoeuvring room to compromise.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has quietly signalled his readiness for a compromise that would allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, under its own control and on its own soil. But Obama won’t make the concessions needed to persuade Iran to strike a deal in advance of the November 2012 election, in which he’ll face a Republican challenger, backed by a coalition of hawks and neoconservatives and by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who intends to make Iran a focal point of the anti-Obama campaign. Once reelected, as Obama recently hinted to Russia’s President Medvedev in connection with US-Russia relations, he’ll have additional flexibility in making foreign policy decisions.

Iran, too, will probably await the outcome of its own presidential election in June 2013. At that time, one big advantage is that Iran will have a president not named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose provocative antics and over-the-top comments have allowed his American and Israeli critics to demonize him, making US concessions to Iran significantly more difficult. By mid-2013, Iran’s president – who is nearly certain to be a conservative closely attuned to the desires of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, unless Khamenei decides to abolish the presidency entirely and take the reins of power himself directly – will rule over an Iran far more politically unified than it’s been since the Green Revolution upsurge and Ahmadinejad’s subsequent falling-out with Khamenei. And that president will be able to present a new face to the West, especially to the United States, at which point serious negotiations may be possible.

In the current round of talks, which began in Turkey on April 13, the United States has adopted what on the surface appears to be a tough opening stance. According to the New York Times, which based its reporting on information from senior US officials, the Obama administration will demand the closing of a fortified, underground refining facility at Fordow, outside Qom, a halt to Iran’s efforts to refine uranium to 20 per cent purity, and the transfer of its entire stockpile of its 20 per cent-enriched fuel to a third country.

In particular, the American call for Iran to shut its Fordow plant seems like a nonstarter, since that facility’s very existence was designed to safeguard it from military attack by Israel or the United States, and thus it appears as if the United States is demanding that Iran retain only plants that are more vulnerable to bombs.

Yet missing from the Obama administration’s opening bid is an explicit demand that Iran suspend all enrichment, including that which produces fuel-grade, low-enriched uranium at 3 to 5 per cent purity, for use in its Bushehr power plant. Although nominally part of the American set of demands in regard to Iran – and still contained within various UN Security Council resolutions on Iran since 2006 – there are signs that the Obama administration is backing away from the demand that Iran halt all uranium enrichment.

According to David Ignatius, a well-connected columnist for the Washington Post who specializes in military and intelligence issues, Obama sent a message to Iran through Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Tehran in early April, that the United States “would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear programme if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation ‘will never pursue nuclear weapons.’”

And that, nearly all observers of Iran agree, is the key to a successful US-Iran accord, in which Iran agrees to stringent international supervision of its programme, including the International Atomic Energy Agency’s so-called Additional Protocol, in exchange for international blessing for its enrichment programme. Getting from here to there, diplomatically, calls for extremely difficult deal-making, with concessions on both sides, and that’s why it won’t happen before 2013.

But at the very least, the current round of negotiations will forestall military action by Israel and may blunt calls for even tougher sanctions that the ones already in place.

Despite the fever pitch to some of the rhetoric over Iran, and despite what Obama called “loose talk of war,” Iran remains far from a military nuclear capability even if its leaders made the political decision to acquire one. Its 20 per cent enriched uranium, still under close IAEA supervision, would have to be recycled through Iran’s centrifuges until it reached the 90-plus per cent purity needed to manufacture a bomb. That might take a year, or longer, and even then Iran wouldn’t necessarily have either the technology needed to weaponise it or the means to deliver a bomb. On top of that, experts say, Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent uranium is only enough to make a single bomb. So, it would seem, there’s plenty of time for negotiations to move forward.

Hopes in some quarters that the tough sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006, especially unilateral US and European sanctions over the past two years, will force Iran to capitulate at the table are unlikely to be realized. Short of a naval blockade of Iranian ports, which would be an act of war, there’s little that the United States and its allies can do to bring Iran to its knees. Some major consumers of Iranian oil, including China, India and Japan, are unwilling to accede to American demands to isolate Iran economically, and Russia has said explicitly that further pressure on Iran will backfire.

“We really do not have a common view of what’s the real offer to be made to Iran to bring it to serious negotiations, said Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, in Washington this week. “We have never seen any movement on the Iranian part because of pressure. We only saw more stubbornness.”