Why Tehran Might Be Ready to Talk

Two years of persistent U.S.-led diplomacy may finally be getting to the powers in Iran

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Oliver Munday for TIME

Here is how it usually works when the world attempts to negotiate with Iran about its rogue nuclear program: The U.N. passes a resolution, or threatens sanctions, or imposes sanctions. Iran's friends and trading partners, like Russia and China, quietly exert pressure for talks. Iran agrees to talks but dawdles, arguing that it will need time to prepare. Months pass. Finally, there are talks, which consist of dueling speeches. The members of the U.N. group designated to negotiate with Iran--the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China--present a statement listing the world's concerns about the Iranian program. The Iranians read a statement demanding an end to sanctions before any talks can begin. And that's it. The Iranians go home, continue to enrich their uranium and continue to refuse the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to inspect certain sites. That is what happened in Geneva in 2010 and in Istanbul in 2011. But something very different is happening this year.

A meeting was scheduled for Istanbul on April 13. At first, it seemed the same old dodge: weeks were wasted as the Iranians attempted to switch the site of the meeting to Baghdad. That effort met a brick wall; the U.N. coalition, often a spongy alliance, refused to countenance it, and the Iranians ... backed down. And then they began to actually talk with the European Union's designated negotiator, Helga Schmid. Their statement at the Istanbul meeting was substantive. They agreed to another meeting, which will take place on May 23 in Baghdad. They've continued to talk to Schmid. They seem to understand what the world is asking of them. They promise to make a serious proposal in Baghdad. There is some cautious optimism that, as the retired U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns puts it, "for the first time in 32 years, since the Iranian revolution, there is the possibility of serious, substantive and sustained talks with Iran."

What on earth happened? Diplomacy happened. The Obama Administration conducted a quiet, persistent two-year campaign to bring the Russians and Chinese into a united front supporting the most serious round of economic sanctions ever passed by the U.N.; the European Union and the U.S. have imposed further sanctions, against Iranian oil and Iran's central bank, that are scheduled to kick in this summer. The economic impact of these sanctions has been greater than anticipated. Iran's economy is nearing collapse; its oil sits on ships, awaiting customers. Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, the real power behind the regime, controls about a third of the Iranian economy, and it is being hurt badly. Iranian sources speculate that the Guards have been pressuring Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to make a deal or get the sanctions eased by appearing to make a deal. But it's difficult to know for sure what's happening within the regime.

Israel has made a difference too. Its covert campaign to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program has been very successful. Its overt threats to bomb Iran's facilities are taken seriously by the regime, even if most experts believe that Israel lacks the capacity to do much permanent damage to the Iranian program.

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