Talking with Iran: Chances for a Breakthrough Are Low

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears at the presidential offices in Tehran

The drama of last week's revelation that Iran has been secretly building an underground uranium-enrichment facility may have raised expectations that this week's Geneva talks would be a kind of high-noon showdown. Instead, the meeting on Oct. 1 between Iran's nuclear negotiator and representatives of the Western powers and Russia and China is more likely to be the opening exchange of a tortuous conversation that will continue for months.

The renewal of talks with Tehran follows President Barack Obama's warning to Iran that it must discuss Western concerns about its nuclear program or else face a new round of sanctions. But Iran has hardly been in an accommodating mood. A week ago it wrote to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to reveal that it was building a uranium-enrichment facility in the mountains near Qom. (Obama announced the existence of the hitherto secret facility four days later, and U.S. officials claimed that Tehran had preempted him only because it was aware that it had been caught red-handed.)

The U.S. and its allies point to signs in the Qom facility of what they say is Iran's military intent: first, the project's secrecy and partially underground location on a military base, and second, the fact that its limited capacity (3,000 centrifuges) makes it unsuitable for supplying reactor fuel but potentially capable of slowly amassing weapons-grade material. Iran continues to insist that it is simply exercising its right to develop nuclear-energy infrastructure as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But on Sept. 28, Tehran also test-fired a medium-range missile capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the gulf, underscoring its threat to retaliate for any attack on its nuclear facilities. And Iranian officials have insisted that they will not even negotiate over Iran's "nuclear rights."

But Iran's approach to the Oct. 1 talks is unlikely to be uniformly defiant or belligerent. Its response to demands from the U.S. and other international players to open the Qom enrichment site to inspection may be indicative of its broader approach. While declaring its refusal even to discuss the Qom plant at Geneva, Tehran has indicated that it will open the site to IAEA inspectors "in the near future." The Iranians are probably hoping for a repeat of the experience of its main enrichment facility at Natanz — which was also constructed in secret but then subjected to an ongoing IAEA inspection regimen. The result is that Natanz, which gives Iran the capacity to produce fissile material, has become an increasingly intractable fact on the ground, although IAEA oversight prevents such material from being diverted for covert weapons work.

Tehran's approach has been to try to deal with the nuclear issue through the IAEA exclusively and to reject U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze uranium enrichment. Its insistence on its nuclear "rights" is a statement of its rejection of the demand from Western countries that it give up the right to enrich uranium, even for peaceful purposes, because of concerns about its intentions. Washington and its allies are debating whether the West can sustain that demand or could accept continued enrichment in Iran but under stricter safeguards against weaponization. Iran is making clear where it plans to start the discussion. As Iran's Foreign Minister, Manoucher Mottaki, told the New York Times on Sept. 29, Iran sees the talks as a "two-way street" rather than simply a last chance to respond to a series of Western ultimatums.

Iran's track record — as well as the regime's precarious domestic political position — suggests that Tehran's strategy will be to engage in a way that offers hope of progress, but ambiguously and on terms more limited than those sought by the West. Its goal will be to avert confrontation and divide the Western powers from Russia and China. As Ray Takeyh, former adviser to Obama's Iran point man Dennis Ross, wrote in the Washington Post on Sept. 27, "At this week's talks, Iran's representatives are likely to subtly hint of cooperation to come — but only if talks continue. However, such gestures do not mean Iran is prepared to offer meaningful concessions and impose any restraints on its nuclear ambitions." And the most distasteful aspect of the process may be that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad uses the talks to burnish the legitimacy of a regime at odds with millions of its own people.

But the Administration may have little option but to play the diplomatic game, because its "or else" options are so limited. Russia and China remain deeply skeptical of the case for sanctions and are unlikely to approve measures with significant bite. What's more, Israeli and American hawks have long argued that no sanctions will prompt a regime that has invested so much in developing a nuclear program to simply reverse course; rather, they see the choices as boiling down to one between military strikes and accepting a nuclear-armed Iran. But military strikes are opposed by the Pentagon for two reasons: even in the best case they would simply delay Iran's nuclear progress, and they would prompt a backlash that could dramatically destabilize the region. Indeed, as a result, Iran could even move from its current ambiguous policy toward a clearly enunciated and accelerated nuclear-weapons program.

That leaves only the diplomatic game, which is unlikely to produce quick or satisfactory results — and may force Western powers to accept more limited goals. But the U.S. and its allies will insist that Iran demonstrate a credible commitment to answer concerns about the intent of its program and that it agree to mechanisms to safeguard against the use of nuclear infrastructure to create weapons. On Sept. 25, President Obama warned, "At [the Geneva] meeting, Iran must be prepared to cooperate fully and comprehensively with the IAEA to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program and to demonstrate that it is committed to establishing its peaceful intentions through meaningful dialogue and concrete actions."

But U.S. officials won't judge the Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva as a one-off sign of Iran's intentions. Administration officials have indicated that they will decide by the end of the year whether Iran is cooperating in good faith. European officials suggest that the metric for success in Geneva may be simply the tone of the meeting. The last time the same parties sat around the table, Iran's negotiator, Saeed Jalili, subjected his interlocutors to lengthy philosophical harangues in a kind of diplomatic filibuster. This time they'll be looking for signs that Iran is ready to cooperate in addressing international concerns — even if such cooperation will be viewed with suspicion and come at a sometimes unpalatable price.