First Round of Iran Nuclear Talks Highlights Obama’s Tough Spot in an Election Year

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Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili attends a press conference in Istanbul, on April 14, 2012.

Tehran emerged from the latest round of talks on its nuclear program fairly upbeat. Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that all of the disputes over his country’s nuclear program – which Iranian officials say is peaceful but world powers worry is military in nature – could be solved “quickly and easily,” even by the next round of talks scheduled to be held in Baghdad on May 23.

American negotiators struck a more cautious note after the weekend talks in Istanbul. The Iranians “brought ideas to the table,” one senior U.S. diplomat told the Christian Science Monitor, but “dialogue is not sufficient for any sanctions relief.”

And back in the U.S., the news was greeted with even more skepticism. Congress still plans to push ahead with a new round of even tougher sanctions by the end of the summer. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney continues to criticize Obama on Iran: “The President was silent when they took to the streets following a stolen election. And I think we have to make it very clear that we would take military action if necessary to prevent them from pursuing, or from achieving their nuclear ambition,” he said on April 4.

The truth is, it’s too early to make much of determination about the talks at all. The last set of so-called P5+1 negotiations — which included the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France, plus Germany — ended prematurely 15 months ago when Iran showed up demanding that the international community lift all sanctions and recognize its right to enrich uranium before Iran even sat down at the table. By comparison, the latest talks, which lasted 10 hours, were a success. “The Istanbul meeting was like a preliminary consultation to schedule a very complicated surgery,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “ The really hard part hasn’t begun.”

Indeed, for Obama this process could be like performing open-heart surgery with one hand tied behind his back. It’s an election year in the U.S. And coming up with a peaceful diplomatic solution in Iran will only be welcomed as a success at home if Israel doesn’t freak out and accuse the U.S. of caving. The track record isn’t good: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scoffed at the weekend talks, dismissing them as a “freebie” of five more weeks of uranium enrichment without penalties for Iran. Obama took exception with this characterization. “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or ‘a freebie,’ would indicate that Iran has gotten something,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the end of a Summit of the Americas in Cartagena on Sunday. “In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks. I hope they do.”

For his part, Romney feels that Iran is one of his strongest election issues, as his foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson recently told Reuters:

“I think our biggest single difference is probably over Iran,” Williamson said. “Put it this way: If I was the regime in Tehran, I’d be much more worried about dealing with a Romney Administration than with the current Administration.”

With Congress and Romney – not to mention Israel and Europe – urging Obama to be tougher on Iran, the President doesn’t have much room to make concessions. Which is, perhaps, why many are predicting that the current talks could last a year or more, stretching beyond the November elections. “Talk of a final and closing window for talks is unrealistic: the U.S. simply cannot go far enough for a deal during an election campaign,” says Richard Dalton, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, a U.K. think tank on international affairs. “A full year will be needed.”

If Obama wanted “space” from Russia on missile treaties, he needs a time-bending worm-hole to deal with Iran. There’s no way Israel will accept the extension of the status quo for another year while Iran produces giant stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. So, in order for a freeze to work, Iran at the very least must soon stop its production of 20% purity uranium–if not also production of lower, 3.5% enriched uranium. What they can get in exchange for that – since “reciprocity” seems to be a popular buzz word at the negotiations – is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. and E.U. dismantling their sanctions in exchange for a simple freeze in uranium production. And Iran would probably not accept a freeze at the current level of sanctions, as the status quo is incredibly painful for them economically.

The next round of sanctions is scheduled to take effect July 1. In this game of musical chairs where no one wants to stand up or sit down, all they’ve really agreed upon so far is that everyone likes the music.