The Menu of Options in the Iranian Nuclear Talks

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in Tehran on April 12, 2012.

For the first time in more than a year and a half, negotiators from Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S., Russia, China, France and England, plus Germany – will sit down with their Iranian counterparts this Friday in Istanbul to talk about Tehran’s nuclear program. In the weeks leading up to the talks, getting all six countries to agree on a cohesive bargaining strategy with Iran has been almost as hard as getting Tehran to agree to, well, anything. “I do not think that we’ll come to any unified position before the negotiations, but rather have a menu of options,” Sergey Ryabkov, Russian deputy foreign minister told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. Each country comes to the talks with its own agenda – and sometimes a schedule, as is the case with the U.S. elections, threatens to overshadow any potential progress. Here’s a look at the five key positions as they stand ahead of the talks:

–Russia and China: Both countries view the U.S. and European Union sanctions as distasteful and dangerously unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program. They’ve been seeking to decouple the two issues, or at least ease the sanctions. “We’ve never seen any movement on the Iranian part under pressure,” Ryabkov said. “We’ve only seen more stubbornness.” Indeed, Iran recently announced it would pick up its pace of uranium enrichment despite crippling economic sanctions that have seen the real, the Iranian currency, lose 75% of its value over the last year amidst hyperinflation. China and Russia both still argue that a nuclear-armed Iran won’t be tolerated: “The Iranian side must do much more to show its seriousness,” Ryabkov said. But they believe the path forward lies in traditional direct talks, confidence-building measures taken in slow steps followed by the bite of  United Nations resolutions.

–The so-called E3, the U.K., France and Germany: All three are much more inclined than the U.S. to believe that Iran is seeking to weaponize its uranium stockpiles. They have more experience negotiating with Iran as well, and that experience has taught them not to allow Tehran any wiggle room. France in particular has been pushing for a hard line: a full and complete halt to Iran’s nuclear program and the surrender of all of its uranium. “Even if they agree to hand over their 20% enriched uranium, some in Europe will argue to keep up the pressure – to not take down any of the sanctions — until they also hand over the 3.5% enriched uranium,” says a European diplomat. In other words: the Europeans don’t think confidence-building measures will work — or might allow Iran to delay and wiggle too much — and are seeking an all-or-nothing line with Tehran.

–Israel: Though it isn’t taking part in the talks, Israel is potentially on the cusp of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, so the country’s point of view here is crucial. Like the E3, Israel fully believes Iran is on the path to getting a nuclear bomb and such an event would be, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it last month on his visit to Washington, “an existential threat to Israel.” Behind the scenes to members of Congress, Netanyahu painted a much starker picture than the happy face he put on in his summit with President Obama. Israel worries that Iran, as it has before, isn’t serious about engaging in diplomacy and is just stalling for time as they get closer and closer to a bomb. U.S. officials worry that Israel will bomb Iran unless Tehran takes credible and real steps in the coming months to dismantle its nuclear program.

–U.S.: The U.S. is caught between these competing agendas. David Sanger wrote Sunday in the New York Times that the U.S. taking a “hard line” and will begin the talks with an ultimatum that Iran close and ultimately dismantle its deep Fordow facility near Qom and cease all enrichment of 20% grade uranium. But in truth, the U.S. position is closer to that of the Russian and Chinese: after this opening bid, which are essentially confidence building measures, their position softens. The fact that they wouldn’t demand the full stop of all enrichment is a weaker position than one already passed by the U.N. Security Council. And by distinguishing between the 20% and 3.5% enriched uranium, they are basically saying it’s okay to have lower enriched uranium — a significant retreat from the European position and past UN resolutions. In fact, Dennis Ross, who until November served as Obama’s top adviser on the region, made a startling suggestion last week when he said that if Iran certifies it only wants civilian applications for their nuclear program, it might be able to continue to enrich small amounts of uranium up to 5%. Whatever happens in these talks, the Obama Administration is hampered by the upcoming November U.S. elections – over the weekend there was another notable story about Netanyahu’s long standing relationship with Republican Presidential nominee-presumptive Mitt Romney – and a Republican party just itching for a way to paint the President soft on Iran and terrorism. Even if Iran complies with the P5+1 demands, it will be hard to sell diplomacy with Iran on the campaign trail.

–Iran: The wild card in all this, of course, is Iran. In every other talk, Tehran has come in and blown up any pre-ordained strategies and it is likely to do the same here. Already in the last week we’ve seen them send mixed signals: from trying last minute to change the venue of the talks from Istanbul to Iraq or China to indications that once they reach a certain amount of 20% enriched uranium they might give it up. One politician even went so far as to hint that Iran might take a Japan-like pledge where they would guarantee to seek only civilian uses for their nuclear program. “The Japan option only works if Iran becomes Japan,” says Dennis Ross. “The history of [Tehran’s] behavior is such that they’ve lost the confidence of the international community and they have to take steps to restore it.” And, any way, the discussion was taken down from the Iranian parliament’s website later that same night. Either way, it will become apparent pretty quickly if Iran is serious about engaging this time. The Iranians too have a deadline of sorts: the next round of tough economic sanctions is scheduled to take effect in late June—unless Tehran finds a way to convince the allies to hold off.