Iran-US Talks: Path to Peace or Confidence Game?

Iran says it’s ready for talks—at last. But as the U.S. gears up for what could be a last chance to avoid a war, can anyone believe Tehran?

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REUTERS/Michael Dalder

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden gives a speech at the 49th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 2, 2013.

Last March President Barack Obama told the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would do whatever it takes to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But if avoiding a new war in the Middle East means believing Iran has forsaken its pursuit of a nuke, Obama faces a problem. Over the last ten years, Iran has flouted U.N. and IAEA orders to restrain its nuclear program, ignored an unconditional offer of one-on-one talks from Obama and refused to budge in the face of crippling sanctions and covert action.

If all that failed to reverse Iran’s course, how can Tehran convince the world to have confidence in it now?

Iran’s about to get what may be its last chance to try. At a conference in Munich Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Salehi, said his country would join negotiations with international powers Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan. The talks were supposed to start in December, but Obama administration officials and European negotiators say Iran refused to agree where and when, exactly, to meet. Jaded western officials say they’ll only believe talks will actually happen when the Iranians show up.

(MORE: Iran’s Agenda: Why Tehran Plays Hard to Get on Nuclear Diplomacy)

Even if they do, the White House has low expectations. Off the table are any thoughts about what Iran could do to get its program back into compliance with international demands and ultimately keep some non-military nuclear capability–previous talks with the international powers focused only on short term measures to defuse tensions. “We are not in negotiations with them about end-state,” says a senior administration official. “All the discussions we have had with them have to do with steps that they need to take to build confidence.”

Even that low bar may be too high for the Iranian regime. That’s partly because even as it stalls for time and promises to talk, Iran seems to be headed in the other direction. It has announced a plan to install higher efficiency centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, where it has been steadily producing low-enriched uranium for years. The new centrifuges could cut substantially the time it would take them to produce enough fuel for a bomb. At the same time, Iran is gearing up for elections in June, an unlikely time for politicians to make concessions to America.

But if talks with Iran seem a long shot to produce peace, the Obama administration appears to be less worried about war than it did just a few months ago. Current and former senior administration officials privately say the threshold for military action is high. Foreign diplomats in Washington say that after three years of tough talk the administration is showing a softer face ahead of the talks. They read the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State and the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, both of whom were critical of the war in Iraq, as signs the administration is not in a hurry to go to war again in the region. On Feb. 2 at the same Munich conference Salehi spoke at, vice president Joe Biden said the U.S. would consider one-on-one talks with Iran, last offered in 2009 but then abandoned in the face of Iranian intransigence.

(MORE: The Year We Reckon With Iran)

Part of the administration’s seeming calm may come from the fact that while it hasn’t stopped the Iranian program over the last four years,  the U.S. and its allies have put some time on the clock. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. last September that the west must act by late spring or early summer to stop an Iranian weapon. But recent reports say Israeli intelligence believes covert action has slowed the Iranian program. The earliest Iran might get a bomb, according to these reports, is 2015. Former administration officials familiar with military planning describe a similarly extended time line for intervention.

At the same time, Iran is doing little things that could be read as opening the way to a deal. It reportedly slowed its production of enriched uranium to keep its stockpile under the amount needed to produce a single nuclear weapon, converting some into nuclear fuel rods for its research reactor, a move that is difficult to reverse. Also, by choosing to install its new centrifuges in Natanz, rather than the deeply buried facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, it is choosing to make them more vulnerable to a military attack.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. confidence may come from the fact that President Obama’s threat to use force is serious, and is backed up by real planning at the Pentagon. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, seems to have confidence in Obama’s commitment. “President Obama has said time and again that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he recently told Time. “We are closely communicating with the Obama Administration in an effort to identify the best means for achieving that goal.”

Or as Frederick the Great said: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

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