Now that the dust is settling following the talks in Istanbul late last month between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s fair to argue that the initial pessimism that followed the breakdown of the negotiations was unwarranted, or at least premature. Although no accord was announced, all of the players, including both Iran and the United States, have expressed cautious optimism about resuming the negotiations.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped hardliners in Washington from renewing calls for harsher measures, including military action, against Iran in the wake of the stalemate in Turkey. But so far,at least, the administration of US President Barack Obama is ignoring them. And thanks to reports that Iran’s nuclear programme has run into difficulties—among them, a prediction from Meir Dagan, the retiring head of Israel’s Mossad, that Iran won’t be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon before 2015—US officials are starting to take the long view. As one top Obama administration official told reporters: ‘Clearly there are signs that Iran’s nuclear programme has slowed. I think there is time and space for diplomacy.’
Yet it’s also true that economic sanctions, rather than forcing Iran to make concessions, have only served to irritate Iranian leaders. Designed to bring Iran to its knees and force Tehran to suspend its nuclear research, the sanctions may have had the opposite effect, creating an obstacle to a successful accord.
The talks, held January 20-22, accomplished little, at least on the surface. The six world powers entered the discussions hoping that, at a minimum, Iran would respond positively to an ‘upgraded’ offer to reinstate the October 2009 accord reached in Geneva. According to that agreement, Iran would have exported a substantial portion of its low-enriched uranium for processing into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a medical-use facility that requires more highly enriched uranium.
Though it was supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that accord died when it ran afoul of internal Iranian politics, and Iran reneged, not only accelerating its enrichment efforts, but producing limited quantities of more highly enriched uranium that might be used for the TRR. Going into the Istanbul talks, the P5+1—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—developed a new offer. According to this proposal, Iran would send even greater quantities of low-enriched uranium and all of its more highly enriched uranium to Russia, in exchange for a regular supply of fuel rods for the TRR and for its Russian-built power plant at Bushehr.