ISTANBUL, Turkey — As another round of talks begin today between Iran and the handful of western countries trying to head off its nuclear program, expectations for a deal are decidedly low.
The reason? Neither side, analysts said, is in a position where they will be motivated to compromise.
“The irony here is that both sides seem to think that time is on their side,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “And for different reasons that may actually be the case.”
The United States and its allies worry that Iran is enriching uranium beyond the amounts needed for producing energy and is, in fact, trying to build a nuclear weapon. Iran, however, has refused any deal that would force it to stop enrichment altogether.
The so-called P5+1 countries — the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — have been emboldened in recent months by what they view as successful economic sanctions against Iran and setbacks the country has endured in developing its nuclear program.
The most recent round of sanctions has been the most sweeping so far — hitting harder than any effort by former U.S. President George W. Bush. Companies around the world now boycott Iranian banks, shipments to and from the country are regularly stalled in customs, and Iranian businesses and workers are no longer as welcome abroad, even in some Arab countries.
Despite the serious drain the sanctions are having on an already fragile Iranian economy, Tehran does not appear ready to compromise either, calling this week’s round of nuclear talks the “last chance for the West.”
Iran’s nuclear program has been said to be crippled somewhat by both the Stuxnet worm, a computer virus that targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the murder of one of its nuclear scientists in November. But while Iran’s nuclear drive does appear to have slowed down, diplomats and experts stress that it is still amassing enriched uranium, a material that, if further refined, could be used to make bombs.
The Iranian government maintains that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes, and that it has enriched uranium to less than 5 percent, consistent with fuel for a civilian nuclear power plant.
“We will not retreat one iota from our nuclear rights,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech, adding that his government remains “ready for cooperation based on justice and respect.”
Ahmadinejad has blamed the United States and Israel for both the Stuxnet virus and the attack on the country’s nuclear scientist.
Israeli officials have estimated that 2014 is the date for when the world can expect Iran to have a nuclear bomb, giving it an approximate three-year window to negotiate.
But a study by the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists — and just released to the Associated Press — argues that last year Iran appears to have increased the efficiency of the machines that produce enriched uranium by 60 percent. If true, Iran could have the technical capacity to produce the material for a simple warhead within five months, leaving very little time for diplomacy.
Still, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has, for now, argued against military strikes as a way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb. The nuclear fuel swap deal remains a last option on the table for the two sides determined to hold their positions.
A similar deal had been brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May but was rejected by the United States and its allies because of disagreements over the deal’s implementation.
The talks in Istanbul come just one month after similar negotiations in Geneva. But while Geneva’s limited successes — the two sides managed only to agree to meet again in Istanbul — have contributed to the slim prognosis this time around, some say that keeping the channels of communication open is half the battle.
“Having this balance of diplomacy and tough measures is part of what is keeping the [P5+1] coalition together,” said Carnegie's Barkey. “And for the Iranians it shows their domestic opponents that they are still talking, even if they are not saying much.”