Nuclear Talks With Iran: 4 Key Questions

[Update, 4/14, 9:30 p.m.: The outcome of this weekend's talks has now been reported. According to the criteria I lay out at the end of this piece, this qualifies as good news.]

Believe it or not, this weekend is even more important than Super Bowl weekend. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program begin, and if this first round doesn't go well, the chances of war go up. If the first round goes so badly that it becomes the last round, the chances of war go way up. Success will depend largely on the answers to four questions.

1) Is Iran willing to compromise? Writing in the National Interest, Reza Marashi and Ali Reza Eshraghi lay out a few encouraging precedents--cases where Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been willing to explore cooperation with the United States, as when Iran provided intelligence to the US during the early part of the Afghanistan war. For this and other reasons there is hope that Iran could eventually (if not this weekend) accept what may be the most important single American goal in these talks--that Iran quit enriching uranium to the 20 percent level of purity and confine future enrichment to around 4 percent. (Weapons grade is around 90 percent, and 20 percent gets you a lot closer to that than 4 percent.) In this scenario, the 20-percent-enriched uranium that Iran needs for medical purposes could be produced abroad and supplied to Iran in limited quantities.

2) Will the US grasp the political limits on Iran's room for compromise? There are early signs that it won't. A New York Times story last week said the administration wants to start the talks by "demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling" of Iran's Fordo enrichment site. Writing in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt says that, with the Iranians having built Fordo at great cost, "it would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for them to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it."

And the problem with this demand goes beyond humiliation. Whereas the US has sometimes seemed willing to let Iran keep processing uranium at low levels of enrichment, Israel has suggested it won't tolerate any enrichment. So Iran could well fear that even if it does a deal in these negotiations with the "P5+1" (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that leaves some processing intact, Israel might later try to end the processing, and America might even secretly welcome such an effort. And Fordo, built under a mountain, is the one Iranian reactor with a good chance of withstanding an air attack. As Paul Pillar (who until 2005 was in charge of Middle East analysis for the CIA and all other America intelligence agencies) notes, from an Iranian perspective, western insistence on closing Fordo could look like a ploy designed to ensure that all remaining processing is vulnerable to air attack.

If the position outlined in that New York Times story reflects the administration's bottom line, as opposed to its initial bargaining position, these talks may well be doomed. But some observers think Obama would ultimately accept a deal where Fordo stays open but highly intrusive monitoring ensures that enrichment there stays well below the 20 percent level.

3) Are Khamenei and Obama strong enough politically to resist pressure from hard liners? There are Iranian factions that don't want to surrender 20-percent processing, and there are American factions that don't want to let Iran continue enriching even at the 4 percent level. Can these factions be resisted? Peter Jenkins, formerly Britain's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, says Khamenei is in a fairly strong position after this year's parliamentary elections.

Obama? Not so much. He's in pre-election, not post-election, mode, and so far it sounds like outhawking him on Iran will be the centerpiece of Republican foreign policy rhetoric in the presidential campaign. Talks with Iran may have to continue beyond the first Tuesday of November to be successful.

4) Will there be carrots as well as sticks? One ominous line in that New York Times piece was: "Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship." That's a gamble indeed. A P5+1 agreement to forego scheduled sanctions and/or lift sanctions already imposed would certainly be a powerful incentive. But if there are no additional rewards, then any Iranian concessions look like capitulation, and no national leader wants to be seen by a domestic or international audience as capitulating.

It's important to understand that many people in Iran truly believe that the US is bent on regime change. Convincing Iran otherwise would greatly facilitate progress on the nuclear issue, so the most valuable carrots would be the kind that help do that.

Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, published an encouraging piece in the Washington Post this week that suggested Iran would like to use these talks to put its relations with the west on a much firmer foundation. He called for "comprehensive, long-term dialogue aimed at resolving all parties' outstanding concerns," and, "most important," reestablishing "confidence and trust." If this weekend's talks ratchet up the trust even a smidgen, and conclude with a firm commitment to a second round of talks, that will probably qualify as good news.