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.