What to Expect From the Iran Nuclear Talks in Baghdad

As the second round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program begins in Baghdad Wednesday, there is optimism in the air. "We have a tail wind going into this," a senior administration official told the New York Times last week.

Optimism always makes me nervous, and today's news about the offer we plan to put on the table hasn't eased my anxiety.

According to reporting by Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin, the P5+1 (the permanent Security Council members plus Germany) wants Iran to halt the production of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level--a level that's well below weapons grade (around 90 percent), but is significantly closer to weapons grade than the 3.5 percent enriched uranium that Iran also produces.

In addition, according to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran would open to inspectors its Parchin military site, the place where Iran is suspected of having tested bomb triggering devices. (Though this concession wouldn't technically be part of the P5+1 talks, as a practical political matter it is; it's something P5+1 very much wants, and something that, from Iran's point of view, is a significant concession.)

In return for all this, Iran would get various little things--spare airplane parts, safety upgrades for its nuclear energy program, etc. These aren't nothing, but they're not things the Iranian leadership can unveil proudly to its people, nor things that help it out of its economic straits. And the thing we could give Iran that would score higher on those scales--some relief from sanctions--appears not to be on the table. According to that New York Times report, the European Union won't even delay by so much as a month the oil sanctions scheduled to take effect in July. This is the main source of my pessimism: In Baghdad we may not be offering a deal that makes political sense for Iran's leadership.

There's a bit more cause for hope in reporting by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He focuses not so much on what administration officials expect to get out of Baghdad, but on their longer term vision. This includes permanent and verifiable halting of 20-percent enrichment but acceptance of Iran's enriching uranium at the 3.5 percent level. (This acceptance is a big deal in Tehran, something that can be trumpeted as western acknowledgment, at long last, of Iran's cherished "right to enrich" uranium.) And sanctions relief would ultimately be on the table.

In short: the administration's long-term expectations strike me as more reasonable and realistic than its expectations for this week's Baghdad talks. Alas, the latter is the bridge to the former.

I guess conceivably Tehran could accept austere terms in Baghdad and be given off-the-record assurance that there's still time to push the sanctions back before July arrives. Or there could be no agreement in Baghdad except for the agreement to have one more round of talks before July, at which point sanctions could be put on the table. In any event, I suspect that if there's no sanctions relief whatsoever before July, this won't end well.

Then again, I'm not a very optimistic person.