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Iran Dithers on Nuclear Negotiations

Could Iran finally be ready for serious talks on its uranium enrichment program? A recent announcement by its lead nuclear negotiator indicates that it might be. But as always with Iran, words and actions aren’t necessarily aligned and Russia is worried that the Iranians aren’t ready to move.

Laura Rozen reports at the Back Channel:

Western diplomats fear if the Iranians don’t RSVP very soon, it will be logistically difficult to put together a meeting for next week.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

American negotiators “are ready, if Iran says yes, to work through with them a step by step deal,” a Washington non-proliferation expert told the Back Channel Tuesday. “They want to be able to make a deal. And a major concern is whether Iran is capable of making a deal, whether the Supreme Leader is capable of even deciding that he wants to make a deal. That is where their concern is.”

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, have been working to halt Iran’s nuclear program since 2006. The group last met with Iranian negotiators last June, but Iran has been studiously delaying a second round of talks ever since.

But the global landscape has changed since last spring. The US passed a new round of sanctions at the beginning of January, delivering a blow to Iran’s already weakened economy. More importantly, President Assad is losing ground in Syria, and it is looking increasingly likely that Iran will lose its most important ally by the end of the year.

This doesn’t mean that we can predict what Iran will do next: The weakening of the Iranian economy and the loss of a key ally could push it to be more conciliatory in negotiations in an effort to relieve some of the pressure. But it could also have the opposite effect, convincing Iran to ramp up the nuclear program as the last line of defense in an increasingly hostile neighborhood. Iran’s current efforts to stall suggest that it may be choosing the latter, but Iranian negotiating methods are so cloudy and the intentions of the Supreme Leader so veiled that even very well briefed observers aren’t able to predict what Iran’s posture will be.

Presumably Iran likes the present situation better than either of the alternatives. It doesn’t want to give up the nuclear option, but it doesn’t want an end to discussions about that option and an all out confrontation with the US. It therefore seeks to drag negotiations out. The US wants to make the status quo untenable for Iran, both forcing it towards a decisive choice and underlining how costly a full confrontation would be for Tehran. From that perspective, refusing to choose, playing for time and keeping the negotiation process on life support without ever quite pulling the plug could be the Iranian goal. The US isn’t ready to push for a decisive break both because the Obama administration really doesn’t want to make the ultimate choice between accepting Iranian nukes or taking military action and because it appears that the economic momentum and the war in Syria show that time, for now is on America’s side. The longer Iran stalls, the worse shape it is in.

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