After days of last-minute fencing --- reflecting both the tensions of diplomacy and the tensions within the Iranian political system --- Tehran finally agreed on Monday to the start of nuclear discussions in Istanbul. Iran's representatives will sit down with those of the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) on Saturday to consider the future of Tehran's uranium enrichment.
The theatrical dispute over location, which started when Iran pulled back last week from Turkey as the host of the talks, ended with the declaration that Istanbul's opening meeting would be followed by another round of discussions in Baghdad.
At one level, that's a face-saving arrangement. The Islamic Republic had boxed itself in with its posture that Turkey --- which has been a diplomatic partner of Tehran, which had been vital in working with Iran for a possible agreement in 2010, but which had angered some in the regime with its position on the Syrian crisis --- was no longer acceptable as the venue. The Iranians (and by this, I primarily mean the Supreme Leader) either had to take this pose all the way to the collapse of discussions even before they started, or accept that it was the Istanbul way or no way for the negotiations.
At another level, however, the Baghdad add-on is a tip-off from the Islamic Republic to the US and European powers not to expect an immediate meeting of minds in Turkey. If there is to be an agreement, it will have to come through lengthy talks producing compromise, rather than an Iranian concession to sanctions and other pressure, and an arrangement not only respecting but highlighting the Islamic Republic's sovereignty. A meeting in Iraq is symbolic of that desire --- the Iranians know that Washington is suspicious of Baghdad's political leanings towards Tehran, so the US would have to make a concession in entering that diplomatic territory.
At the same time, the setting-out of not just one but two sets of talks --- albeit with those in Baghdad on an unspecified date, only to be confirmed at the end of Istanbul --- raises the question as to whether either side will put a substantial offer on the table this week or whether each will fence for position, trying to get the other to tip off their negotiating hand and even give way on it.
Beyond the speculation in the press, fed by leaks --- especially from "US and European diplomats" --- on proposals, these appear to be the immediate issues:
1. WHICH ENRICHMENT PLANTS CAN IRAN "KEEP"?
First, let's clear away a deal-breaker. The Obama Administration has put out the message that it will insist on the closure of the Fordoo enrichment plant, recently put into operation by Tehran.
That demand is a non-starter. Fordoo, set inside a mountain near Qom, is Iran's back-up for its primary enrichment facility at Natanz, which is in open terrain and thus vulnerable to attack. The bluster of Iranian officials, notably President Ahmadinejad that there would soon be 10 or even 20 enrichment plants, is tangential to this basic plan.
Iran will not give up Fordoo. The Americans, unless they are politically and strategically naive, know this. So their demand is almost certainly a high-handed starting position, hoping to get the Iranians to move their position in other areas.
2. TO WHAT LEVEL CAN IRAN ENRICH URANIUM?
Beyond the complex technical details, the math is simple --- Iran wants to enrich uranium from its starting point of 3.5% to 20%, which is necessary for purposes such as medical isotopes. The US and Europe do not want Iran to move past 20% to beyond 90%, the level for military use.
But can Iran at least enrich to 20% on its own soil?
The arrangement in the October 2009 talks, the closest the two sides have come to agreement, was that other countries would take care of the 20% enrichment. Iran would hand over most of its 3.5% uranium stock and received the enriched plates via 2nd and 3rd countries --- Russia, France, and Turkey were all possibilities before the discussions suddenly broke down in November.
The US and Europe might hope this deal can be resurrected. After all, Iran effectively did so in the Tehran Declaration of spring 2010, issued with Turkey and Brazil. That moment, however was lost when the Americans, committed to the sanctions, slapped down the Declaration.
The Americans might see a window of opportunity --- one which it did not publicly exploit at the time --- in President Ahmadinejad's September 2011 declaration that Iran would suspend its enrichment if it had a "guaranteed supply" of the 20% stock from countries such as the US. This weekend, however, the head of Iran's atomic energy organisation, Fereydoun Abbasi, signalled that Ahmadinejad's proposal was not in play: the question was not whether Iran could carry out the operations, but how much uranium it can enrich (see below).
Now that Tehran has the capability to enrich to 20%, it will not give that up.
3. HOW MUCH URANIUM CAN IRAN ENRICH?
Here is where the numbers become important. The October 2009 proposal was for Iran to send out 75% of its 3.5% uranium to be enriched. That meant the remaining stock was below the level --- even if Tehran had the capability --- that could go into even one nuclear bomb.
But Iran now has more than doubled its stock and established the capability to enrich it to 20%. It also has indicated that the "uranium swap" option, sending its stock out of country to be enhanced, is no longer an option.
Instead, as atomic energy head Abbasi said this weekend, Iran would enrich only to 20% and only to the "necessary" level for domestic uses. He did not put a number on "necessary", however, which --- if the discussions get that far --- will bring in the technical wizards.
Put bluntly and non-technically, how much is enough for Tehran? And....
4. WHAT INSPECTION SYSTEM WILL BE PUT IN PLACE?
Beyond all the fussing over whether Iran will be allowed to enrich and to what level, this may be the critical question. If the "West" suspects that Tehran will cheat on a stated deal, then there will never be one. If Iran suspects that the "West" will always use monitoring to cripple its capability, then an agreement covering Tehran's current and future capability will never be reached.
Iran's facilities are already subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but --- and this is the most important point in the IAEA's reports in recent years, not the false spin that Tehran is close to a Bomb --- the Agency has always started its conclusion with the concern that it has not been to carry out full verification.
This is the square peg that needs to be put in a round hole. If there is to be agreement, Iran must commit itself to unrestricted access by the IAEA to its facilities. if there is to be agreement, the 5+1 Powers must set out guarantees that the inspections will not be used to feed extra intelligence back to the US and others --- Tehran, for example, believes that some IAEA information has been used to identify scientists for assassination --- and Iran has to be assured that the inspections are not just the pretext to impose further restrictions, backed up by yet more sanctions, on its programme.