European Union's Catherine Ashton and Iran's Saeed Jalili at last month's nuclear talks in Istanbul (Cartoon:Nikahang Kowsar)
About now, Iranian officials, led by Saeed Jalili, are sitting with six other delegations (US, British, France, Germany, China, and Russia) at a conference table in Baghdad to discuss Tehran's uranium enrichment.
This is the second set of talks since a resumption after a 2 1/2-year break. The opening day in Istanbul on 14 April was a promising introduction, with all sides showing willingness to carry on talks. Over the last six weeks, there have been a series of closed-door preparatory meetings, notably between Helga Schmid of the European Union and Ali Bagheri, the deputy head of the Iranian negotiating team.
On Monday, there was a significant, promising prelude to Baghdad when International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano visited Tehran for a day of discussions about a protocol for inspecting and safeguarding Iran's nuclear facilities. Iranian officials were enthusiastic about the outcome; even more importantly, Amano indicated on Tuesday that a deal was imminent on IAEA access.
So does that progress continue today and beyond?
1. A NARRATIVE OF "HOPE"?
It has been striking how most of the Iranian State and semi-official media has turned from sceptic over the talks to cheerleader since the resumption in Istanbul. That could only happen with the encouragement of those at highest levels --- read the Supreme Leader's office. (The exception is the pro-Ahmadinejad State news agency IRNA, which has pretended this week that the talks are not taking place, but that is a reflection of the President's diminished role, rather than the hostility of most of the Tehran establishment.)
At the same time, that Iranian media features the line of politicians and clerics that any discussion must begin with a "Western" offer to ease sanctions. That is the requirement for the talks to move to consideration of limits and monitoring of Tehran's enrichment.
And it is here that the Americans in particular have been less accommodating in the public signalling. Last night --- albeit too late to get much resonance in the media --- Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin tipped off the negotiating strategy of most (and all?) of the 5+1 Powers. In exchange for Iran giving up enrichment of uranium to 20% level on its soil --- but being "allowed" to go up to 3.5% or 5% --- the "West" could put forth "confidence-building" steps including 20% fuel for Tehran’s Research Reactor (TRR) plus safety upgrades to the plant; new research reactors that use 3.5% uranium, safety upgrades for Iran’s one partially-functioning nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and spare parts for the Islamic Republic's civilian airliners.
That last step is effectively an easing of one provision in the US-led sanctions, but otherwise, an American emphasised, "Just hope the Iranians are not deluding themselves they are going to get sanctions relief now—that’s not going to happen at this stage."
That warning may be a bit of posturing, possibly for the Iranians, possibly for the Israelis, more likely for an audience in Washington. For earlier this week, the US Congress passed a resolution which called for even tougher sanctions on Tehran, a move notable for timing more than substance --- any deal, the legislators were saying, would have to be an Iranian capitulation.
So the likely scenario is that --- at best --- the talks today merely confirm that a process of discussion is under way and will be for some time to come. There will have be to be an intricate tango of Iranian gestures on enrichment, building towards a confirmation that Tehran will give up the 20% process, alongside piece-meal 5+1 steps for an easing here, an easing there of economic restrictions. Those, however, do not meet Tehran's public demand for a unilateral and significant gesture by the US and Europe on sanctions.
That may work, in the sense that Iran had shown up a willingness to "play the talks long", especially in the run-up to the opening meeting in Istanbul. No need for a quick, sweeping agreement as long as the "West" was showing a recognition of Tehran's wishes and did not impose an ultimatum.
But here's the problem. The Islamic Republic may not have the time to "play long". The economy is tottering. The US, Europe, and now some countries and institutions elsewhere have put the squeeze on Iran's Central Bank and financial transactions. And now 1 July looms --- the day that the European Union imposes a ban on imports of oil from Iran.
Initially, I thought that an end-of-day declaration in Baghdad of "good talks" might be significant enough to call this a step of success on a longer path of progress. Negotiating these angles, however, I believe there has to be more. Behind the public pose, there has to be a significant assurance by the Americans and Europeans over sanctions, on the basis that Iran will not demand self-sufficiency in enriching uranium to 20%.