1. THE UNBRIDGEABLE GAP
"Significant differences remain."
With those three words, Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia), summarised the near-failure of the two-day nuclear talks with Iran in Baghdad.
For all the chatter about behind-the-scenes preparatory talks between the two sides, the 5+1 --- led by the US and its European allies --- put down an opening proposal which was never going to get a welcome from the Iranian delegation, even as a starting point. The demands remained, notably Iran's commitment to give up enrichment of uranium to 20% and the closure of the Fordoo enrichment facility. The incentives were limited --- Iran might be able to enrich to 3.5%, with supplies of 20% uranium from outside countries --- and even insulting: the reference to the key issue of sanctions was "We could give you some spare parts for your civilian aircraft, having withheld these for years."
The Iranians quickly tabled their own five-point plan. No details emerged, beyond Iranian State media's declaration of a comprehensive package on nuclear and non-nuclear issues. It's safe to presume, however, that Tehran was drawing the line of explicit recognition of its right to enrich and an initial Western gesture on economic and financial restrictions.
In short, the US and Europe announced, "We will only talk easing of sanctions after you give us what we want on your uranium enrichment." Iran replied, "Ease the sanctions and then we will consider giving you what you want."
Despite twists and turns over the next 36 hours, those positions were not significantly altered.
2. THE NEAR-BREAKDOWN
By Wednesday, the Iranian delegation was on the point of a walkout and an effective suspension of talks after the second round in Baghdad. The message was across the Islamic Republic's media, with its denunciation of the "outdated" US-European proposals and the claim that, due to American pressure, the promise of the opening discussions in Istanbul had been withdrawn. It was also in the statements being given by Iranian diplomats to Western journalists:
This is what we were afraid of. No one is going to accept these things this way. [Giving up] the 20 percent and shutting down Fordow [enrichment plant], in return for nothing? Nothing?
3. A TEMPORARY RESCUE
We do not know the details, but Ashton's emergency session with Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator, on Wednesday night probably averted a breakdown. The question was then whether a face-saving and negotiation-saving announcement could be arranged on Thursday.
The rescue came not through any shift in the positions of the two sides, but through some diplomatic framing. The talk throughout Thursday, including in the Iranian press, was that a third round of talks would be in Geneva. However, the eventual location was Moscow.
Just like the agreement to have this round in Iraq, with the perception of its support for Iran's line, the choice of Russia --- usually framed as more accommodating of the Islamic Republic on the nuclear issue and sanctions --- for the next discussions on 18-19 June is a gesture to Tehran.
Even more important is the timing. The Moscow meeting will come two weeks before the guillotine --- the European Union's ban on imports of Iranian oil --- drops. Both in its symbolic and "real" effects, that suspension will be a significant tightening of the economic screw on Tehran.
And let's be clear: the Islamic Republic faces that prospect in a precarious position, given the combination of inflation, unemployment, declining production, currency issues, and a cut-off of imports and a choke-off of exports.
4. MAKE-OR-BREAK IN MOSCOW
So there can no repeat of Baghdad next month, no rescue with yet another agreement to talk elsewhere in a few weeks' time.
Iran does not have that time.
The question then is how far the US and Europe go in their pressure, backed by the sanctions. Do they insist that the Islamic Republic effectively say "Uncle" before any relief is offered? Or is there truly a step-by-step process in which Iran will be able to enrich uranium to 5%, under well-defined inspections and safeguards, and have a guaranteed supply of 20% fuel for civilian uses such as medical isotopes?
If the Islamic Republic balks at the terms of that agreement --- because, for all the talk of its "five-point plan", the US and Europe have the initiative --- then it has chosen the risk of economic and possibly political turmoil as well as renewed chatter about an Israeli military attack on its nuclear facilities
However, it will try to turn that risk to advantage. The regime will proclaim that it is the victim of Washington-led aggression, trying to rally international sympathy and --- more importantly --- domestic support. It will put out a message of defiance rather than surrender.
We are in the political and diplomatic equivalent of the game of "chicken", in which "two drivers drive towards each other on a collision course: one must swerve, or both may die in the crash".
Do the US and Europe let up on the accelerator on pressure? Does the Islamic Republic turn away? Or are both sides willing to risk the crash, because "if one driver swerves and the other does not, the one who swerved will be called a chicken"?