Throughout this spring's nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China), I have used the metaphor of the game of "chicken", in which two drivers aim their cars at each other and accelerate. The question, from Istanbul in April to Baghdad in May to Moscow this week, has been whether one or both sides would swerve to get an agreement on Tehran's uranium enrichment or whether both were preparing for impact.
The past 48 hours, for all the muddle during the third round of negotiations, gave us an answer.
The Iranians, after taking an unsuccesfully vague line in Baghdad, were ready to hit the brakes. The US and Europe are not --- if Iran will not give way, it should brace itself for the crash.
There was talk from sections of the Obama Administration last week of a "grand", take-it-or-leave-it offer to Iran. The 5+1 would accept a level of enrichment of uranium, probably to 5%, on Iranian soil and would ease sanctions in exchange for an Iranian commitment to a tough regime of inspections and safeguards and a renunciation of enrichment to the higher level of 20%.
That offer never happened in Moscow. Instead, the "hard-liners" in the US and --- equally important --- the European delegations put forward the same proposal they had tabled in Baghdad: no explicit recognition of any level of enrichment, closure of Iran's second enrichment facility in Fordoo, and the inspections. Iran would be granted token sanctions relief through parts for its aging civilian aircraft, but there would be no deferral of the European Union's suspension of oil imports from Tehran.
Unsurprisingly, the Iranians again rejected the proposal, reportedly through a PowerPoint presentation. But then they changed, however slightly, the dynamic of the negotiations. They set out detail on the five-point plan they had touted in Baghdad.
For the first time, diplomatic sources and Iranian media made clear that Tehran was willing to discuss its limit and possible abandonment of 20% enrichment and the co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify this. The symbolic cover for this would be an implementation of the Supreme Leader's "fatwa" against nuclear weapons, which the Iranians have been promoting since these talks were proposed in early 2012. In return, the Iranians wanted a lifting of the US-led sanctions.
In effect, it was Tehran that was now offering the "grand" bargain. For a few hours on Monday, there was guarded optimism in Moscow and enthusiasm in Iranian media at the prospect.
But only for a few hours. It was clear as the two sides formally convened on Tuesday morning that, despite Russian-Iranian talks which appeared to be brokering the way forward, that the US and Europe were not prepared to make Tehran's proposal the foundation of negotiations. There would be no recognition of Iran's right to enrich under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There would be no deferral of the EU's oil ban, due from 1 July, let alone suspension of existing sanctions.
The most that would be countenanced was an agreement for more discussions. But, even here, the 5+1 Powers drew a line: while they would engage in "expert talks" with Iran on 3 July in Istanbul, they would not announce a 4th round of formal negotiations.
Put bluntly, the US and European teams had decided to wait for the possible crash of the Iranian economy from further sanctions and domestic tensions. And --- equally significant --- Russia and China accepted this: neither broke away during the negotiations.
Why, then, even accept the limited step of "expert talks"? Because you don't necessarily want to nail your strategy on the public wall. The US and its European partners do not want to carry the blame for the collapse of the talks. Russia and China need the facade, for their game of publicly opposing further sanctions but privately accepting the pressure on Tehran, that the discussusions continue. Washington may fear an Israeli reaction that, if the diplomatic game is over, it is time for military action.
This is not to say that the approach will work. The Iranian regime is likely to close ranks and brace itself, telling its public that the "enemy" is seeking the collapse of the Islamic Republic but that, with the support of the people, Iran will bear any hardship and flourish. That public has already taken a battering from economic decline --- as much a product of mismanagement as sanctions --- and most have resigned themselves to this as a long-term situation. So the Supreme Leader does not fear the masses on the streets.
The game of "chicken" continues, with Washington and the Europeans hitting the accelerator.