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January 10, 2013

New Talks Loom Over Iran's Nuclear Program

by Al Pessin

With a looming threat from Israel of military action against Iran, Iranian and international diplomats are expected to try again in coming weeks after a seven-month hiatus to open negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program. Iran and the international contact group have starkly opposite opening positions ahead of the talks.

The last time Iran's nuclear negotiators met with their foreign counterparts, in Moscow in June, the talks did not go well. Both sides wanted their maximum demands met, and offered little in return.

While Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, there is international concern Iran is moving closer to building a nuclear bomb.  

So the aim of the five United Nations permanent Security Council members and Germany is to persuade Iran to end its enrichment of uranium to near weapons grade in return for an easing of economic sanctions. Iran wants the sanctions lifted completely in return for small concessions on the nuclear program.

"The only prospect for some sort of breakthrough arrives if we meet somewhere in the middle," said research fellow Shashank Joshi at London's Royal United Services Institute.

"It broadly requires the West to offer sanctions relief, although of a limited kind, not completely lifting sanctions, doing so in an incremental, careful and reversible way, of course; and for Iran not to abandon enrichment but to place important limits on how and where it does it," he added.

Analysts say political leaders on both sides are reluctant to be seen as weak, however, on what has become a matter of pride and national security. Experts say that means reaching some sort of compromise will be difficult.

Still, Mark Fitzpatrick, who directs the non-proliferation program at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran's leaders are under increasing pressure to ease the growing pain caused by the sanctions.

"The pressure that's on the leadership is more in the form of internal discussions about 'isn't it time to readdress the question' because the entrepreneurs, the businessmen, they are hurting. And many of them are making it known that it's time to reconsider," said Fitzpatrick.

A slowdown of Iran's nuclear fuel enrichment program in the second half of last year eased concerns of a possible American or Israeli airstrike, but analysts believe Iran could soon resume the work, and may have done so already.

So with military action again a concern, the two sides are expected to try again at the negotiating table. But experts are not convinced that they are ready for the kind of compromise that could ease the tension long term, and end the talk of attacks.