For the first time in more than a year, Iranian negotiators are scheduled to meet next week (December 6th and 7th) with representatives of six world powers in Geneva to discuss concerns about the nation's nuclear program. The Obama administration is still committed to negotiating with Tehran, but some analysts believe chances for a diplomatic breakthrough are slim.
The negotiations will include the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The European Union's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, will lead the delegation, while Iran will be represented by its chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Iran's agreement to return to negotiations is encouraging. "This is an opportunity for Iran to come to the table and discuss the matters that are of concern to the international community, first and foremost their nuclear program," she said.
Some officials say the willingness of Iran to engage in talks may be an indication that new and tougher sanctions, approved last June, are having an impact on its troubled economy.
Senior U.S. officials say the sanctions have already cost the Tehran government billions of dollars in energy investments and have left Iran virtually frozen out of the international financial system.
Ambassador Dennis Ross, a Special Assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama, says the administration still wants to engage Iran and resolve differences though diplomacy. "Now is the time for Iran to be ready to talk seriously, we are. Now is the time for Iran to respect its own people and to restore the respect of the international community. Now is the time for Iran to signal its goodwill and if it does that, it will find that its goodwill is be matched by ours," he said.
A major issue facing negotiators is whether to revive a proposal made last year for the United States, Russia and France to assist Iran in getting new fuel for a medical research reactor.
The plan would require Iran to ship out a large percentage of its low enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel to produce medical isotopes for cancer patients.
That deal fell apart and Robin Wright, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says there is mounting concern about Iran's nuclear program. "The talks come at a time of unprecedented international frustration over Iran's nuclear program and the failure of Iran after many years to fully comply with the international community, with the UN watchdog agency (International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA), and reassure the international community of its claim that its intentions are only peaceful."
The U.S. and some of its allies believe Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran denies this, saying it is enriching uranium to produce nuclear fuel.
Some recently released U.S. diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website highlight a growing anxiety among Arab nations about Iran's nuclear program.
Some Arab leaders are quoted as urging the United States to use military force to destroy the facilities.
Karim Sadjadpour, who is an associate with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the leaked documents add to the lack of trust between Iran and the United States. "Within Iran there is even a greater sense of suspicion about U.S. intentions in the aftermath of these WikiLeaks, which they view as kind of a concerted, concocted policy of the CIA. I would argue, probably, that the likelihood of some type of diplomatic breakthrough is very, very slim," he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed the documents as American psychological warfare and says his country's relations with its neighbors will not be hurt by the leaks.
Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, specializes in Iran's political dynamics.
Nader says there is significant doubt that those who hold power in Iran will support any agreement talks might produce on the country's nuclear program. "I think the key question is whether the Islamic Republic is serious about any sort of engagement. If you look at Iran's leadership, including (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei and the top echelon of the Revolutionary Guards, any sort of opening to the United States poses an ideological, political and economic threat to those ruling the regime. So we have to ask if the Iranian government ever went into negotiations with any consideration of resolving the issue."
Mr. Ahmadinejad says his country is ready to hold talks, but will not make concessions about its right to a nuclear program.