By Mark Hibbs, Ariel Levite and George Perkovich

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, right, and President Obama discussed the Iranian situation in a videoconference Thursday.

After a hiatus of more than a year, negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program are set to resume in Turkey on Friday between Iran and France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and the United States. Though the participants foresee several rounds of discussions, all will be acutely aware that time to reach agreement peacefully may be running out.  

So it is important to ask, at the start, how we will be able to tell whether the talks are moving forward.

Though talks that have taken place since 2004 have produced no real progress, recent developments suggest some grounds for cautious optimism. Sanctions are hurting Iran, and even tougher ones are expected to go into effect July 1. President Obama and other American officials have repeatedly warned Iran in recent weeks that the window for diplomacy is closing. Israel’s patience for a meaningful outcome from diplomacy is running thin. Iranian leaders presumably recognize that the likelihood of military action would be higher than ever if negotiations collapsed or began to stretch out aimlessly.

In addition, there are some indications that Iran’s attitude may have become more flexible. Iran still insists that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful use, and that it will not compromise on its right to enrich uranium. It continues to rebuff the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands for greater cooperation, while threatening retaliation for sanctions imposed on it. But its leaders may be creating room for compromise. Iran sought the new negotiating round. It has done so in the past under severe pressure, only to step away from real compromise; but this time the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has twice reiterated his fatwa prohibiting acquisition of nuclear weapons. And some of his recent moves suggest that he is maneuvering to build a domestic political base of support for a possible deal over the nuclear program.

Still, tough and protracted negotiations undoubtedly lie ahead. Iran may never surrender some key elements of the hardware or material related to a bomb-making capacity, and its basic knowledge in this domain cannot be unlearned. At another level, any deal with the United States might ultimately run counter to preserving the clerical regime, for which opposition to America has long been a core political attitude. The United States, for its part, would be reluctant to let Iran leave the negotiations with a deal that left its nuclear option viable, bolstered the regime internally, and reinforced its regional influence and ambitions to the detriment of America’s allies. Read more…

Mark Hibbs and Ariel Levite are senior associates of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, which George Perkovich directs.

As published in www.nytimes.com on April 12, 2012.


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