WASHINGTON - Despite an agreement
between Iran and the five permanent members of the
UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) to resume
long-delayed talks about Tehran's nuclear program
in Kazakhstan at the end of this month, few
observers here believe that any breakthrough is in
That belief was reinforced on
Thursday when Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei appeared to reject a US proposal, most
recently put forward by Vice President Joseph
Biden at a major security conference in Munich
last week, to hold direct bilateral talks.
While Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar
Salehi initially welcomed the offer, provided
Washington desisted from its
"threatening rhetoric that
[all options are] on the table," Khamenei said in
a speech to air force officers Thursday that such
talks "would solve nothing".
pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk,"
he said. "The Iranian nation will not be
frightened by the threats."
confirmed to some observers here that serious
negotiations - whether between Iran and the P5
(the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China) plus
Germany or in bilateral talks between Tehran and
Washington - are unlikely to take place before
Iran's presidential election in June.
simply doesn't lie in [Khamenei's] nature to agree
to talks from a position of weakness - and
certainly not without the protection of having the
talks be conducted by an Iranian president whom he
can... blame for any potential failure in the
talks," wrote Trita Parsi, president of the
National Iranian American Council, on the Daily
Beast website Thursday.
rather wait till after the Iranian elections, it
seems, in order to both find ways to shift the
momentum back to Iran's side and to hide behind
Iran's new president in the talks," according to
Parsi, author of two award-winning books on
He was referring to
the widespread notion here that the cumulative
impact of US-led international economic sanctions
against Iran, as well as the raging civil war in
Syria, Iran's closest regional ally, has seriously
weakened Tehran and "forced" it back to the table,
if not quite yet to make the concessions long
demanded by the administration of President Barack
Obama and its allies.
Those include ending
Tehran's enrichment of uranium to 20%; shipping
its existing 20% enriched stockpile out of the
country; closure of its underground Fordow
enrichment facility; acceptance of a highly
intrusive inspections regime by the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and the clearing up
of all outstanding IAEA questions related to
possible past military dimensions of Iran's
In exchange for those
steps, according to US officials, Washington - and
presumably the other P5+1 members - would be
prepared to forgo further UN. sanctions against
Iran; assure the supply of nuclear fuel for
Tehran's Research Reactor, which produces medical
isotopes; facilitate services to Iran's aging
civilian aircraft fleet; and provide other
"targeted sanctions relief" that, however, would
not include oil- and banking-related sanctions
that have been particularly damaging to Iran's
economy over the past two years.
relief from those more-important sanctions would
follow only after full and verifiable
implementation of Iran's side of the bargain.
Until such a deal is struck, however,
Washington is committed to increasing the
pressure, according to US officials who say the
administration remains committed to a strategy of
preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by
military means, if necessary.
what one official described as "a significant
turning of the screw", the administration
announced on Wednesday that it had begun
implementing new congressionally mandated
sanctions that would effectively force Iran's
foreign oil purchasers into barter arrangements.
To avoid sanctions, buyers would have to pay into
local accounts from which Iran could then buy
locally made goods.
accepted that such so-called "crippling sanctions"
are responsible, at least in substantial part, for
the 50% decline in the value of the riyal,
galloping inflation, and a major increase in
unemployment in recent months.
At the same
time, however, there is growing doubt here that
the sanctions are achieving their purpose -
forcing Iran to accept the stringent curbs on its
nuclear program demanded by the US - or that they
are likely to achieve that purpose within the next
18-24 months. That is the time frame in which most
experts believe Tehran could achieve "breakout
capacity" - the ability to be able to build a
nuclear bomb very quickly - if it decided to do
Indeed, in recent weeks, Iran began
installing advanced centrifuges at the Natanz
nuclear facility that, if fully activated, could
significantly accelerate the rate of enrichment.
The move was seen as an effort by Tehran to
strengthen its position before the P5+1 meeting in
Almaty on February 26.
assumption that the economic woes imposed by the
sanctions would drive such a deep wedge between
Tehran's leadership and the population that the
regime risked collapse is also increasingly in
While a majority (56%) of
respondents said in December that sanctions have
hurt Iranians' livelihoods "a great deal",
according to a poll of Iranian opinion released by
the Gallup organization here Thursday, 63% said
they believed Iran should continue developing its
nuclear program. Only 17% disagreed.
asked who should be blamed for the sanctions, only
10% of respondents cited Iran itself; 70% named
either the US (47%), Israel (9%); Western European
countries (7%); or the UN (7%).
indicate that sanctions alone are not having the
intended effect of persuading Iranian residents
and country leaders to change their stance on the
level of international oversight of their nuclear
program," noted a Gallup analysis of the results.
Its credibility, however, was questioned
by some Iran experts who noted that increased
security measures taken by the regime may affect
the willingness of respondents to speak frankly to
In light of the most recent
developments, including Khamenei's rejection of
Biden's offer and the installation of the new
centrifuges at Natanz, Iran hawks here are urging
yet tougher sanctions and moves to make the
eventual use of force more credible - appeals that
are certain to be greatly amplified next month
when the powerful American Israel Public Affairs
Committee holds its annual convention here
At the same time, however, there appears
to be a growing conviction within the
foreign-policy elite that ever-increasing
sanctions and threatening military action are
unlikely to work, and that Washington should offer
be more forthcoming about sanctions relief to get
Indeed, the administration's
commitment to resorting to military action, if
necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a weapon
is also increasingly being questioned, as a
growing number of foreign-policy "greybeards" are
calling for a strategy of "deterrence" if and when
Iran reaches breakout capacity.
end, war is too costly, unpredictable and
dangerous to be a practical option," noted Bruce
Riedel, a former top CIA Middle East and South
Asia analyst who was in charge of preparing
Afghanistan policy on Obama's transition team in
2009 and remains close to the White House from his
perch at the Brookings Institution.
"stark choice" between a diplomatic solution and
war that Obama's commitment to prevention has
created, he wrote to the "Iran Primer" this week,
"is a mistake".
"But there is a good
chance that [Secretary of State John] Kerry and
Obama will bail themselves out of this trap by
re-opening the door to containment, although they
would probably call it something else."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign
policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.