ISTANBUL — After 15 months of rising tensions and fears of military confrontation, the foreign policy chief of the European Union sat down for dinner last Friday with the personal representative of Irans supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, at the Iranian consulate, not far from Istanbuls Grand Bazaar.
In the course of three hours, they deliberately avoided the topic that had drawn them to Istanbul: Irans nuclear fuel program, which major powers, Irans Arab neighbors and Israel fear could open the way to Iran acquiring atomic weapons.
Instead, Catherine Ashton, representing six major powers and the European Union, and Saeed Jalili, representing Iran, spoke about their hometowns, religion, the Arab Spring, democracy and the role of women, said an EU diplomat, who wasnt authorized to discuss the details of the private meeting publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The icebreaker at the private residence of the Iranian consul led one day later to the most serious and businesslike meeting in recent memory between Iran and the other countries, in which the sides agreed to pursue a comprehensive negotiated solution to one of the worlds most vexing security problems at another round of talks next month.
Whether a deal comes off, ending a 10-year-long international standoff with Iran, depends on whether both sides can put aside their historical complaints against each other and focus instead on immediate, concrete confidence-building steps, according to experts in and out of government.
Is Iran willing to suspend its enrichment program, which has produced a stockpile of more than 100 kilograms of fissile material at 20 percent purity, a level pure enough for nuclear reactors but still well below whats needed for a nuclear weapon? Is the Obama administration, in the midst of a presidential election campaign, willing to delay implementing unilateral sanctions that kick in late in June? And is Europe, whose ban on buying Iranian oil kicks in July 1?
One of the key actors in the drama, Israel, is not at the table. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to launch a military attack on Irans nuclear program if the West cant bring the Islamic Republic to heel. Netanyahu already has called the scheduling of new talks in Baghdad for May 23 a freebie that allowed Iran five additional weeks to enrich uranium.
They are the elephant in the parlor, said Mark Hibbs a Berlin-based scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Everyone sitting at the table will be aware that if we dont have an outcome that looks like a roadmap that can inspire confidence, were courting an Israeli attack on Iran and the likelihood of a war in the region.
President Barack Obama has hinted hes ready to delay sanctions if theres progress, saying that Iran is about to face extremely tough sanctions if they dont take advantage of these talks. He added, I hope they do.
Experts say the key to success in ending the impasse and avoiding a regional war may be to not seek too much in the first round of negotiations, but enough of a concrete result that Israel will back off its threats.
Hibbs said he thinks that the six global powers _ China, Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States _ will recognize explicitly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, Iran will agree to international monitoring and procedures intended to make sure its not building a bomb.
But that agreement may never satisfy Israel, because at the end of the day, Iran will be able to enrich uranium and will retain the nuclear know-how useful for building a bomb should Iran decide to go that route, Hibbs said. These are assets which cannot be taken away from Iran.
Irans history of hiding its nuclear weapons programs will play into that equation. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003, a case it laid out in an annex to its November 2011 report on Irans noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Adding to that is the fact that Iran concealed for 18 years, until 1982, the existence of a plant to enrich uranium, something that it was obligated to disclose under the non-proliferation treaty.
Overcoming the suspicion that history creates will be a vexing problem, said a European diplomat _ speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks _ who is well informed about the nuclear talks but whose country is not at the table. Its a damning picture, he said.
Hibbs said he believes the issue can be dealt with successfully. Clever people in the room could devise a way of dealing with past activities, he said. There are a number of cases where the IAEA has gone into countries and has been able to reconstruct the history of complex nuclear programs and previously undeclared activities. Then its gone into those countries and verified that things are as they should be. The two examples he mentioned were Brazil and South Africa, both of which at one time had nuclear weapons programs.
The European diplomat said the negotiators really have no choice. Either they will be clever and wise and judicious, and test the waters, see what avenues they can take, or they will be driven into a dead end, he said, referring to the six major powers.
Iran also must take steps to ease the wariness of its negotiating partners and Israel if it wants sanctions lifted, Hibbs said. That certainly will require a seal of approval from the IAEA. Its going to have to pony up, he said. If theres no cooperation by Iran, if there remains a legacy of undeclared activities, a murky parallel program which is not understood, it will be extremely difficult or unlikely that the powers would agree to lift sanctions.
Dina Esfendiary, an Iran expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London, said that to satisfy concerns Iran will have to give up 20 percent enrichment, stop work at an underground enrichment facility at Fordow near the city of Qom and allow full access to IAEA inspectors.
The European diplomat doubts that all that can be accomplished in one session or in a short period of time. There are so many minefields and traps on the road ahead, it is probably more realistic and sensible to take this forward step by step and get agreement on reciprocal elements, he said.
Both sides will have to take every proposal back to their respective capitals for approval and be prepared for a public backlash. The more complex the package, the more issues you have to deal with, the diplomat said. If any element causes problems, then the entire package could crumble.
Iran has six or seven major power centers within its government that have to be convinced of each step as it is taken. The same is true for each of the six major powers in the talks: diplomats, elected officials and powerful lobbies.
Still, theres reason for optimism. Its a miracle they were able to set talks in the first place, said Esfendiary.