ISTANBUL, Turkey — With its nuclear program under fire, Iran sat down at the table with world powers Friday in Istanbul for talks with an uncertain agenda and uncertain chances of a breakthrough.
Expectations were low but the stakes high in only the third set of such high-level talks in 16 months.
"The positions of neither side have changed fundamentally," said Elahe Mohtasham, an Iran nuclear specialist recently with the Foreign Policy Centre in London. "Iran continues to use these talks as a way of furthering its overall strategic objective (and) the U.S. position that Iran must stop its enrichment program ... hasn't changed."
Iranian media presented the talks as pushing Iran's "security agenda ... rather than specifically talking about nuclear issues," said Mohtasham. Such reports have not shown "any positive way forward, in the way the West would define (it). There is no sign that Iran is going to stop its enrichment program. There is no sign that Iran is going to step back from any of its activities."
The distance between the two sides was evident even at the close of the last round of talks in Geneva in December.
Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili had said the "only outcome" after two days had been agreement on eight words that included "cooperation to find common ground" - but not the word "nuclear." That position was hailed in Iran as a "victory" because Iran made no compromises.
'PRACTICAL IDEAS' ON THE NUCLEAR ISSUE
In contrast, Europe's top diplomat Catherine Ashton - representing the P5+1 group of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany - had said the Istanbul talks would "discuss practical ideas (to resolve) our full concerns about the nuclear issue."
Iranian media is couching the Istanbul agenda in the broadest terms, saying that "success" would hinge on the P5+1 sticking to their previous agreement. For Iran, that means discussing issues like reforming the United Nations Security Council, nuclear disarmament, and regional security - but not haggling over Iran's nuclear "rights."
On Friday, with the prospect of further sanctions looming against Iran and patience wearing thin on both sides, the two days of talks commenced behind closed doors in an ornate Ottoman-era palace along the Bosphorus. Iran has had difficult relations with the West - and especially arch-foes Britain, the U.S., and Israel - since the 1979 Islamic revolution swept away a brutal pro-Western monarchy.
"We will absolutely not allow the talks to go into the issue of our basic rights like the issue of suspending enrichment," Abolfazl Zohrevand, an aide to Jalili, told reporters during a break for prayers. "We will focus on cooperation... The talks have been positive because both sides have come to take positive steps."
WHAT MIGHT BE ON THE TABLE
But other aspects of Iran's nuclear program may well enter the discussion. The negotiators - with undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns representing the U.S. - are likely to be grappling with several key topics, such as a revamped version of a nuclear fuel swap deal, in which Iran would agree to export much of its homemade enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel rods it needs for a small reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes.
Billed as a confidence-building measure in October 2009 the proposal went nowhere. A similar version mediated by Turkey and Brazil was agreed with Iran in May 2010, but rejected by Western nations because it left enough nuclear material in Iran to serve as a building block for a weapon. News reports suggest both sides may have prepared updated proposals.
Iranian analysts suggest a "win-win" solution, in which the U.S. and other world powers accept uranium enrichment in Iran - a process that has already been underway for years in the Islamic Republic - in exchange for much more intrusive inspections and guarantees.
Western diplomats note privately that Iran is not likely to give up enrichment wholesale under any circumstance, so agreeing on restrictions is perhaps the best they can hope for.
And accepting enrichment might not yield an immediate breakthrough, though it would be a "good" and "substantial" shift by the P5+1, said Mohtasham, who knows several of the key Iranian officials.
"Whatever the West says, Iranians by nature and because of their experience would always doubt this," said Mohtasham. "They say, 'Look, if they made such a proposal, there must be ... some sort of evil behind it, so we have to find out what the evil is.'"
"It does take time," added Mohtasham. "The West should look at this as a process, rather than just accepting or rejecting immediately. That is the main problem with all diplomatic proposals and negotiations with Iran, (the West) just want things to happen quickly."
WHERE'S THE COMMON GROUND?
Despite the challenges, Iran also has reason to find common ground - not least to have sanctions removed and its isolation eased.
To get there, a host of mostly American Iran specialists - including John Limbert, the U.S. government's former top diplomat on Iran, who was a hostage in Tehran from 1979-81 - on Thursday issued a joint statement saying it was "imperative that the Obama administration reinvigorate its diplomacy by pursuing engagement with Tehran more persistently, setting realistic objectives, and broadening the U.S.-Iranian dialogue."
Diplomacy was the "only sustainable means of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (and) avoiding the dangerous folly of military confrontation in the Middle East," said the range of veteran experts, officials, officers and activists. "Unrealistic outcomes, such as insisting that Iran cease uranium enrichment entirely, however desirable, must be set aside."
In the pre-talks game play, both sides hewed to long-established positions. Iran repeated that nuclear weapons were "illegitimate and against humanity," but said that it would not be deprived of the ability to enrich uranium for its own nuclear fuel.
"You could not stop us from being nuclear," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in the Iranian city of Yazd on Wednesday. "The Iranian nation will not retreat an inch. The nuclear issue is over from the Iranian point of view."
The Americans and the P5+1 have also not yet veered from their position of no uranium enrichment. Iran has already installed more than 8,000 centrifuges and has plans for tens of thousands more, all of them, it said, in the service of peaceful nuclear power.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from Vienna in April 2009, released by WikiLeaks and published in Britain's Guardian newspaper, shows that American officials recognize that Iran had already improved its capabilities.
"The U.S. commented that although centrifuge operations in 2008 were 'mediocre,' Iran had now demonstrated centrifuge operations such that it had the technical ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) if it so chose," read the cable, a confidential summary of an experts' meeting.
Four U.N. Security Council resolutions have imposed sanctions on Iran and require it to stop enrichment until Iran resolves remaining questions about possible weapons efforts.
IRAN'S NUCLEAR TIMELINE
American and Israeli officials say that Iran's program has suffered setbacks and cannot produce a nuclear weapon before 2015, if Tehran chooses to do so. Several bomb attacks against nuclear scientists in Tehran, and a cyber attack by the malicious Stuxnet computer worm - which The New York Times reported this week was a joint U.S.-Israeli intelligence effort to sabotage Iran's program - have crippled some centrifuges.
Iranian officials have downplayed the impact of Stuxnet. But Jalili was full of vitriol before the talks.
"An enemy who kills our scientists has no qualms about infecting the Internet," Iran's chief negotiator told Germany's Der Spiegel in an interview published this week. "We are suspicious of the West." Speaking to NBC News, Jalili blamed the U.S. for the cyber-attack but said it was "not successful."
SANCTIONS ON IRAN
Also on the table in Istanbul should be a critical carrot, according to Moscow. "The nuclear program must be at the heart of the discussions," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "But there's not only one topic for this meeting, the lifting of sanctions on Iran must also be on the agenda."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week the Istanbul talks would focus on "what Iran is entitled to and what it is not."
And in the hours before the talks began, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement: "From the outset, we have had a dual track approach, diplomacy and pressure in order to have Iran comply with its international obligations.
"The P5+1 is united and committed to credible engagement. The onus is on Iran to take concrete and convincing steps. We are not engaging in talks for talks sake," he said.
Iran vows that it would never "bow" to such pressure, and insists that it is meeting world powers as equals.
"In Europe, the Istanbul nuclear talks are seen as reminiscent of the long, protracted talks between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. at the time of the cold war," said Karim Emile Bitar, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris.
"Back then, whenever the negotiations stalled, the Soviets, like Iran today, frequently said that it was 'the last chance,' and like Iran, they said they would make no concessions," said Bitar. "Yet the negotiations would later resume because, for both sides, there was not other option."