Nuclear talks between the 5+1 group and Iran have ended in Geneva with little sign of progress. Although the two sides have agreed to meet again, the sticking point is the demand for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.
The 5+1 and Iran returned to negotiations after 13 months
The negotiations between UN Security Council heavyweights the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain along with Germany - the so called 5+1 group - with an Iranian delegation were the first in 13 months.
The negotiation teams, headed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for the 5+1 and Iran's Secretary of the National Security Council Saaed Jalili, agreed that a further round of talks would take place at the end of January in Turkey. However, Iran has already made it clear that it will not discuss its uranium enrichment program, which it insists is for peaceful purposes while Western powers fear the fuel would be used for nuclear warheads.
At the last meeting in October 2009, the 5+1 agreed to a proposal that would have allowed Iran to ship a major portion of the uranium they had enriched to 3.5 percent to an external destination to undergo further enrichment and to be converted into fuel rods for the small Tehran Research Reactor. That would remove the potential threat of weapons-grade material being siphoned off within Iran for military purposes.
Iran originally agreed to this proposal but later reneged on it, having scored a major point by having the 5+1 tacitly agree to Iran engaging in enrichment, a practice forbidden by Security Council resolutions. Then in May this year, Brazil and Turkey tried to re-broker the deal but this attempt was scuppered by the United States which claimed higher levels of uranium had been enriched in Iran since the original offer in 2009 and that the new export deal would leave too much material behind in Iran.
Iran's stance on enrichment levels proving obstructive
Iran's Saeed Jalili will present a similar stance to that of 2009
"If Iran agrees to suspend further enrichment, up to the 17.5 percent which it has already stated it was pressing ahead with, then there are a whole series of economic incentives which are on the table," Mehrdad Khonsari, senior research consultant at the Center for Arab & Iranian Studies in London, told Deutsche Welle.
"If, on the other hand, as Ahmadinejad has said, Iran does not want to address the issue of enrichment or make any concessions or compromises on that account, there will be no alternative at this stage but the consideration of further punitive sanctions."
Chances of reaching any agreements or compromises seem very bleak at this time, Khonsari added, but there are clear signs that because economic and other pressures are making life very difficult for the Iranian regime, Ahmadinejad may be looking for a way out without losing face.
"For Ahmadinejad and his supporters there are two main reasons for an engagement with Washington," Professor Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "First, they know that an understanding with the US would be popular, particularly among the educated youth and the business community. The second reason is that Ahmadinejad and the political leadership feel that the regime is under serious threat by the United States, and only by the United States."
Perthes said Iran's threat perception, and its deep suspicion of US intentions, are often underestimated in Washington despite these issues being driving factors in Iranian politics.
While the regime elite still appears to be divided over the prospect of a full-scale rapprochement with the United States, it is believed many share this fear of the US and there is a real desire to avoid further isolation. With this in mind, the 5+1 may consider lessened sanctions - along with other incentives - as a way to achieve progress.
Iran has so far dismissed the western incentives
Incentives on offer but Tehran remains steadfast
"The Western powers along with Russia and China are offering Iran lessened sanctions, the chance to fix World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in return for explanations of what has gone on in regard to Tehran's nuclear program and realistic assurances that it has no military nuclear intentions," Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Deutsche Welle.
"The best hope for agreement lies on the possibility of reaching an acceptable compromise regarding the shipment of already enriched uranium from Iran to an outside destination," Khonsari said. "If agreement could be reached on the quantity, and there is a minute chance given past Turkish and Brazilian mediation that this is possible, there may still be a way out though it will be very difficult."
There were concerns that the Geneva negotiations would be made even more problematic by the latest WikiLeaks revelations which exposed the level of international concern and distrust of Iran, especially among its Persian Gulf neighbors, and the consideration of many that military action is the best option when it comes to stopping Tehran's nuclear program.
However, experts believe there is little new information in the WikiLeaks revelations and that all the parties involved in the talks with Iran are already aware of the delicate nature of relations.
WikiLeaks revelations unlikely to add to problems
WikiLeaks revelations on Iran are unlikely to affect talks
"There is nothing in the WikiLeaks revelations that the Islamic authorities have been unaware of," Khonsari said. "The Iranian regime understands that matters will be ratcheted up if they are unable to reach an agreement and they are aware that, irrespective of all factors, the likelihood of military confrontation is a very real possibility."
Khonsari believes the consensus among Iran's opponents, that confronting an ambitious Iran with all its downsides might be a cheaper option than living with a nuclear Iran - as highlighted in the WikiLeaks cables - might possibly alter Tehran's previous calculations. Those gambled on the belief that the Americans would never dare to embark on another military adventure in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Options running out if current talks fail
"The 5+1 diplomats think that sanctions will eventually work," said Simon Henderson. "However, it's hard to say what Iran will do next in response. Iran might calculate that if it tests a bomb, there would be some condemnation but then the world would have to get used to a new status quo, much in the same way as it did after the Indian and Pakistani tests in 1998."
Mehrdad Khonsari said the general consensus is that Ahmadinejad wants to escalate matters and essentially go to the very brink of war in a bid to shore up his own leadership, which has been under pressure since the opposition protests in 2009.
"It is believed that Ahmadinejad feels a military conflict might help him consolidate his position inside the country," he concluded. "In such a case, his major aim is to buy time as it is unlikely that anything positive can be achieved as a result of these negotiations."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge