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New hurdle for nuclear talks: Iran's presidential politics (+video)

Iran's foreign minister said he was 'optimistic' about looming nuclear talks. But political sparring ahead of June presidential elections could stymie any dealmaking  now.  

The White House has called Iran's push in their nuclear program "another provocative step" towards building an atomic bomb. David Martin reports what the U.S. can do about it. (Jan. 31)
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After an eight-month hiatus of high-level nuclear diplomacy, Iran and world powers are poised to resume talks later this month in Kazakhstan.

One hurdle has been overcome: The run-up to the US presidential election last November was seen by diplomats from both sides as limiting Washington's ability to offer any concessions that might pave the way for a solution with Tehran.

Yet now a new hurdle looms: Elections in Iran in June will see the departure of the divisive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the take-no-prisoners jockeying has already begun to dominate Iran's political scene.

"Make no mistake, the nuclear issue is intricately connected to the presidential election, because right now there are too many factions opposed to any deal under Ahmadinejad," says Mohammad Ali Shabani, a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"The factionalism that is paralyzing decisionmaking in Iran is not going to go away in June, but with the next president at least he won't initially be as divisive as Ahmadinejad," adds Mr. Shabani, who recently returned from a visit to Tehran.

What's at stake

At stake during the talks are demands by the so-called P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) that Iran accept limits on its advanced nuclear program, so that it never has the tools to make a nuclear weapon.

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Iran has yet to formally confirm participation on Feb. 25-26, as suggested by European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads negotiations on behalf of the P5+1. Yet on Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the proposed date was “good news.”

Mr. Salehi today in Berlin confirmed that he was "optimistic" that bilateral talks with the US were possible, Reuters reported. "I feel this new [Obama] administration is really this time seeking to at least divert from its previous traditional approach vis-à-vis my country," he said. "I think it is about time both sides really get into engagement because confrontation certainly is not the way."

Peaceful desires?

Iran says its only desire is to peacefully produce nuclear energy, and so is demanding that its "right" to enrich uranium be recognized – and that a host of sanctions that have crippled its economy be eased. Key issues have not changed: the fate of Iran's growing stockpile of enriched uranium, cooperation with the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, sanctions relief, and a deeply buried facility south of Tehran at Fordow that is largely impervious to US and Israeli attack.

Three high-profile rounds of talks last spring failed, amid maximalist conditions first demanded by Iran, and then a maximalist offer put forward by the P5+1, which requires Iran to give up key aspects of its nuclear program before any sanctions relief would be considered.

"Washington appears perplexed about Iran's foot-dragging on the nuclear talks," says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group in Washington. "Interpretations vary; some attribute it to internal [Iranian] divisions and electoral politics, while others believe it stems from Iran's aversion to signal weakness by appearing too eager for talks."

Both America and Israel have stated that "all options are on the table," including military strikes, to prevent any Iranian push for a weapon.

"The US and its allies are likely to offer targeted sanctions relief to Iran during the next round of negotiations," says Mr. Vaez. "These measures are, however, unlikely to resolve the standoff, as the two sides remain poles apart on sequencing and mutuality."

The problem is compounded by a "fundamental lack of understanding about how sanctions can contribute to a positive outcome," he says. "While Washington believes that symbolic sanctions relief will demonstrate the P5+1's seriousness, Tehran views such an offer as a tactical move to impose an unfair bargain on it."

Adds Vaez: "If [P5+1] demands are not disentangled into individual steps and rewarded with the lifting of sanctions of equivalent value, talks will hit a wall again and the vicious race of sanctions against centrifuges will continue."

Mutual willingness to meet

Both sides have signaled a readiness to meet again. During a security conference this weekend in Munich, Germany, Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday restated Washington's willingness to hold direct talks if Iran were "serious."

"Iran's leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation," said Mr. Biden. "There is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran's court."

Salehi, speaking on Sunday at the same conference, said Biden's words were welcome.

"I think this is a step forward but ... each time we have come and negotiated, it was the other side unfortunately who did not heed ... its commitment," said Salehi.

Salehi also told Iranian media that Iran had received "contradictory signals" about the possible use of force.

"This does not go along with this gesture [of talks] so we will have to wait a little bit longer and see if they are really faithful this time," Salehi told Iran's official PressTV channel.

Besides the threat of strikes, in recent years Iran has been subject to a covert war that has included the assassination of nuclear scientists, unexplained explosions and sabotage, and computer viruses such as Stuxnet, reportedly created and deployed by the US and Israel to disrupt Iran's nuclear progress. 

For its part, the US Justice Department accuses Iran’s Qods Force of plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in a bomb blast at a Washington restaurant, choosing as its agent a used-car salesman in Texas with Iranian ties. Tehran has also been linked to blasts one year ago in India, Georgia, and Thailand – some of which appeared to mimic the small sticky-bombs used to kill Iran’s scientists in Tehran.

While the nuclear talks have been stalled, Iran has added to the cards it can play, informing the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week for example that it would soon begin installing more efficient, second-generation centrifuges for enriching uranium.

Iran wants to be a recognized nuclear-energy power

For the Islamic Republic of Iran, which marks the 34th anniversary of its revolution next week, the nuclear talks require one outcome: Iran as a self-sufficient, recognized nuclear-energy power. Iran's top clerical leadership says it rejects nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.

"The bottom line is that there will be Iranian enrichment on Iranian soil, [but] I did not see any sign that they view the West as being open [yet] to any kind of deal," says Shabani in London.

Recently in Iran, he saw how preelection politics were already overshadowing Iran's political space.

"In the West, here in London or D.C., people equate Iran with the nuclear issue, with the sanctions issue – we're so obsessed with these things, we just assume it is the same in Tehran," says Shabani. "But the first thing you notice in Tehran is that 70 percent of the conversations you have with senior and former officials, think tank scholars and journalists, is about who will be the next president."

Iran's economy is a further distraction and political hot potato. Prices are skyrocketing on everything from food to cars, with Iran's currency and sanctions on oil deals and banking services choking cash flows.

"There was a time when the nuclear issue was hot, and when you went out onto the street, people's reaction was: 'Sure, it is part of our technological abilities, we must have it, why not? They [the US and West] want to deprive us. They want to keep us backward,'" says a political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named out of concern for retribution.

"But right now it is not in the mind of people anymore. Perhaps it is because there has been so much talk and no change [and] there are so many other problems, especially the economy," says the analyst. "A lot of people deep inside of course blame our establishment, but also they blame it on the bad relationship with America."

That has helped preoccupy Iran more with internal politics than nuclear talks.

"At some level [Iranian officials] believe that a lot of the West's posture will change after the Iranian elections, because the West will have more belief in Iran's ability to follow through on the deal," says Shabani, noting comments by US officials about Iran's preelection political scene.

"They are not colluding to delay the talks, but both sides are hedging their bets," adds Shabani. "They are counting on the real window to open in August, when the next [Iranian] president is inaugurated."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott


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