Iran nuclear talks still up in the air

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There’s still no agreement on a new meeting between Iran and six world powers, a western diplomat said Friday.

“No change. Contacts are ongoing,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel Friday.

As to what accounts for the hold up, a former Iran nuclear negotiator said Iran had been seeking to learn what was in the updated P5+1 package in advance of the meeting, but been refused. “Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail, and as always Tehran would be blamed,” Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel Thursday.

But western officials might be forgiven for wondering if Iran may just be giving them the run-around. And some Iranian analysts acknowledge that may not be too far off the mark, though they think Iran will eventually agree to a meeting date.

“Why rush into talks that everyone agrees will not get them anything substantial,” Hossein Shahbazi, a US-based Iran analyst, translated Iranian thinking to the Back Channel Friday.

From Tehran’s perspective, the “Iranians are not actually playing a terribly bad game now,” Shahbazi continued. They don’t think military action is in the offing. And though Congress continues to pile on sanctions, Iran believes they can withstand them for some time, he said.

Ultimately, “the talks will take place, as Iran doesn’t want to be blamed for their failure,” Shahbazi said. “But, addressing Iran’s important need for sanctions relief will be necessary for having Iranians to act constructively towards the talks going forward.”

Several national security experts have been urging the Obama administration to pursue bolder diplomacy on Iran, and offer more generous sanctions relief in exchange for greater Iranian transparency and monitoring.

However, if a 20% deal can’t be reached in the next few months, and if Iran continues to grow its 20% stockpile, President Obama is likely to come under increasing  pressure to demonstrate to Iran that the threat of force is credible.

Columbia University scholar Robert Jervis, who analyzed coercive diplomacy options in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, said while negotiating with Iran is incredibly difficult, there are some grounds to believe an interim nuclear deal is achievable.

“What we want from the Iranians is what they say they want,” Jervis told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “The Iranian say, ‘we do not want a bomb.’  And what we say is… we want assurances, openness and assurances” that Iran is not producing a bomb.

“It’s not Jerusalem,” he added, referring to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holding positions that are hard to reconcile with the other.

However, Jervis, who has consulted the government in the past, also said he thinks the Obama administration needs to do more to demonstrate to the Iranians that it has the ability to unwind sanctions for Iranian concessions.

“We have to do things to convince them we are serious,” Jervis said. “I am disturbed when my friends in government say ‘we have really done a lot.'” For Iranians who are already somewhat “paranoid” about western intentions, he said, “I do not imagine it seems sufficient.”

Meantime, a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Friday there had been no breakthrough after two days of talks in Iran.

“We’re obviously deeply disappointed that Iran has once again missed an opportunity to cooperate with the IAEA and to provide the international community with the transparency that we’re all seeking in order to resolve our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Friday.

(Photo of Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei meeting with UN Secretary  General Ban Ki-Moon and UN political affairs chief Jeff Feltman in Tehran August 2012, posted to the Supreme Leader’s website.)