Iranian Nuclear Talks Resume, But Expectations Low

BY Larisa Epatko  December 6, 2010 at 1:30 PM EDT

Delegates from Iran and the European Union, U.S., Russia, Britain, France and Germany met in Geneva Monday for their first nuclear talks in more than a year. World powers are expected to call for constraints on Tehran’s uranium enrichment activities and more transparency in its nuclear program.

Some analysts are describing their own low expectations for the meeting. Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, gives her take on why:

Why did Iran return to talks after a year?

SUZANNE MALONEY: The Iranians have suggested that they’ve always been prepared to talk about a range of issues. They’re typically not terribly interested in talking on the nuclear issue specifically. But clearly there’s some element of the refueling deal that was proposed and initially agreed to last year by the Iranians, which they then reneged upon — some element of that deal that was obviously valuable to them because they’re been searching for ways over the course of the past year since the collapse of the preliminary agreement of last October to come up with a different version of this refueling deal.

So that seems to be their primary motivation both to get some additional fuel for one of their research reactors but also I think to alleviate some of the economic pressures which have been placed upon them by the most recent round of U.S. and multi-lateral sanctions.

What are the world powers trying to propose?

SM: The details of what’s precisely on the table today I think are not public. What they’re looking for is some new Iranian concession which suggests a confidence-building measure or process can be established. The United Nations Security Council resolutions have demanded that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium, and that has been a demand that the Iranians have defied openly for several years now and indicate that they’re not prepared to compromise on at this stage.

I think that what most people expect is the best case scenario would be some sort of interim measure, which at least begins to expand the international community’s ability to monitor the program and put some new measures of inspection and compliance in order to constrain what the Iranians are doing. But again it’s unclear as to whether or not they’re prepared to accept that.

So why would Iran agree to it?

SM: Simply because the pressure is too high, the economic pressure is too substantial. And I think the Iranians are looking to see what they might be able to get out of any talks opportunistically. Historically, there was an aversion on the part of the Bush administration to dealing directly with the Iranians for several years. And the Iranians have always said they would be prepared to come and talk. And I think now the U.S. administration and international community are asking them to put their money where their mouth is and in fact demonstrate that they’re willing to alleviate some of the concerns about the nuclear program.

What was the impact of the WikiLeaks document drop on the dynamic of the meeting?

SM: It’s hard to say until people who are there come out and begin to talk a little bit about it. But my expectation is that for the Iranians, it confirmed all of their worst fears about a conspiracy about many of their neighbors. And certainly would entrench their paranoia. At the same time, I think that they would probably be quite pleased with themselves to have the detailed rendition of American strategy of American deliberations with a number of key allies on the eve of these talks. And so to some extent it probably also is feeding the kind of arrogance that the Iranians have demonstrated over recent years.

So it fuels the worst of both trends — both the paranoia and the sense of Iran’s own empowerment.

What are your expectations for this meeting?

SM: I have fairly low expectations. They were lowered a bit by the WikiLeaks and by the back and forth that we saw at a multilateral symposium this weekend, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended and actually appeared to be trying to track down her Iranian counterpart for even a brief exchange of pleasantries, which, frankly, isn’t the right appearance for U.S. foreign policy at this point in time.

But the best case scenario would be some sort of commitment to an ongoing process by all sides, because I think that would take the temperature down. It would at least provide a mechanism for trying to build some confidence if that’s at all possible. And it would provide a mechanism for determining if Iranians are truly prepared to defy any opportunity to resolve this crisis.

Watch for more on the nuclear talks on Monday’s NewsHour. Follow us on Twitter.