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Who’s Holding the Cards in Iran Talks?

The P5+1 talks resumed today in Moscow, and the only news filtering out of the negotiations is that Iran has been even more insistent than in past meetings about getting the West to drop the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamist regime. The general assumption is that this is a sign of weakness that shows the Iranians are wearying of the pain the sanctions have imposed and are liable to abandon their nuclear ambitions. But despite the hardships the sanctions have caused the Iranian people, Tehran’s bargaining position may be stronger than some Western optimists have assumed.

Iran has not budged from its demand for recognition of its right to right refine uranium while also continuing to increase the ongoing rate of production and stonewalling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So there is little doubt Iran is playing the same game in Moscow as it did in earlier negotiating sessions in Ankara and Baghdad. Far from displaying weakness, the Iranians may still be operating on the belief that both President Obama and his European partners are more desperate for a deal — any deal — that will allow them to walk away from a confrontation on the nuclear issue.

As William J. Broad wrote yesterday in the New York Times, “The Iranians have managed to steadily increase their enrichment of uranium and are now raising their production of a concentrated form close to bomb grade.” That they have managed to do this while surviving cyberattacks and sanctions is a notable achievement and is important to understanding their approach to the talks. Rather than the vaunted Western cyberwarfare and the possibility of an oil embargo having disabused them of the idea that they can prevail in this struggle, the failure of either approach to halt their progress may have only reinforced their sense that they are in a very strong position.

Thus, rather than a plea for help, the demand for an end to sanctions is really just more Iranian maneuvering to get the West to agree to a deal that can be easily violated. As Ray Takeyh noted in the Washington Post on Friday, the Iranians also know that even if the West was able to get Iran to agree to a compromise that would force them to export the refined fuel that could be used to make a weapon, there is no reason to suppose they couldn’t violate any accord with impunity. Once a treaty is in place, the instinct of both the Obama administration and the Europeans will be to defend the agreement, not to junk it once it has been proved to be worthless.

As Takeyh writes:

As Iran’s nuclear facilities grow in scope and sophistication, the possibility of diverting material from them increases regardless of the parameters of an inspection regime. Any large-scale nuclear facility involves moving hundreds of containers of uranium from various stations every day. No monitoring measure can account for every container. Moreover, under the auspices of an agreement Iran will have access to nuclear technologies such as advanced centrifuge models. Should Iran perfect centrifuges that operate with efficiency at high velocity, then it will require only a limited number of such machines to quickly enrich weapon-grade uranium. Such cascades can easily be concealed in small-scale, surreptitious installations that may avoid detection.

That makes even compromise proposals such as Dennis Ross’s idea that the U.S. should offer Iran the right to a civil nuclear program a pathway to failure rather than an end to the crisis. Moreover, at every step of this process, the Iranians have seen Western positions eroded and weakened as they moved ever closer to the day when their program can achieve its goal of a weapon.

The Iranians know the only reason the P5+1 talks were ever started was to create a diplomatic process aimed more at stopping Israel from acting on its own against Iran. What they have been waiting for is an indication that the West means what it says about getting tough on them rather than an excuse to keep talking. Right now, they believe their nuclear advances coupled with the West’s unwillingness to use force are all they need to guarantee their march to nuclear capability will be unhindered. Unless President Obama or EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton does something this week to change their minds, the Iranians will leave Moscow still thinking they are winning.