Two days of talks with Iran — held by the United States, Europe, Russia and China — over its controversial nuclear activities ended Saturday with no progress. This time, Iran set preconditions the other side was unwilling to meet.
In the past when negotiations broke down, a certain feeling of panic emerged — but not this time. The expectations for the talks, which took place in Istanbul, were extremely low, and that proved to be appropriate.
Iran struck the more rigid posture, demanding as preconditions for progress that its right to uranium enrichment be recognized and economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. over the past four years be removed.
Rejection Of Iranian Preconditions
"We had hoped to have a detailed and constructive discussion of those ideas but it became clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this, unless we agree to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions," said Catherine Ashton, the European Union's director of foreign policy, after the talks broke up. "Both these preconditions are not a way to proceed."
Iranian leaders tried to put the best face on the process. Although it was apparent Iran went into the talks with little desire to reach agreement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech on Sunday proclaimed that he believes progress is achievable.
"I believe that during the few rounds of negotiations what needed to be said was said," Ahmadinejad declared. "The two sides got to know each other's perspectives. The ground is prepared and if the other side is committed to justice and respect, agreements will be reached in the next sessions."
No date or place was set for another round of talks, and it may be some time before they are. Neither the U.S. nor the EU seems to be in any hurry.
New Range Of Actions Available
That may be because much has changed in the nuclear dynamic between Iran and the West over the past year or so.
Before, it seemed that Iran was making progress in expanding its uranium enrichment program nearly every day — but not so recently. And it seemed the only choices for action to pressure Iran on its nuclear program were diplomacy or war.
Now, says David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a whole range of actions has emerged between the two extremes, most of them apparently successful covert operations.
"Much more aggressive actions by intelligence agencies to disrupt Iran's attempts to buy things illegally overseas; [these] agencies focus on disrupting their smuggling networks," Albright says. "They have killed Iranian nuclear scientists. They appear to have launched a pretty successful cyberattack against Iran's enrichment plant. It wasn't a knockdown punch, but it sure sends a signal to Iran that we can get you whenever we want."
That cyberattack, known as the Stuxnet worm, appears to have been the handiwork of U.S. and Israeli specialists working together to create a computer worm that attacked and disabled some of Iran's gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium.
At the same time, bombs have been planted in Tehran against several Iranian scientists connected to the nuclear program.
And additional economic sanctions, designed to isolate Iran's banking system, appear to be having some success.
Most Potent Weapon
So the U.S. and Europe may be content to wait and see what Iran might do, despite a lack of progress in the current talks. That's the view of Leonard Spector of the Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
"I'm not too concerned, because I think the whole dynamics of these talks have shifted over the last year, year and a half, from the point where we originally were the ones that were very anxious to see progress. And now I have a feeling the Iranians may eventually be the ones who are looking for a way out, because the circumstances have changed a bit," he says.
One analyst called the Obama administration's current strategy engage-sanction-sabotage. Right now, sabotage may be the most potent weapon available.