To the Brink and Back with Iran

GENEVA – The trouble with brinkmanship of the type now being played out over Iran’s nuclear program is that it is so easy to fall over the cliff. At the first two rounds of new talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany), in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May, both sides still at least stumbled along the edge of the precipice. Now, after the third round in Moscow, they are holding on by not much more than their fingernails.

Neither side has been prepared to compromise on any substantive issue. They did agree – barely ­– to hold a low-level experts meeting in early July, but no one expects this to lead to a breakthrough. By then, new European and American sanctions on Iranian oil exports will be in force, and the United States Congress is pushing to apply more, with influential voices there arguing that the negotiation game is over. War talk is still close to the surface in Israel, and anxiety is mounting that, in the highly charged political climate of a US election year, escalation might not be containable.

Although the two sides’ negotiating positions throughout the current series of talks have not been as far apart as in the past, their core demands have so far proved irreconcilable.

The six world powers are currently insisting on three things. First, Iran must halt all enrichment of uranium to 20% purity (a level required for research reactors, but only a short step away, in practical terms, from weapons-grade uranium). Second, Iran must swap its existing 20% stockpile for fuel capable of use only in the Tehran Research Reactor or for some other manifestly peaceful purpose. The final demand is that Iran shut down its highly-protected underground enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom.