Iran Talks: High Stakes, Low Expectations

For Obama administration, merely persuading Israel against an unilateral strike might be a win.

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National security officials and experts say upcoming talks in Turkey about Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions feature high stakes—but very little odds of a deal.

Iranian officials will meet with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany Friday and Saturday in Istanbul, as Washington searches for a way to convince Tehran to give up its nuclear program.

The Obama administration also has another goal: Finding a way to stop Israel from launching a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear targets that could destabilize a region known for its volatility, analysts say.

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"The stakes are incredibly high," says Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution. "But the expectations are incredibly low."

Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress, quipped when asked what should be expected from the Istanbul summit: "Not a whole lot."

Observers doubt Iran will look to strike some sort of deal this weekend, saying the regime in Tehran appears ready to live with economic and oil sanctions imposed in recent months by the West for some time.

But the Obama administration will be looking for clues during the talks about the answer to a key question, says analyst Shibley Telhami: "What does Iran want? We cannot tell until we have had some negotiations."

Another question hanging over the coming talks is can Obama administration officials broker a deal that persuades Israel to hold off on taking out Iranian nuclear targets itself, says Maloney.

"The Israeli element is huge," says Shibley. "It affects the urgency ... and the terms of the demands."

If the White House agrees to some kind of deal with Iran that parts substantially with Israel's desires, the Obama administration "would be in trouble politically," he says.

But that might be better than if Israeli fighter jets bomb inside Iran later this year. "The administration might calculate they would be in less political trouble by making a deal than if it had to deal with an Israeli strike ... later this fall," Shibley says.

Though most Americans are opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran, the experts agree there appears to be no appetite among the American people for another major Middle Eastern war.

The U.S. and its allies likely will offer to ease some of the economic sanctions in return for concessions from Tehran about the direction of its nuclear-arms program, Korb says.

President Obama has reportedly used Turkish middle men to inform the Iranians they can proceed with a nuclear power program to meet its domestic energy requirements. Under such a scenario, Iran might be allowed to enrich a certain amount of uranium, but not enough to build a nuclear bomb.

Maloney's assessment for a deal on a secondary issue? "A fighting chance."

Western officials have floated the notion of a second round of talks at an unspecified dated in Baghdad. So low are the expectations for the Istanbul summit that several experts say if the Iraq round of talks is formally agreed to, all parties can claim victory.

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