In Iran Talks, Both Sides Waiting For Other To Blink

A breakthrough in Moscow is unlikely, but watch for clues about issues on which each side might give.

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A breakthrough is unlikely when U.S. and western officials huddle Monday with an Iranian delegation about Tehran's nuclear arms program, and experts are watching to see if either side will even give an inch.

During the last round of talks last month in Baghdad, Western diplomats put forth a plan where Tehran would cease enrichment of uranium to the point of 20 percent purity, the level needed to produce atomic weapons. Iranian officials, however, rejected that proposal.

Experts remain skeptical that next week's talks will produce a major breakthrough needed to prevent an American or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear arms facilities. They advise viewing the Iran talks with a long-term lens because additional rounds of talks are likely in a drama that could last into next year.

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Middle East watchers tell DOTMIL talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany could include monthly meetings. As both sides offer, counteroffer and reject various plans, it could be a slow march toward a deal—or a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

"It's hard to be optimistic regarding the Moscow talks," says Alireza Nader, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. "No matter what, we have to remember that this is a long term process and that there shouldn't be an expectation that Moscow can produce a miracle solution."

This will be the third time the so-called P5+1 group has met with Iranian officials. Experts say the Moscow round could produce more clues about just how much—and on what issues—both sides are willing to give a little.

Western negotiators would prefer a deal under which Iranian officials agreed to suspend all domestic uranium enrichment work. But that appears a deal-breaker for Iran.

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Johns Hopkins University says two outcomes are possible. One is that "Iran accepts at least temporary concessions in its nuclear ambitions [due to] the international pressure now arrayed against it."

Another possibility is "a token effort followed by failure."

The U.S. and Europe have slapped tight economic sanction on Tehran, aiming to change the regime's actions by hitting their finances.

Administration officials and some Middle East analysts say those measures are making an impression in Tehran.

"The Iranian economy has been weakened and the Iranian government is taking the negotiations more seriously," says RAND's Nader. "Clearly Iran is under pressure."

"Iran will also want some concessions from the P5+1, especially sanctions relief," she adds. "The P5+1 will be reluctant to offer this early in the process if Iran has not demonstrated signs of compromise."

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will likely be closely watching the negotiations since he's been critical of President Barack Obama's sanctions-based approach to stopping Iran's nuclear arms program.

In a recent op-ed column, Romney called Obama "America's most feckless president since [Jimmy] Carter."

Romney says he also would seek ever-stiffer sanctions on Tehran. But he also has detailed ways he would use the U.S. military to affect Iran's thinking about going nuclear.

Romney says he would beef up deployments of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf regions, while boosting Washington's already robust military assistance for Israel and other Middle Eastern allies.

"I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions," the former Massachusetts governor wrote. "Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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