Eyes are on Almaty, Kazakhstan as the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) begins talks with Iran about its nuclear program. A breakthrough seems doubtful, but here’s what you should know as far as context and what outcomes can be expected.
The initial meeting with Iran in Istanbul in April 2012 saw signs of optimism, with the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton calling them "constructive and useful."
Though the U.S. credited Iran for "bringing ideas to the table," it was clear that dialogue would not constitute sanctions relief. The most important breakthrough was acknowledgement that the talks would be framed around the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran understands this as the negotiators fully "respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy." According to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, this meant Iran would continue uranium enrichment within the country.
Independent reports were less positive. The International Crisis Group’s described the talks as "devoid of polemics but also of substance," with all sides buying time. It further stated that the success of the talks was measured against a "negative starting point – the absence of talks for the preceding 15 months."
In Baghdad, both sides saw themselves with the upper hand. Iran’s participation was interpreted as the result of sanctions and the threat of an Israeli strike. Iran felt it built a strong hand after increasing its supply of low-enriched uranium, enriching it higher levels, and completing a nuclear facility at Fordow. As a result, the talks amounted to little.
The talks in Moscow showed the shrinking possibility for meaningful results. Most notably, Iran rejected "stop, shut, ship" proposals which called for Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20%, export its remaining uranium stockpile for enrichment outside the country, and shut down the enrichment facility. In exchange, the Iranians would receive parts for civilian aircraft, fuel for a nuclear reactor, and potential sanctions relief. Iran said the concessions were not substantive.
The Moscow talks were followed by silence, punctuated by a bellicose speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that involved the drawing of a "red line" for Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Soon after Iran presented a "nine-step plan" to ending the crisis. This plan, which involved easing Western sanctions as uranium enrichment slowed, was rejected.
Meanwhile Iran converted some of its enriched uranium to reactor fuel and increased its enriched uranium supply to 167 kilograms, significantly lower than the 250 kilograms needed to begin enrichment for a nuclear weapon but enough to raise concern.
Now the P5+1 and Iran are meeting in Kazakhstan. The location is significant because Iranian lawmakers say Kazakhstan has an unbiased stance on the nuclear issue; Western diplomats think Kazakhstan might act as an example of "the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy and compliance with the IAEA." Iran, for its part, has always stressed its peaceful intentions, with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling nuclear weapons a "great sin."
At present, there are no inroads being made. Western diplomats are however, prepared to present "a good and updated offer." So far the specifics of this plan are under wraps, but it likely involves abandoning the "stop, shut, ship" initiative and focusing on easing sanctions for concessions.
A look at the history of the talks should lead us to not expect much, especially because Iran has little incentive to comply with Western demands.
Iran has recognized that sanctions are detrimental to the country but ultimately it can absorb them. In fact, oil consumption from China, India, Japan, and others have actually caused oil exports to rise. Instead, the weight of sanctions falls mostly on the Iranian people. The currency has plummeted, causing food prices to nearly double in the past year. Medicine produced in the EU is unavailable, and experts are warning of a major health crisis. A robust study of sanctions is outside the scope of this article but an excellent analysis is available here.
At the same time, Iran has little to worry about in regard to a military strike. President Obama seems willing play the long game at the moment (though cyber attacks are a different story). Israel, despite its tough talk lacks the capabilities to carry out a successful one.
With little initiative for both sides to bend, it appears that situation will remain stagnant. The people of Iran will continue to bear the brunt of sanctions until meaningful concessions are made on all sides. Judging by precedent, that seems unlikely anytime soon.