by Jim Lobe

via IPS News

Despite an agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) to resume long-delayed talks about Tehran’s nuclear programme in Kazakhstan at the end of this month, few observers here believe that any breakthrough is in the offing.

That belief was reinforced Thursday when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to reject a U.S. proposal, most recently put forward by Vice President Joseph Biden at a major security conference in Munich last week, to hold direct bilateral talks.

While Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Salehi, initially welcomed the offer, provided Washington desisted from its “threatening rhetoric that (all options are) on the table,” Khamenei said in a speech to air force officers Thursday that such talks “would solve nothing”.

“You are pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk,” he said. “The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats.”

“(I)t simply doesn’t lie in (Khamenei’s) nature to agree to talks from a position of weakness – and certainly not without the protection of having the talks be conducted by an Iranian President who he can …blame for any potential failure in the talks,” wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), on the ‘Daily Beast’ website Thursday.

“Khamenei would rather wait till after the Iranian elections, it seems, in order to both find ways to shift the momentum back to Iran’s side and to hide behind Iran’s new President in the talks,” according to Parsi, author of two award-winning books on U.S.-Iranian relations.

He was referring to the widespread notion here that the cumulative impact of U.S.-led international economic sanctions against Iran, as well as the raging civil war in Syria, Iran’s closest regional ally, has seriously weakened Tehran and “forced” it back to the table, if not quite yet to make the concessions long demanded by the administration of President Barack Obama and its allies.

Those include ending Tehran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent; shipping its existing 20-percent enriched stockpile out of the country; closure of its underground Fordow enrichment facility; acceptance of a highly intrusive inspections regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and the clearing up of all outstanding IAEA questions related to possible past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme.

In exchange for those steps, according to U.S. officials, Washington – and presumably the other P5+1 members — would be prepared to forgo further UN. sanctions against Iran; assure the supply of nuclear fuel for Tehran’s Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes; facilitate services to Iran’s aging civilian aircraft fleet; and provide other “targeted sanctions relief” that, however, would not include oil- and banking-related sanctions that have been particularly damaging to Iran’s economy over the past two years.

Gradual relief from those more-important sanctions would follow only after full and verifiable implementation of Iran’s side of the bargain.

Until such a deal is struck, however, Washington is committed to increasing the pressure, according to U.S. officials who say the administration remains committed to a strategy of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by military means, if necessary.

Indeed, in what one official described as “a significant turning of the screw”, the administration announced Wednesday that it had begun implementing new Congressionally mandated sanctions that would effectively force Iran’s foreign oil purchasers into barter arrangements. To avoid sanctions, buyers would have to pay into local accounts from which Iran could then buy locally made goods.

It’s generally accepted that such so-called “crippling sanctions” are responsible, at least in substantial part, for the 50-percent decline in the value of the riyal, galloping inflation, and a major increase in unemployment in recent months.

At the same time, however, there is growing doubt here that the sanctions are achieving their purpose – forcing Iran to accept the stringent curbs on its nuclear programme demanded by the U.S. – or that they are likely to achieve that purpose within the next 18-24 months.

That is the time frame in which most experts believe Tehran could achieve “breakout capacity” – the ability to be able to build a nuclear bomb very quickly – if it decided to do so.

Indeed, in recent weeks, Iran began installing advanced centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility that, if fully activated, could significantly accelerate the rate of enrichment. The move was seen as an effort by Tehran to strengthen its position before the P5+1 meeting in Almaty Feb. 26.

Moreover, the assumption that the economic woes imposed by the sanctions would drive such a deep wedge between Tehran’s leadership and the population that the regime risked collapse is also increasingly in question.

While a majority (56 percent) of respondents said in December that sanctions have hurt Iranians’ livelihoods “a great deal”, according to a poll of Iranian opinion released by the Gallup organisation here Thursday, 63 percent said they believed Iran should continue developing its nuclear programme. Only 17 percent disagreed.

When asked who should be blamed for the sanctions, only 10 percent of respondents cited Iran itself; 70 percent named either the U.S. (47 percent), Israel (nine percent); Western European countries (seven percent); or the U.N. (seven percent).

“This may indicate that sanctions alone are not having the intended effect of persuading Iranian residents and country leaders to change their stance on the level of international oversight of their nuclear program,” noted a Gallup analysis of the results.

Its credibility, however, was questioned by some Iran experts who noted that increased security measures taken by the regime may affect the willingness of respondents to speak frankly to pollsters.

In light of the most recent developments, including Khamenei’s rejection of Biden’s offer and the installation of the new centrifuges at Natanz, Iran hawks here are urging yet tougher sanctions and moves to make the eventual use of force more credible – appeals that are certain to be greatly amplified next month when the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its annual convention here

At the same time, however, there appears to be a growing conviction within the foreign-policy elite that ever-increasing sanctions and threatening military action are unlikely to work, and that Washington should offer be more forthcoming about sanctions relief to get a deal.

Indeed, the administration’s commitment to resorting to military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a weapon is also increasingly being questioned, as a growing number of foreign-policy “greybeards” are calling for a strategy of “deterrence” if and when Iran reaches breakout capacity.

“In the end, war is too costly, unpredictable and dangerous to be a practical option,” noted Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA Middle East and South Asia analyst who was in charge of preparing Afghanistan policy on Obama’s transition team in 2009 and remains close to the White House from his perch at the Brookings Institution.

The “stark choice” between a diplomatic solution and war that Obama’s commitment to prevention has created, he wrote to the “Iran Primer” this week, “is a mistake”.

“But there is a good chance that (Secretary of State John) Kerry and Obama will bail themselves out of this trap by re-opening the door to containment, although they would probably call it something else.”

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, 4 June 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a ‘new beginning between the United States and Muslims’, declaring that ‘this cycle of suspicion and discord must end’.