Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, in 2010. (Valentin Flauraud / courtesy Reuters)
As U.S. and Iranian officials prepare to face off in Istanbul this weekend to negotiate the future of Iran's nuclear program, stakes are high and expectations are low. The meetings will mark the first direct talks on Iran's nuclear program in nearly 15 months. The hiatus has been anything but quiet. Since the two sides last met in Istanbul in January 2011, the Arab Spring has thrown the region into upheaval, international sanctions have choked Tehran's finances, and Israel has led the charge for military attacks on Iranian nuclear sites.
Come Monday, there will be no durable resolution to the controversy, uncertainty, and concern surrounding Iran's nuclear program. Even so, Washington and Tehran might not emerge from the weekend empty-handed but with modest confidence-building measures demonstrating that there is still room -- and time -- for debate.
In the run-up to Istanbul, both sides have been spinning messages in the popular news media. The Obama administration leaked a set of tough talking points to The New York Times that imply ambitious (and almost certainly unreachable) goals, including getting Iran to agree to close its newly completed enrichment facility, which is buried deep underground near the city of Qom. Alongside its hyperbolic displays of defiance, Tehran has been signaling for months an openness toward small-scale horse trading.
Washington's opening gambit will likely be a case of déjà vu all over again: Get Iran to agree to cease attempts at higher-level enrichment and export its small but growing stockpile of more highly enriched uranium in exchange for fuel pads for its medical research reactor in Tehran. (The reactor is fueled by uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent, the ability to produce uranium of that grade moves Iran perilously closer to breakout weapons capability.) In return, Washington and its allies would suspend their push for additional UN Security Council sanctions -- arguably a rather minor concession, given that Russia and China will almost certainly