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 oppose any new measures.

If this all sounds familiar, that is because it is. Washington employed a similar strategy on two prior forays into nuclear confidence building with Tehran. The first was a preliminary fuel-swap deal that Washington and its allies struck with Iran in 2009. Like the proposal now on the table, it centered on fuel for Iran's medical research reactor, but after a preliminary agreement, Tehran quickly backed away from the deal. The second was Turkey and Brazil's botched mediation a year later, which Washington rejected as inadequate, even though the terms were similar. Since, Iran has gone it alone, launching a program to enrich uranium to nearly 20 percent, producing to date at least 80 kilograms, according to the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. 

Both sides have signaled that they see Iran's 20 percent enrichment program as low-hanging fruit, a way to create breathing space for negotiations on the core issues -- Iran's large-scale enrichment activities (it has thousands of operational centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium) and failure to provide full transparency to the IAEA. 

Yet even if the third time for the fuel-swap proposal proves to be the charm, the political conditions in both Washington and Tehran will make it exceptionally difficult to build on any initial momentum. In Washington, Obama might claim the deal as a vindication of his Iran policy, but Republicans would surely criticize it as an insufficient ploy that only buys time for Tehran to race across the nuclear threshold. If that argument gains traction in Washington, it could hamper President Barack Obama's ability to sustain negotiations with Iran in advance of the vote in November.

And for the Iranians, a suspension of its higher-level enrichment program will do little to undercut the endemic mistrust of U.S. intentions or the regime's fierce attachment to the nuclear program. True, Iranian leaders are reeling from the sanctions' tolls on Iran's central bank and the shipping and banking activities that are key to its oil industry. However, Tehran remains convinced that the pressures are tolerable, given their continuing trade with Asia and a global energy market that would make it very difficult for the world to fully wean itself off Iranian oil.  

Yet the ultimate decision in Iran rests with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who believes that the United States is bent on destroying his regime. Accordingly, he has argued throughout his long tenure in public office, that there can be no accommodation. The Obama administration clings to the notion that Khamenei's anxieties can be allayed through negotiations. If recent revelations can be believed, multiple reassurances delivered from Washington to Tehran through back channels in 2009 went unreciprocated. There is no reason to think that more such reassurances would succeed. Indeed, Khamenei's worldview will not be altered by U.S. displays of goodwill.

The United States simply does not understand Iran's domestic politics. Privately, U.S. officials contend that a conservative victory in the recent Iranian parliamentary elections may have given Khamenei the flexibility to take bold steps, and they maintain that apparent fissures within the regime bode well for a new diplomatic initiative. 

But the reality is that Washington's decades-long obsession with clerical Kremlinology is effectively irrelevant when it comes to the future of the nuclear program. Iran's long-standing power struggles continue to percolate, but decision-making remains firmly in the hands of the hard-liners. Indeed, for most of the previous 33 years, the central issue for U.S.-Iran policy was who rules Iran. We know the answer to that question today: Khamenei. Now, Washington must confront the question of how to move Iran. 

Sanctions, if history is any guide, can play only a supporting role in that effort. Despite the profound and wide-ranging impact of sanctions on Iran's economy, there is simply no evidence that Iranian leaders have concluded that capitulation on the nuclear issue is their only recourse. The other tools available to U.S. policymakers -- covert action, regime change, military strikes -- present much greater risks and even less prospect of conclusively terminating Iran's nuclear ambitions. The outlines of a mutually tolerable agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue are already widely recognized. The problem is that there is simply no indication that either party, but particularly Iran, has the political will to make real concessions to reach a deal at this point.

To be sure, even such a cynical evaluation does not mean that the Istanbul meetings will have no value. Despite Obama's embrace of engagement, the two adversaries have had only fleeting and episodic interactions over the course of the past three years. Istanbul offers at least an opportunity for the U.S. officials to assess Iranian interlocutors directly. Further, in the absence of any direct line of communication, these talks are a vital intelligence channel, an opportunity for real-time coordination with partners in Europe, Russia, and China, and a rare channel for clarifying the United States' intentions and red lines directly to Tehran. 

Beyond all else, should diplomacy reach a dead end this weekend, it will have still been worthwhile because without a good-faith effort, Washington would find it harder to pursue alternative approaches, including a military strike. Official statements from U.S. and Israeli leaders have committed those two countries to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon by any means necessary, which presumably includes a strike. Despite profound anxieties about Iran's policies in a number of capitals, the international community will hesitate to rally around a preventive war, particularly if the diplomatic options do not appear to have been exhausted. 

Should the dialogue in Istanbul unravel -- and even from the perspective of someone who advocates engagement, that seems inevitable -- Washington will have to consider seriously addressing the underlying illogic of its approach to Tehran. Sanctions can impose high costs on Iran, but the existence of severe economic pressure will not alone prove sufficient to persuade the current leadership to make historic reversals in its security policy. The challenge for the world is to ascertain what will.

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  • SUZANNE MALONEY is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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