As if the Middle East didn't have enough problems, Iran is fast developing a nuclear weapon. But with Tehran increasingly isolated in the region, there are signs that a new deal over uranium enrichment is possible.
Iran's slow progress toward a nuclear weapon seems unstoppable. New reports show the country is busily stockpiling uranium enriched to the crucial 20-percent level. This is a necessary preliminary to processing the material to weapons grade.
Uranium enrichment refined to five percent is suitable for civilian nuclear power plants - Iran has none but says it plans to build them, while Tehran says the 20 percent product is for running the capital's medical research reactor.
And the technological progress is apparent everywhere. Last week, a UN nuclear agency reported that Iran has installed all the centrifuges its underground Fordow plant was built for with a view to expanding the uranium enrichment program.
Reza Sajjadi, Iranian ambassador to Russia, confirmed on Monday, at a press conference in Moscow, that the plant was up and running - and that it "is carrying out enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent."
Meanwhile, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany were set to meet on Wednesday to discuss a new negotiation strategy. Before the talks began, Sajjadi gave the negotiators some food for thought.
"We hope that in the next talks, the six nations, instead of applying a double standard, would approach these talks more constructively," he said through an interpreter. And while the re-election of Barack Obama has certainly increased the prospects of success, the envoy warned the president to "change the conduct of the United States as regards Iran and choose a more logical approach."
These oft-repeated formulations - "logical approach" and "double standard" - are usually regarded as Tehran's code for demanding formal recognition of the right to enrich uranium and the removal of UN sanctions.
But despite the aggressive talk, Walter Posch, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says Iran is masking many vulnerabilities. "It's all a catastrophe for Iran at the moment," he told Deutsche Welle. "They are under serious pressure. They can't get out of the nuclear question at all anymore, and their strategic position is getting worse and worse."
On top of this, Iran has become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. "Syria is collapsing," continued Posch. "And despite uncertain allegiance, the Iranians have no choice but to stand by the Syrian regime, whether they want to or not."
And these are just Tehran's two most obvious headaches. The risk of regional isolation appears to be growing by the day. "Egypt is re-emerging as a political player, and Saudi Arabia is still there as a serious rival," said Posch. "In Balochistan [Pakistani province on Iran's border] there are new groups setting off bombs, the Kurdish question is threatening to explode, there is the volatile border with Afghanistan, and then the Americans are positioned all around them. They really are under serious pressure."
Gabrielle Rifkind, Middle East Program Director at UK think tank the Oxford Research Group (ORG), thinks we should not dismiss Iran too lightly. "It's too soon to say if Iran is becoming more isolated because we don't the outcome of the situation in Syira," she told DW. "Also it's more complicated because Iran is also turning toward China. But it wouldn't be feeling as self-confident as it was in 2006, say, after the Israel-Lebanon War.
Nevertheless, Iran's growing isolation in the region is aptly demonstrated by the latest crisis in Gaza, where Hamas has largely turned to Qatar for funding and support. "That has seriously damaged Iran's legitimacy in playing any kind of role in the Middle East conflict," said Posch. "The only organization that it controls relatively well is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but compared to Hamas this is a very small group."
Closing the deal
All these factors have damaged Iran's credibility in the upcoming talks on its nuclear program. Despite this, it's important that the six nations make sure that Iran does not lose face, argues Posch. "It's all a question of reputation - the Security Council needs to get away from the idea that there will be winners and losers - it needs a win-win situation," he said.
"There are voices in Iran that want to reach out to the US, that want direct talks," he added. The perpetual obstacle to this is the ideological conflict between America's need to impose order, and Iran's suspicions about US imperialism. On this point, both sides still need to concede some ground, but the chances for an agreement are better than they have been for some time.
"Conditions have changed," said Rifkind. "There probably is more appetite for negotiations. Obama is freer to put an offer on the table that is more attractive to the Iranians, and maybe the Iranians are more in the mood as well, not least because of the impact of sanctions. There's perhaps more readiness than we've seen for a long time."
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