GENEVA // Diplomats from Iran, the United States and five other major powers will face off for landmark talks here today on Tehran's nuclear programme. The first direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran in 30 years will begin at a tense and confrontational moment, as serious questions about Iran's nuclear intentions change US president Barack Obama's tone.
This week Mr Obama has given his clearest indications yet that he may be leaning away from engagement with the Islamic republic and towards economic sanctions. It was not long ago Mr Obama sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor and turn a new leaf with Iran, declaring in his inaugural address, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Two months later, broadcasting a warm message to Iranians to mark Nowruz, the new year.
But that was before Iran's disclosure last week in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has been building a secret "pilot" plant for enriching uranium at a military base 32km outside Qom. Washington and other foreign intelligence agencies are reported to have known about the facility for more than two years. But Mr Obama is now frustrated over what he and other world leaders regard as Iran's lack of satisfactory answers about its nuclear ambitions.
Last week at a global economic summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the US president, flanked by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Britain, scathingly accused Iran of "breaking rules that all nations must follow" and "threatening the stability of the region and the world". Iran, which called Mr Obama's announcement a "plot" to "unite the world against us", has repeatedly insisted that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. Still, it has brushed aside three UN Security Council resolutions demanding it halt uranium enrichment until questions about its programme are addressed.
Although the revelation did not mean that Iran was any closer to producing a bomb, the Obama administration pounced on what it described as Tehran's vaguely worded revelation to cast further doubt on Tehran's repeated insistence that its nuclear intentions are peaceful. Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, told Indian television channel CNN-IBN, yesterday that "Iran has been on the wrong side of the law in so far as the IAEA regulation to inform the agency at an earlier date. Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that."
At today's meeting, the United States and the other major powers are expected to demand that Iran provide international inspectors with quick, possibly immediate, access to the nuclear enrichment site at Qom, which is located inside a Revolutionary Guard base. They also will insist on access to documents and computers that may contain evidence of efforts to design weapons. Mr Obama has said Iran has until year's end to provide significant co-operation to international inspectors. On Friday, Mr Sarkozy was even more explicit about the deadline and costs of further delay.
If by December there is not an "in-depth change" by Iran, sanctions will have to be applied, he said. Despite the changed atmosphere surrounding the seven-year diplomatic standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, questions remain about the effectiveness of sanctions to change Iran's policy - the only tougher option available short of war. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said yesterday that Iran would emerge from the talks unharmed. "The negotiators can definitely adopt any policy that they want, but we will not be harmed," the Fars new agency quoted him as saying.
In recent years, the United States has imposed dozens of unilateral sanctions on Iranian banks, defence firms and government officials. It has also pressured European and Asian firms to curtail their business with Iran. Energy companies and banks have complied, but Iran has not changed its stance. The US Congress is now considering legislation that would target any foreign companies aiding Iran's oil and gas sector.
George Perkovich, the director of the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, calls talk of additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions "appropriate". "Iran is asking itself, 'Why should we slow down? Why should we negotiate?' Without more pressure and threat of higher costs, they're not going to do anything different. I'm not sure what the alternative to further sanctions is."
Other analysts have reservations about the push for more bans and boycotts. "Everyone is talking, 'Sanctions! Sanctions! Sanctions!' They aren't a magic wand and anyone who says so is kidding themselves. Only negotiations will solve this problem," said James Walsh, a research associate in the security studies programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is unclear whether the UN Security Council would approve multilateral sanctions. Each permanent member of the council holds a veto, and China and Russia have been lukewarm to any measures that would jeopardise their relations with Tehran.
China is thought to have up to nearly US$100 billion (Dh367bn) invested in Iranian oil and gas reserves. Moscow's superpower ambitions and claims to regional hegemony have never totally vanished. The evidence that further sanctions would alter Iranian behaviour is also mixed. Sanctions against exports of all refined petroleum products to Iran might only strengthen the hand of the Republican Guard, whose stakes in the industry are widely believed to be deep and lucrative.
Travel bans, another measure under discussion, may have little effect on senior Iranian officials and their families, who are legacies of a revolution that reveres austerity and decries what they view as the material extravagance of holidays and shopping trips to Europe and the West. According to Mr Perkovich, the Iranian government has created a uniformly malign picture of western motives, which it says are aimed at hindering Iran's nuclear progress. That could unite the fractured country if the international community escalates sanctions, he said.
"Iranian nationalism is now wedded to resistance against anyone forcing it to abandon its peaceful nuclear programme," he said. "The international community has done a poor job in making it clear that it has no intention of taking away this right." Turkey said yesterday it opposes economic sanctions against Iran because of concerns over their effect on regional trade. Without UN approval for additional sanctions, the United States and Europe may find a lukewarm response to their efforts in the Middle East.
The UAE and Oman have close trade ties to Iran; the sultan of Oman travelled to Tehran after the disputed June elections and held talks with Mr Ahmadinejad. Iran has a powerful influence in Iraq and any harsh economic sanctions would likely have a spillover effect there. Finally, the region's most recent experience with an extensive, long-term sanctions regime - in Iraq after the First Gulf War - failed to noticeably weaken Saddam Hussein, succeeding instead in enriching him and his sons, further impoverishing Iraqis and creating a vast system of corruption.
Still, as negotiations get under way here, the threat of sanctions will loom heavily in the room, even for Mr Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials who profess not to fear them, Mr Walsh said. "Iran would like to get rid of existing sanctions. That's incentive enough. I wouldn't rescind current sanctions. I wouldn't add to them, either." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press