Istanbul -- Iran did not come to Turkey to solve the nuclear issue; it came here to buy time. The problem in this story is not Iran, which did exactly what we can expect of the Islamic Republic. The problem is that the representatives of the world powers, namely EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, played along.
The multitude of reporters covering the nuclear summit in Istanbul already had the story written in the morning; at night they simply added the quote, "constructive and useful," as if we were reporters for Iran's state-run news agency.
We had a lot of Iranian face time in Istanbul. A press conference with Saeed Jalili -- the head of Iran’s Supreme Council for National Security, responsible for Iran’s nuclear program -- was a grand performance. Before Jalili made his entrance into the press hall, his minions from Tehran hung giant posters of assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists in front of their stupefied Turkish hosts. They were introduced by Jalili as "five heroes who helped Iran reach its potential." He would explain to anyone who wanted to listen that, in this story, Iran was the victim.
After nearly 12 hours of discussions and debates, Jalili displayed remarkable vitality. Even after the other delegations had departed he continued to give interviews. The senior diplomat arrived as the representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and he is in Istanbul to get work done. Not to mention to work us over. I waited patiently for my turn and asked him a question: Was the attitude this time "constructive" because Iran had joined the powers for another round due to the harsh new sanctions (the EU oil embargo and being disconnected from the SWIFT international clearinghouse), or really because the world has simply decided to be more positive toward Iran?
"Look," answered Jalili, "America has shown hostility and arrogance toward us for 30 years now, but when we are spoken to in a language of threats and sanctions, it only encourages us. We hope the world understands that Iran must be spoken to in a language of camaraderie and cooperation." It's no surprise he declined an offer to meet personally with the American delegation in Turkey.
Jalili did not mention Israel, not once. He only spoke of the "terror waged against my country" and that "Iran and the international community must examine how to reach a world free of nuclear weapons." Jalili also added, "We decided in Istanbul to check how the international community can help us to operate our nuclear plant for civilian purposes and to check what can be done with all the unnecessary and dangerous nuclear weaponry in the world, after the supreme leader issued a fatwa [Islamic ruling] forbidding such weapons."
Indeed, Jalili's cynicism soared to new heights. He said the next round of talks, scheduled for May 23, would take place in the "good and safe city of Baghdad." Perhaps that is why three Iraqi correspondents came to Istanbul, to report on Jalili's stories of a thousand and one nights.
The problem with making progress on the Iranian nuclear issue is that, for the world, it comes at an inconvenient time. U.S. President Barack Obama is preoccupied with his election campaign and is worried about rising oil prices, Europe is mired in an economic crisis and the Arab world is fighting with its neighbors and with itself. Iran, too, is facing difficult problems. However, in Iran's view, its nuclear program is actually part of the solution.
Israel's problem is that the world is no less concerned about an attack on Iran's nuclear installations than an actual Iranian bomb. Iran knows this, and is counting on it to the end. With that, we should not be mistaken: There is not anyone who would not want to see a different regime in Tehran, including some of the Iranian reporters, who softened a bit and told me "we don't always write what we are sensing."
The Iranian reporters explained that rhetoric in their country will change in June 2013, after Ahmadinejad vacates his office. But [political reformer] Mir Hossein Mousavi won't be the person who replaces him. "The bazaar doesn't want him; his economic views are socialist," an Iranian reporter told me. In Tehran, too, the economy is a factor, and perhaps this is the most optimistic thing to come out of Istanbul. Maybe it is the Iranian people who will bring about the long-awaited change.
What the Iranian regime did succeed in doing, however, is making the nuclear issue a matter of national honor. It is working pretty well so far. It is why Jalili declared that Iran would not surrender the rights it has as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and as a signatory on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"We are a normal country just like any other country. Why should we not have the right to enrich uranium exactly like everyone else?" asked Jalili.
Iran will have nuclear capabilities and it will be situated on the nuclear threshold. Iran is not the only one playing for time; the world is, too. But there is one important difference between Geneva in 2009, Istanbul in 2011 and today – severe sanctions and the honorable Iranian people, who could become a factor in this story.