The renewed talks between Iran and Western governments about the Islamic Republic's nuclear program are a direct result of new conditions that have been created in recent months. The most important change is the increasing pressure on Iran due to harsher sanctions imposed on it, as well as the general assumption that Israel could attack if diplomatic efforts fail. This pressure motivated Iran's leadership to suggest renewing negotiations while moderating its declarations regarding its nuclear program. It also provides the West better bargaining chips for negotiating with Iran.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administration is prepared to grant Iran certain concessions, mainly in agreeing, in principle, to letting Iran develop its own nuclear program on the condition it proves it is intended for civilian purposes and not for producing nuclear weapons.
To this end, the U.S. has drafted a number of demands. As we know, Iran has a large stockpile of uranium, currently enriched to low levels of 3 percent. If this uranium is enriched to the required levels to produce a nuclear weapon, Iran would have enough for three to four atomic bombs. It also has a smaller amount of uranium enriched to levels of 20%, which can't be used to make a weapon but would make the process of enriching to military levels significantly quicker if the decision were made to do so.
The American demands are not fully known, but they do include at least two central requirements: shutting down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility, which was dug into the side of a mountain near the city of Qom and is especially difficult to attack; and removing the uranium enriched to levels of 20% out of Iran. These demands are intended to block Iran's progress toward weapons-grade enrichment levels and delay Iran's entry into what Defense Minster Ehud Barak has called the "zone of immunity" – the point when Iran's nuclear facilities become heavily fortified enough to withstand attack.
These are significant, important demands. However, they also come with two problems. The first is that they allow Iran considerable advantages. It is unclear whether the U.S. will demand that the large stockpile of 3% enriched uranium also be removed from Iran – as it demanded in 2009. If this is not insisted upon, it will not stop Iran from striving toward a nuclear weapon. It will be even worse than the deal the U.S. offered Iran in 2009, which ultimately failed. Moreover, such a deal would provide legitimacy to Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Even if it is recognized as civilian in nature and is placed under more stringent supervision, it will not be possible to sufficiently oversee Iran's nuclear-related activity.
The second problem is Iran's position. Iran has said it would consider the demand to stop enriching uranium to 20% and maybe even reduce it to 3%. However, it has rejected the demand to remove its stockpile of uranium enriched to 3% out of Iran – just like it rejected the same demand in 2009. Iran also refused to shut down the Fordo facility. Even if Iran exhibits more flexibility about its stockpile of enriched uranium, it is hard to imagine that it would agree to shut down the Fordo facility, which is integral to Iran's nuclear weapons program. Closing it would be perceived as surrender.
Add to this the lack of trust between the sides, which is fed, among other things, by the Iranian leadership's belief that steps taken by the United States are aimed at toppling the regime. And because the strategic goal of the Iranian regime will continue to be possessing a nuclear weapon, or at least having the capability to build one, it is safe to assume it won't agree to concessions that would jeopardize this goal. The main consideration that could motivate the regime to accept concessions is the belief that international pressure could lead to domestic pressure that would oust the regime. For the time being, it does not appear to believe this is the case.
Therefore, the chance of reaching a comprehensive, satisfactory agreement is minimal. Failure at the negotiating table will bring the sides closer to the moment of truth. Iran will have to decide whether to keep coping with the sanctions imposed on it, which will worsen in July when the European Union oil embargo is set to begin.
The U.S. and Israel, meanwhile, will need to decide whether to continue waiting for sanctions to have an effect on Iran, or to move closer to the military option, for which time is running out.
The writer is the deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies.