Following the international community's considerable excitement at the U.N. General Assembly about the winds of change blowing from Iran, today in Geneva is the real test: In the next 48 hours we will be able to see whether words in Persian mean something, or that Iran, as we suspect, will continue as it has been doing until now at every P5+1 summit by trying to sweet talk the West into removing sanctions.
Since the last meeting half a year ago in Kazakhstan, on the surface of things, Iran has changed. President Hasan Rouhani has replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a diplomat familiar to the West, has replaced Ali Akbar Salehi. From its own perspective, Iran could not have chosen better promoters for its nuclear project, even if the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to spew the regular rhetoric from back home.
Iran today has a tough dilemma on its hands: How does it become a nuclear threshold state and also remove the harsh economic sanctions? Let's begin with Iran's sacred goal of attaining militarized nuclear capabilities. Iran, as a regional power, wants to upgrade its status even further while simultaneously continuing to propagate the Shiite revolution across the globe. Additionally, the regime is obviously interested in its survival. The Libyan precedent in contrast to the success of the North Korean regime highlights for the Iranians why they must not relent on their nuclear ambitions, and primarily -- which they themselves have said -- not stop enriching uranium as the West has demanded.
Iran, however, finds itself in dire economic straits as a result of the sanctions. The sanctions imposed against its oil exports have led to a drastic fall in revenues. Some 86% of Iran's budget is dependent on exporting oil and revenues have plummeted by around 50 percent. The economy has been damaged, the conservative bazaar merchants are furious, the black market is flourishing and corruption is rife. The top echelon of the Revolutionary Guard has exploited the situation to enrich itself, and while that is perhaps nice for some high-level officers, it is not good for the country's long-term stability.
And as long as we are discussing stability, this is where the Iranian paradox lies: From Israel's perspective, Iran is a destabilizing force, a supporter of terrorism and threat to Israel's existence. In the world, incidentally, including in Washington, some see Iran as a stabilizing force in a stormy region, especially as it relates to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Of course such sentiments cause officials in Jerusalem and the Gulf States to smile, nervously, that is.
The Islamic republic is doing everything in its power to increase expectations ahead of the talks in Geneva. It is striving to acquire the maximum -- and quickly -- while giving as little as possible in return. Behind Rouhani's strategy of smiles is one objective: the removal of sanctions but mainly to ensure that no further sanctions are imposed by the Western body that perhaps poses the biggest threat to Iran, the U.S. Congress. This is why they will ask to expedite the removal of sanctions, and slowly provide mere gestures in exchange. As Zarif has stated, "a deal will take time."
Rouhani knows that if at one time he could have primarily trusted the Russians and Chinese to back him in talks with the West, this time all of the delegations arriving in Geneva want results and will therefore work to achieve them. Iran, of course, can offer to limit its uranium enrichment levels to 3.5%. But with its new centrifuges it will be very simple for Iran to enrich the uranium it holds on to beyond that level, and is therefore a fairy-tale offer that the West must not accept. In other words: Iran must not be trusted. Regardless, it can be assumed that the headlines across the globe will focus on the first direct bilateral talks between Iran and the U.S. -- and the clock will continue to tick down.
Iran cannot stop its nuclear program and the world cannot stop the clock from ticking.