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President Obama's re-election briefly raised hopes that in a second term the U.S. might be able to engage with Iran, possibly even direct talks between the two countries. Then, harsher rhetoric set in, and now a less ambitious round of talks involving several countries is set to get underway. Iran has long been under pressure over its nuclear program which Western nations suspect is aimed at creating nuclear weapons.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: There was a fleeting glimpse of optimism this month when Vice President Joe Biden spoke positively about the notion of bi-lateral talks with Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Iran's press TV that despite the American's admonition for Iran to be serious this time, there was reason for hope.
ALI AKBAR SALEHI: But nevertheless, these are good signs. This is not a forbidden zone. This is not a red line to hold a bilateral talk on particular subjects. Here, I mean the nuclear file.
KENYON: Salehi does not however have much influence on the nuclear issue and the man who does, Ayatollah Khamenei, moved quickly and forcefully to publicly reject the idea of direct talks.
That leaves the P5-plus-1, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members - Britain, France, the U.S., Russia and China, plus Germany - to take up the effort again, beginning February 26th in Kazakhstan.
Some have argued that Iran's upcoming presidential elections this June shouldn't necessarily prevent Iran from negotiating in earnest, since no matter who wins Khamenei will remain in charge of all decisions on the nuclear program. Even so, says Ali Ansari at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Iran took note when the Americans pulled back from talks during their campaign season last year, and is likely to follow suit.
ALI ANSARI: In the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, there was a lot of comment that the U.S. wouldn't be really ready until the elections were over. The Iranians have now responded that they won't be ready until their elections are over, which is a nice bit of echoing of the American position.
KENYON: Given what appears to be a small window of opportunity for progress, each side appears keen to focus attention on the need for the other to change its attitude. Late last week, Secretary of State John Kerry had this assessment.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I want to reiterate that these talks can only make progress if the Iranians come to the table determined to make and discuss real offers, and engage in a real dialogue. Countries that have peaceful programs do not have problems proving to people that they are peaceful.
KENYON: Iranian officials, meanwhile, have reverted to stubborn denials that international pressure, sanctions and covert operations can force Tehran to give up what it sees as its nuclear rights. Some analysts are frustrated that after years of discussions, the talks remain focused on relatively narrow questions, such as what should happen to Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which could fairly quickly be enhanced to weapons grade should Iran decide to do so.
In remarks earlier this month, George Perkovich, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that it's hard to envision any diplomatic solution that doesn't in some form concede Iran's claim that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But from the international side's perspective, he added, the danger would come if such negotiations suddenly broke down.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: And especially France is very, very hard on this. And their big concern is if you concede it now and there isn't a completion of a negotiation, you've created a right that actually didn't exist and that others could then come along and say, OK, now we want to do enrichment. So you will have lost a lot of important ground and gained nothing because Iran at the end says there's no deal.
KENYON: In that atmosphere of mistrust, the hot-and-cold signals continue. On the one hand, Iran converts some of its uranium to reactor fuel, easing fears about how quickly it could have enough for a weapon. On the other hand, Iran is installing more efficient centrifuges that will speed up its enrichment. The U.S., meanwhile after talking up engagement, slaps new sanctions on Iran. Analysts say the winter air may not be the only chilly thing in Kazakhstan next week.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.