During the second half of this week there will be a flurry of meetings in Washington on the subject of negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program. These will include this one hosted at the Stimson Center and held by the Arms Control Association, and a discussion at the University of Maryland with former Iranian negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton. Just before, there were two treatments of the same subject in Brussels: one a panel discussion during the IISS-led EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, on Saturday, February 4, and thereafter a public discussion on Monday, February 6, featuring three Carnegie Endowment colleagues: James Acton, Shahram Chubin, and Jessica Mathews.

I was in Brussels for the EU event this weekend but I won’t be in Washington for the meetings this week. Instead I will be here in Berlin and, in fact, when Mousavian is being introduced at Maryland I’ll be arriving at Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, on occasion of Sir Simon Rattle presenting the long-awaited Samale/Mazzuca/Philips/Cohrs version of the completed Symphony Nr. 9 by Anton Bruckner. On February 24, they’ll be at Carnegie Hall where they will perform the American premier of this work.

The focus of all the meetings in Brussels and Washington is on doing diplomacy with Iran, a subject which–to remain in central Europe for a moment–might have inspired Theodor Fontane a century ago to call it ein weites Feld, a pet phrase he used to describe a topic which was difficult to sum up in less than a 500-page novel.

On Saturday we had a good discussion on Iran in Brussels, and since I’m not going to be at any of the events in Washington this week, I’ve jotted down some notes from that discussion, and included a few points which came my way during some recent meetings in other Western capitals. A good deal of this may seem ho-hum to some readers who are following this subject daily at close range. But it might be worth reiterating for a more general audience because the recent escalation of the Iran crisis has perhaps deterred people from asking tough questions about what the advocates of “engaging Iran” exactly have in mind. Let’s hope the meetings this week will drill into these issues.

Crisis management or conflict resolution? 

At the Brussels EU meeting, Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud suggested in simple terms that what engagement means needs to be clarified: “Crisis management and conflict resolution are not the same.”  The recent escalation of the war of words and deeds–Iran beginning uranium enrichment at  Fordo, threats by Israelis to bomb targets in Iran, Iranian war games and threats to block the Strait of Hormuz and counter-posturing by the United States–has inevitably shifted attention away from the quest for what looks like the holy grail–an ultimate peaceful resolution to the Iran nuclear dilemma–and instead toward what’s called for right now to prevent a war with Iran during the first half of 2012. The interest of P5+1 states in preventing a war is not necessarily identical with the kind of commitment which would be required from them, and from Iran, to achieve a comprehensive negotiated settlement.

Are Iran’s Six Interlocutors on the Same Page? 

So far, it doesn’t look like it. US-Israel shuttle diplomacy and the wave of bilaterals held by China and Russia with Iran the last two months suggest that none of the P5+1 wants a war with Iran. But it is far less clear that the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany are on the same page about what a roadmap for a negotiation would look like and about what opening gambit they would present in any negotiation with Iran about the kind of ”comprehensive solution” which the EU’s last letter to Iranian leaders seems to imply would be the endgame. To say nothing about differences between the Western powers and Russia which have emerged in response to the Lavrov proposal back in mid-2011.

What endgame do the players want? 

That’s not clear either. Regardless of what Ashton’s October letter to Iran says is the desired outcome, at least a few important people in Washington will tell you they would prefer regime change to a negotiated solution. Likewise, in the trenches you will sometimes hear the view that the U.S. should go into any negotiation with Iran aiming for a 2003 Libya-type outcome–where Iran gives up its nuclear assets. My understanding is that Iran would never agree to that. On the basis of the Ashton letter, and the things in the Lavrov proposal which Western officials say they liked, I’m assuming instead that a negotiated solution would imply that the parties basically agree that, at the end of the day, the Islamic Republic of Iran 1.) would have a nuclear energy program under IAEA safeguards including the Additional Protocol, 2.) would retain some nuclear assets which support a cliff-edge nuclear weapons capability, 3.) would be enriching uranium, 4.) would not be subject to international sanctions, and 5.) would benefit from an imprimatur from the IAEA (“broader conclusion”) following from implementation of the AP, expressing  the IAEA’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear activities are exclusively dedicated to peaceful use. But is everybody who matters on board with this?

Role of  top-level decision makers in the U.S. administration

After doing the rounds in Washington a  month ago, I take it as given that some key players are clearly not enthusiastic about launching any ambitious diplomatic initiatives with Iran at the present time. There will be no U.S. move in this direction unless some very senior officials in key U.S. agencies–at or just below thef secretary level–take the initiative and assume the political risk. But is that going to happen in 2012?

Iran’s obligation to suspend enrichment is at the crux of any negotiation toward a settlement

When Lavrov floated his Iran roadmap last year, Western states didn’t like the provision permitting Iran to resume enrichment and the heavy water (a.k.a. plutonium production-related) activities after suspending these activities for just three months. Were something like the Russian plan to go forward in the future, Western states would want Iran to demonstrate its credibility over a far longer period before the suspension obligation under UNSCR would be lifted. What’s more, some Western states would likely want the UNSC, where they have veto power–and not the IAEA, where they don’t–to be the ultimate arbiter of when and on what terms sanctions against Iran would be lifted. That would be a bitter pill for Iran to swallow.

The IAEA November report moved the goal post

When the IAEA put out its report on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities in November, there was a lot of fretting on the sidelines about the wisdom and indeed, the legality, of the IAEA having done that (during the IAEA board meeting the governors witnessed what sounded over my cell phone like  the Russian diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over this). But in fact, three months later it would seem that the IAEA report has re-framed the debate: We might argue about whether Iran is doing weaponization work now, but in the wake of the IAEA report there are not a lot of people out there who express doubt that Iran since 1989 has done work putting them on the cusp of a nuclear weapons capability. The IAEA report appears consistent with the view that in 2003, Iran took a high-level decision to suspend activities which could have only a nuclear weapons rationale, but also to continue with those dual-use activities which in theory could be explained, if they were to be exposed, by a peaceful application. So does the IAEA report imply that the 2007 U.S. NIE on Iran is now out of date? Nope.

Lack of trust remains the biggest impediment to a negotiation

In May, 2010, Turkey, Iran, and Brazil negotiated the Tehran Declaration. The U.S. found the result wanting on two main points: there was no agreement by Iran not to enrich uranium to 20% U-235, and no legal assurances that Iran’s LEU would be taken out of the country as agreed. So the U.S. then had a choice to make: Renegotiate that deal with Iran to cover those two points, or instead scuttle it and impose UNSC sanctions. The U.S. chose sanctions over a renegotiation. Why? Two main reasons: They prior to this effectively squared the circle and persuaded Russia and China to agree to sanctions, and they concluded that Iran never intended to implement the Tehran Declaration in the first place but instead aimed to dodge immanent UNSC penalties. The U.S. might make that same choice again. To be sure, China and Russia haven’t agreed to further sanctions, but the U.S. has probably less confidence now than it did in 2010 that Iran’s leadership, having marginalized or eliminated moderate voices, is serious about negotiating a comprehensive solution.

Why is the West confident sanctions will work?

There is certainly evidence that the sanctions regime so far has hurt Iran’s economy but little to show that the sanctions would compel Iran to comply with UNSC resolutions. So what are the possible rationales for the West imposing new and more severe sanctions on Iran, as the West plans? Two possibilities come to mind: 1.) As diplomats suggested at the Brussels EU meeting, sanctions are prompted by the need of the nonproliferation regime to be credible. 2.) There is also the possibility that Western governments have information from people on the ground in Iran which provides them high confidence that imposition of draconian sanctions against Iran’s oil economy and central bank will result in political changes inside Iran, either because Iran’s hardline leaders fear a wave of popular opposition, or because they are confident that the new sanctions will prompt opposition forces in Iran to take matters into their own hands. Does the U.S. and its allies have such information? They’re not telling.

A new Turkish-Brazilian thrust?

Since last fall some people in Vienna will tell you they want to see a restart of an intermediated negotiation with Iran. Mostly you hear about Turkey but sometimes also Brazil. For sure, some Turkish diplomats have in recent weeks been keen, even premature, in saluting what looked like a restart of diplomacy based on an Iranian reply to the Ashton letter. But at the working level, both Turkey and Brazil in 2010 experienced first hand the difficulties of negotiating with Iran. Back then Turkey had a policy of “no problems with its neighbors.” They have problems now, including with Iran’s ally Syria. Brazil’s decision in 2010 to negotiate the Tehran Declaration was a presidential decision. Brazil’s current president might have a different appreciation of the cost and benefit of such an approach.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.