By Reva Bhalla
Vice President of Global Affairs
As U.S. President Barack Obama's second-term foreign policy team begins to take shape, Iran remains unfinished business for the U.S. administration. The diplomatic malaise surrounding this issue over the past decade has taken its toll on Washington and Tehran. Even as the United States and Iran are putting out feelers for another round of negotiations, expectations for any breakthrough understandably remain low. Still, there has been enough movement over the past week to warrant a closer look at this long-standing diplomatic impasse.
At the Munich Security Conference held Feb. 1-3, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the United States would be willing to hold direct talks with Iran under the right conditions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded positively to the offer but warned that Iran would not commit unless Washington shows a "fair and real" intention to resolve the issues dividing the two sides.
An Uneven Record in U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy
This diplomatic courting ritual between the United States and Iran has occurred a handful of times over the past several years. Like previous times, the public offer of talks was preceded by denials of secret pre-negotiations. (This time, Ali Akbar Velayati, a presidential hopeful and senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied that he met with a U.S. representative in Oman.) Meanwhile, as a sideshow to the more critical U.S.-Iranian bilateral track, Iran has announced it will hold negotiations with the P-5+1 group Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan to demonstrate its willingness to seek a compromise on the nuclear issue as part of a broader deal. For good measure, Iran has balanced these diplomatic moves with an announcement that it is upgrading uranium centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Though this will rile Israel, the thought of Iran accelerating its nuclear program could add just the right amount of urgency to propel the talks.