Diplomats from Iran and six global powers will gather this weekend in Turkey to determine whether a compromise on Iran's nuclear program can be reached. The outcome of the meeting could have broad impact on world oil markets, the global economy and the likelihood of another explosive military conflict in the Middle East.
The Obama administration has spent the past two years assembling a large international coalition and deploying the most severe array of economic sanctions that has ever been mobilized against Iran. Slowly but deliberately, Iran's economy is being cut off from the world, and an unprecedented embargo looms ahead: A complete European ban on Iranian crude oil is set to begin in July.
Meanwhile, warnings from Israel that it is prepared to carry out a major military strike on Iran's nuclear sites have intensified in recent months. There is no consensus on whether -- or when -- Israel might attack Iran. Yet analysts agree that a diplomatic breakthrough at this weekend's meeting would dramatically reduce the likelihood of an attack in the near-term.
On the other hand, many observers say the threat of an Israeli strike is real, and if this weekend's negotiations end in a stalemate or worse, an attack could take place even before the U.S. elections in November.
The repercussions of such a military strike can't be predicted with certainty. Israel's defense minister insisted last year that any retaliation from Iran would be limited and that "not 5,000 or even 500" Israelis would be killed. Israel's foreign minister and its most recent intelligence chief have both said the opposite -- that an attack on Iran would surely ignite a regional war. And a classified war simulation conducted by the U.S. military last month forecast that a strike by Israel "would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead," the New York Times reported.
Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer and OPEC's second-largest producer after Saudi Arabia. Recent tensions have already driven global oil prices upward, and multiple industry analysts say prices could top $150 or even $200 per barrel if a military strike on Iran were to spiral into a wider conflict.
Both the United States and Iran have taken steps in recent weeks that suggest a compromise could be reached. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared publicly that his country would "never pursue nuclear weapons," which he deemed a "grave sin." In response, President Barack Obama relayed a verbal message to Khamenei through the Turkish prime minister that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program as long as Iran could prove to the world that its nuclear program was in no way related to weaponization.
There are also reasons for pessimism. Many similar rounds of talks about Iran's nuclear program have occurred in recent years, with very little if any progress made. One new demand that U.S. diplomats are said to have -- that Iran completely shutter a nuclear site it has built inside a mountain, thus making the site more difficult to bomb -- is broadly viewed as a non-starter for Iran. Likewise, there is a longstanding concern that Iran's participation in diplomatic talks is merely a delaying tactic and that Iranian leadership would prefer to risk a military strike than abandon any possibility of a nuclear weapons program. Even those who think that Iran has not yet decided whether to build an atomic bomb -- the consensus position of U.S. intelligence -- still think Iran's leaders may want to preserve the ability to build such a weapon in the future if they deem it critical to their national interest. And there are some who argue that Iran's leaders privately believe a military strike by Israel or the United States would do much to shore up their domestic political support, which has dwindled after years of economic woes, political strife and human rights crackdowns.
Nevertheless, in light of the significant international pressure being applied to Iran, the chance for a diplomatic breakthrough is greater now than at any other point in the past several years. Plus, analysts believe there are now broad strokes of a deal that could be palatable to all sides: Iran would be permitted to continue enriching uranium at low levels, thus saving face by maintaining a domestic nuclear program that its leaders hail as a source of national pride; Iran would agree to cease more advanced enrichment activities and allow comprehensive and intrusive inspections by U.N. officials at its nuclear sites; and, in return, Iran would be provided with fuel plates to produce isotopes for medical use, and international sanctions would be eased.