Why Is Tehran Procrastinating?

01/24/2013 12:47 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013

There is both annoyance and frustration in Washington over Tehran's unwillingness to agree on the venue for the next round of talks over Iran's nuclear activities. The two sides have agreed on a date -- January 28-29 -- but it will likely have to be rescheduled due to Tehran's procrastination over the venue choice.

Mindful of the short and closing window of opportunity for an intermediate agreement on the nuclear issue -- before the Iranian New Year in March and the Iranian elections in June -- time has not been used effectively since Obama's reelection in November. And Tehran is not helping.

It took the P5+1 (the Permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) a full month to agree on a new negotiation strategy and package, after the U.S. Presidential elections. The P5+1 sent Tehran a formal letter on December 12, 2012, requesting a new meeting. Now, more than six weeks later, the Iranians are still sending conflicting messages -- agreeing on a date while creating disagreements on the venue.

The Security Council states prefer Istanbul, Turkey, while Iran has given several proposals, including Cairo, Egypt.

But why are the Iranians procrastinating?

Tehran never ceases to perplex. Simplicity is a sin and insult, it seems. But a few possible explanations exist.

That Tehran wishes to shift the venue away from Turkey is not surprising, mindful of the severe cooling in Tehran-Ankara ties over the civil war in Syria. That it wishes to prop up Egypt's political significance is also understandable, mindful of its desire to befriend the Arab world's main cultural powerhouse. But to jeopardize the crucial diplomatic process over this issue is startling.

U.S. officials are leaning towards the belief that internal divisions combined with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's inability to decide whether to deal or not are paralyzing Tehran. As nuclear diplomacy reaches crunch time, Khamenei's perceived indecisiveness strengthens and becomes increasingly consequential.

If this is the case, it is a big blow to the Obama administration's narrative that strangulating sanctions have brought the Iranians to their knees and forced them to deal. Indeed, on the key variables, Iran's bottom line remains unchanged since at least President Barack Obama's election victory -- in 2008. On some important facets of the talks, Iran has hardened its position, such as its refusal to engage with Washington bilaterally.

Tehran's motivation may be precisely this -- to dismantle the American narrative that sanctions have "worked." The Iranian leadership recognizes that Washington believes that time is on the U.S.'s side -- that sanctions will continuously intensify the damage to the Iranian economy, prompting Iran to conclude that the sooner it gives in, the better off it will be. Tehran may be seeking to disabuse Washington of any illusions of overwhelming leverage.

Some in Tehran are also suggesting it may genuinely believe that time is on its side -- that the effect of sanctions will be waning and that once Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have taken office, the Obama administration's orientation will be more "realistic." (Others in Tehran dismiss the significance of Hagel and Kerry, arguing that structural factors render the role of individuals insignificant.) And with elections around the corner in Iran, many political factions may prefer to delay the talks till after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has left office.

But Tehran may also have a deeper calculation. There is no secret that it is intensely displeased with the P5+1 offer from this past summer. According to U.S. officials, the new package is not substantively different, though it reportedly contains a sweetener in the form of non-essential sanctions relief (that is, not relief from oil or financial sanctions). Contrary to the Obama administration's hope, Iran is highly unlikely to accept that package, as it doesn't address Iran's bottom line or strategic concerns. Hence, the next meeting will likely be another failed round of talks.

The question then is if the cost of failed talks would be greater than the cost Tehran will pay for procrastinating or not even showing up. Both scenarios will be costly, but Tehran may be calculating that the latter option is less problematic and also carries with it the opportunity to dismantle the "sanctions are working narrative" while pressing Russia and China to make the P5+1 offer more palpable to Tehran.

If so, Tehran is likely miscalculating. Even if Washington realizes that sanctions aren't as effective as it was meant out to be, Tehran's refusal to show up will energize the pro-sanctions elements in Congress and prompt the passage of more sanctions -- not less. Washington position will harden, not soften, while Obama's willingness to invest in a politically costly diplomatic process will diminish as he is essentially left without a dancing partner for this diplomatic tango.

By now, two fundamental truths should be clear to both sides: Over the course of the past 10 years, any party that has sought to avoid or undermine diplomacy -- even tactically -- has weakened and not strengthened his or her own hands. And any party that seeks to coerce the other into submission through pressure has only helped widen the gap between the two sides.