When Iran and world powers met in Geneva in early December to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program, not much came of it. Today, negotiators will convene again, this time in Istanbul, for high-level discussions on Iran's nuclear enrichment, possible nuclear fuel swap deals, and the international sanctions program leveled against Iran. Here's what will be on the table, what's at stake for Iran and the world, and some estimates on whether or not things will go any better now than they did in Geneva.

  • Fuel Swap Deal at Top of Agenda  The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon explains, "Washington and its European allies want to discuss with Iran the reworking of a year-old proposal that would see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government ship out a substantial portion of Tehran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium in return for Western energy assistance, according to these officials. Western diplomats see such a 'fuel-swap' deal as limiting Iran's ability to quickly 'break out' and produce the weapons-grade fuel required to develop an nuclear bomb."
  • Why Past Deals Have Failed  "Analysts and diplomats believe [the past fuel swap deal] fell victim to Iran's internal power rivalries," Reuters' Fredrik Dahl writes. "Ahmadinejad's opponents, keen to deny him a diplomatic victory, said it would have forced Iran to part with the bulk of a strategic asset and a strong bargaining chip." He adds, "In October, the New York Times reported that intelligence analysts had concluded last year's deal was scuttled by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that many officials therefore suspected any new effort would also fail."
  • Should We Let Iran Enrich?  Here are the two sides, explained by Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson:
Iranian analysts suggest a 'win-win' solution, in which the US and other world powers accept uranium enrichment in Iran – a process that has already been underway for years in the Islamic Republic – in exchange for much more intrusive inspections and guarantees. Western diplomats note privately that Iran is not likely to give up enrichment wholesale under any circumstance, so agreeing on restrictions is perhaps the best they can hope for. And accepting enrichment might not yield an immediate breakthrough, though it would be a 'good' and 'substantial' shift by the P5+1, says Mohtasham, who knows several of the key Iranian officials.
  • Don't Buy The Hype About Iranian Nuclear Weapons  Reuters' Bernd Debusmann finds "cause for skepticism about bomb prognostications." He explains, "On April 24, 1984, the respected London-based Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that Iran was in the final stages of producing a nuclear bomb that could be ready in two years. Sound familiar? In the past quarter century, forecasts of when Iran might have a nuclear bomb have been issued, and proven wrong, so frequently that nuclear experts have coined the phrase 'rolling estimate.'" He says this should cause us to question our assumption that "the end justifies the means when it comes to stopping Iran from pursuing the bomb."

Providing Iran with meaningful economic incentives could cause the regime to abandon the enrichment program. The United States and its European allies offered Iran incentives in the past, most notably in 2006 and 2008. These included support in constructing light water reactors, the normalization of trade relations, and the removal of restrictions on civilian aviation equipment. These overtures failed. Some of the incentives the Western powers were willing to provide were not all that attractive for Iran. But more importantly, Iranian elites had doubts about the sincerity of Western assurances, a perception reinforced by the vague nature of the promises.

A reiteration of earlier offers, with more substantial security assurances that go beyond restating U.S. obligations under the UN Charter, could produce a different outcome this time around. Economic malaise, continued technical failures, and concerns about regime survivability have raised the costs of continuing the enrichment efforts.