RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There are increasing signals from Iran that it's open to a new round of talks on its suspect nuclear program. The last round was held in Moscow in June. And with the American campaign season over, new diplomatic efforts are being explored.
But domestic politics - this time in Iran - may still limit what can be achieved at the negotiating table, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: There are at least three reasons why nuclear talks may resume this winter. First, sanctions continue to weaken the Iranian economy. Second, President Barack Obama's reelection ensures no major policy changes toward Iran. And third, anxiety about an Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran has diminished.
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KENYON: On the sidelines of an Istanbul conference on weapons of mass destruction, analyst Mark Fitzpatrick with the International Institute for Strategic Studies said Iran may still be talking tough, but its actions suggest that it's looking to reduce tensions on the nuclear front.
MARK FITZPATRICK: But there are ways that Iran can take some steps to relieve the pressure. I think that's probably what Iran will be trying to do. They'll be trying to calibrate their program, continuing to make advances, but trying not to go so far as to push the Israelis and the Americans over the cliff.
KENYON: Israel took note when Tehran moved earlier this year to divert toward peaceful uses about a third of its stockpile of near-weapons-grade enriched uranium. Fitzpatrick says another way Tehran could ease the pressure would be to agree to more frequent inspections by the UN nuclear agency. But if the prospects for diplomacy are rising, the window for opportunity is once again limited.
The U.S. elections may be over, but Iranians are preparing for their own presidential elections to be held in June. Mustafa Alani with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center says one could argue that the election won't make that much difference to Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei will still be in charge. But he says the nuclear program and U.S.-Iranian relations will be heavily and no doubt angrily debated during the spring campaign. And that doesn't leave much time to wring concessions from Tehran.
MUSTAFA ALANI: I think the window is no more than three months, four months before the Iranian election. So I think that we have a small window, and the Iranian leadership, especially the hardliners, will invest some effort to reopen the negotiations.
KENYON: Alani notes that in addition to the group talks with the five permanent security council members plus Germany, known as the P5 plus 1, Iran has also sent cautious signals that it might be open to direct bilateral talks with the U.S. But Tehran still has strong suspicions about Washington's motives. During a recent talk on Iran's nuclear program, former national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said a policy of continuous imposition of sanctions - ranging from painful to strangulating - makes it increasingly difficult to be sure that the sanctions remained focused on the original goal.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: In other words, will we be trying to change the behavior of the regime, force it to comply with our position on the nuclear issue? Or will we be trying to change the regime?
KENYON: More sanctions appear inevitable, whether or not talks resume. It's an issue for Iran's neighbors, such as Dubai and Turkey, which remain active trade partners with Iran. Turkish officials recently explained a huge spike in Turkey's gold exports by admitting that Ankara has been essentially bartering gold for Iranian natural gas, because banking sanctions make it extremely difficult to use dollars or euros.
Buying Iranian natural gas has not been part of U.S. sanctions to date, but analyst Mark Fitzpatrick expects that to change.
FITZPATRICK: Oh, I'm sure that the U.S. Congress will be looking at gas as one of the next areas to make off limits to Iran, the same way they did with oil sales. And on the gas issue, I think it's interesting. The European Union has already decided itself not to purchase any gas, or to allow European traders to trade in gas. Now, for the European Union to be ahead of the United States in this regard is a little bit anomalous. I think the United States will be catching up pretty quickly.
KENYON: Some U.S. senators want not only to catch, but surpass E.U. sanctions. A bipartisan push has been launched for sweeping new restrictions that could effectively bar most international trade with Iran. It goes well beyond what the White House has called for, but supporters are enthusiastic, saying this is what's needed to get Tehran's attention. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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