WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has gained the high ground in upcoming talks with Iran, but Tehran — famous for diplomatic stall tactics — will probably leave the Geneva negotiations having bought still more time to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
Even though the U.S. and two key allies disclosed last week that Iran was secretly building a second uranium enrichment plant, and even though the Russians have spoken more positively about tough sanctions against Tehran, the Islamic republic remained unlikely to succumb to international pressure.
"It's a game of cat-and-mouse," said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who served for two decades in the State Department as a senior Mideast policy adviser.
Regardless of the uranium enrichment disclosure or Russia's new comments on sanctions, Miller said, "I don't see any change in the objectives of either side — Iran's determination to build a bomb and the United States' mission" to prevent Tehran from reaching that goal.
Iran already is under U.N. sanctions, but the international opprobrium is much watered down from what the United States, Britain and France wanted. Russia and China, who trade heavily with Iran and hold the two other U.N. Security Council vetoes, have so far refused to join in the kind of international punishment that would cause the Iranian regime deep and behavior-changing pain.
At last week's U.N. General Assembly, however, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, "Sanctions rarely lead to productive results but in some cases are inevitable." The Obama administration trumpeted those words as a signal that the Kremlin was now on board.
But former diplomats and specialists doubt the Russians are going to endanger their profitable commercial and military trade relations with Iran.
Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy at Harvard who was the Bush administration's point man on Iran from 2005-08, said he supports President Barack Obama's policy of reaching out to Iran before threatening it with more sanctions.
But, he said, he remains skeptical that the Russians are really ready to join in a serious sanctions effort.
James Collins, a former ambassador to Russia and now a leading Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Kremlin will undoubtedly support the Obama administration's demands that Iran immediately open the newly disclosed enrichment plant to inspection by the U.N.
The Kremlin will go that far "as long as it's only carrots and no sticks," Collins said. "The Russians genuinely believe that sanctions will not have an effect but will only make things worse."
All assessments suggest the Chinese want to do everything they can to keep and expand trade relations with Iran. Beijing desperately needs Iranian oil and Tehran depends heavily on gasoline and oil field equipment from China.
Miller said China would only move on sanctions if Russia does. Beijing is happy to publicly hide behind Russian policy as a matter of solidarity, using that as a cover for mercantile pragmatism.
There will be "endless maneuvering. This can stretch out for a long time," he said.
In the end, the experts agree that the U.S. has three choices — assuming Tehran does not back down and Russia and China hold fast to their anti-sanctions policies:
None of the options is particularly welcome.