The meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) with Iran in Baghdad is apparently producing a lot of detailed proposals for resolving the crisis.
Apparently the one place there could be a breakthrough, if not at Baghdad then later this summer, is with regard to Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 19.75% (this is still low-enriched uranium or LEU) for the production of medical isotopes at its medical reactor. A stock of 19.75%- enriched LEU is much closer to the 95% enriched uranium typically needed to construct a nuclear warhead than the 3.5%-enriched uranium used to fuel ordinary electricity-generating reactors. The UNSC and Germany want to find a way to have Iran supplied with the fuel for the medical reactor from the outside, so that they do not have to make their own.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is also seeking enhanced access to sites for inspection. Some of these sites have no uranium enrichment facilities, such as the military base Parchin, but are of interest because Iran is suspected of conducting experiments there with weapons implications, as with the construction of a superhard casing for a warhead.
The problem on the UNSC + Germany side is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows Iran to enrich uranium, including to 19.75%, and does not allow for inspections of military bases (at US and then-Soviet insistence). The P5 + 1 are making demands on Iran for which there is no basis in international law, and which are directly contradictory to the NPT. In essence, the UNSC has high-handedly repealed the NPT for Iran and from 2006 has just insisted that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether, including for peaceful power-generating purposes.
Iran would be under no obligation to pay attention to these extra-legal UNSC demands save that they are accompanied by the imposition of a financial blockade on Iran that aims at preventing it from selling its petroleum via the international banking system and so at paralyzing the Iranian economy. US unilateral sanctions are far more harsh than the UNSC sanctions, but the US is still the world’s largest economy, and it can usually make its financial policies stick.
The European Union extra sanctions beyond those called for by the Security Council may not be legal. According to Iranian officials, a European court recently struck down third-party sanctions on an Iranian firm. This ruling should not be surprising, since the legal case for sanctions on Iran is weak to non-existent.
The sanctions and threatened blockade have brought Iran to the negotiating table. But the Iranian state, as opposed to the Iranian people, is not terribly worried about the Western sanctions, since its petroleum income is sufficient to buffer the government from unrest at anything above $54 a barrel, well below the current price. The state, in short, is still getting rich even with the sanctions, and can evade the blockade by using soft currencies like the Indian rupee and by resorting to barter trades (oil for wheat, e.g.). The Iranian state probably is sufficiently cushioned from the sanctions that state actors will not be harmed by even the stringent US sanctions. Thus, Tehran doesn’t absolutely need to make urgent concessions, though it does want to show some flexibility, in hopes of getting the sanctions dropped or at least softened (especially the UNSC sanctions, since Iran wants to separate out the uber-hawkish US government from its United Nations Security Council colleagues.
The main good thing about the talks is that as long as they continue, they make it hard for anyone to start a war.