I do hope I won’t have to eat these words in a few hours, but here goes: Don’t be distracted by the Sturm und Drang from Vienna. Despite Tuesday’s events — which converted multilateral negotiations into some combination of bilaterals and proximity talks — the odds are quite good that the IAEA soon will be able to announce a deal between Iran and the American-Russian-French sides.

The noise around the role of France looks like Iran’s effort to see what it can gain by exploiting differences between Paris and Washington. (These were previewed in Sunday’s Post by Glenn Kessler.) Any wily negotiator might do the same.

But if the Foreign Ministry document discussed here earlier is accurate (see: France’s Role in the LEU-TRR Deal, October 9, 2009), it will be tough to exclude France from any refueling arrangements for the Tehran Research Reactor, since only French and Argentine industry make the type of fuel assemblies used there.

To save face, some sort of subcontracting arrangement might be ginned up. On the substance, though, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is sticking to his guns:

Kouchner indicated that Paris was ready to bow out of formal participation in the deal but would not compromise on insisting that Tehran ship out most of its enriched material.

If Iran accepts, “it must be before the end of the year, there must be at least 1,200 kilograms — on that we won’t back down,” Kouchner told reporters in Paris.

And whatever Iran’s precise reasons for initiating these talks back in June — the same month as the Presidential elections — it is hard to see them walking away now. As Nima Gerami and James Acton remind us, an IAEA Board of Governors meeting is coming up in late November, with the Qom issue looming large. The dispute over the weaponization file hasn’t gone away, either. Now is the time for Tehran to strike a bargain.

Update. Right on schedule:

Caution: Do Not Oversell

It’s easy to get absorbed in the minutiae of site-specific safeguards and takeback arrangements, so let’s keep in mind what the parties really seem to be getting. Iran can duck the worst of the fallout from the Qom affair and gain implicit acceptance of its enrichment activities. (Emphasis on “implicit.”) The P5+1 can put time back on the clock by getting that 1,200 kg LEU out of the country. And in the implementation phase, the sides will be able to test each other’s intentions and create some trust at the working level, assuming there are no major hitches.

Here’s how a nameless insider put it to Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor:

With this plan, “we are buying something like seven to 10 months,” says a senior European diplomat in Washington with close knowledge of the nuclear talks. “Perhaps step by step, we could build something out of this.”

IAEA DG Mohamed ElBaradei has gone even further, with heady talk about a grand bargain.

There are just a couple of problems here.

First, it’s not necessarily a matter of seven to ten months. There are at least 50 IR-1 cascades now installed at Natanz, although many were still under vacuum in August (see: Twenty-Two Cascades Under Vacuum, August 28, 2009). According to Alexander Glaser, a single cascade of 164 IR-1s could be expected to produce up to 113 kg of 3.5% enriched LEU per year. Discount the efficiency of operations somewhat (Geoff Forden suggests 85% based on past performance at Natanz), and Iran could recreate 1,200 kg of 3.5% enriched LEU in a shade over four months using 36 cascades. With 54 cascades going, it would take less than three months.

[Update | Dec. 6, 2009. This estimate depends on what is almost surely an overestimate of the separative power of the IR-1. Glaser cites Mark Hibbs’ Jan. 31, 2005 article in Nuclear Fuel, which describes the separative power of the URENCO equipment on which the IR-1 is based. For further explanation, see here.]

I’m not predicting that Iran will go flat-out to recreate its present LEU stockpile, but I would expect them to keep enriching at some rate. That rate may vary; having discovered what sort of safeguarded LEU stockpile the P5+1 are prepared to tolerate, the Iranian side might seek to influence the pace and urgency of future talks by the pace of operations at Natanz.

Second, we cannot really expect this narrow, technical transaction to bring about a sea change in relations. For a preview of how the Iranians are likely to sell it to their own public, consider this item from the IRIB news agency, which couches the EUP export as an Iranian demand:

The Islamic Republic of Iran demands that up to %5 of enrichment for Tehran’s research reactor to be done in Iran and then be sent to one of the three countries (Russia, France or America) for more enrichment.

The outcome, we can be sure, will be touted in Tehran as a victory — meaning, of course, a defeat for the other side. That’s the political context in which these talks operate. Future rounds probably won’t be much different. Actually reaching a grand bargain on all the issues dividing Iran and the West would deprive the Islamic revolution of any substance; forget it. These are nuclear talks, with perhaps some excursions into hostage negotiations. (There is precedent for goodwill gestures.) The real challenge before the P5+1 is to decide what it really wants most — Zero enrichment and reprocessing in Iran? Significantly strengthened safeguards? — and how to get there.

Hat tip: Anonymous Analyst.

Update. In his statement to the press today, ElBaradei returned to the theme of a grand bargain:

I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community.

It’s good to have a vision. But it’s also wiser to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around.