Iran has made no secret of its hopes for the next round of nuclear negotiations with world powers: Pledges by the West to ease sanctions as a step toward deal making by Tehran.
Iran's pitch is certain to smack head-on into resistance and counter proposals by the West. But it reflects a harder-edged atmosphere before the next talks that suggests envoys will face pressure to stake out at least some tangible bargaining positions, as opposed to the last round where just getting to the negotiating table was considered positive.
Iran has been careful about avoiding ultimatums in a possible sign that it sees the meeting scheduled for later this month in Baghdad as a stepping stone, not a showdown.
No official, for example, has suggested that talks would hit an impasse if the U.S. and European partners balk at immediately rolling back some sanctions, which have targeted Iran's critical oil sector and left the country effectively blackballed from international banking networks.
Instead, Iran has cultivated a sunny approach _ with officials repeatedly saying they are "optimistic" about the May 23 session and their hopes for goodwill gestures from the other side: the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
"We continue to be optimistic about upcoming negotiations," said Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh, at a conference in Vienna on Wednesday.
From the Western corner, the mood is much tougher.
U.S. officials have rejected the idea that they could ease sanctions against Iran as a confidence-building measure. They have said sanctions will only be pulled back if Iran eases world concern over its nuclear program and complies with demands that include suspending uranium enrichment.
"No one's talking about any sanctions being reversed or canceled at all," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner on April 16, just after the Baghdad meeting was announced.
Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the question of removing sanctions was "hypothetical."
"We have to see what the Iranians are willing to do, then we have to make sure they do it, and then we have to reciprocate. That's what a negotiation is all about," she told CNN.
Any progress in the talks also further dampens support for possible military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel, which has been the most aggressive in discussing the military option, has been confronted with growing questions over the risks versus rewards of an attack. Some former Israeli security officials, including the ex-chief of internal security Yuval Diskin, have speculated that bombs would only set back Iran's nuclear development by a few years, but could touch off a region-wide war and bring direct retaliation from Tehran proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Obama administration has been trying to convince Israel to give more time for sanctions and negotiations to yield results _ even as Netanyahu branded last month's talks in Istanbul a "freebie" that allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium until the next round.
Istanbul's meeting ended with little more than the plan to meet again. Yet that was portrayed as a success after the swift collapse of negotiations in early 2011.
Iran's uranium enrichment remains the central issue.
Tehran says its enrichment labs are only making nuclear fuel for energy and research reactors, and insists it has no intention of producing weapons. Washington and allies worry the enrichment sites could eventually churn out weapons-grade material.
Now looms the greater challenges of actually hashing out proposals that bridge very different agendas: The West and its allies seeking to rein in Iran's nuclear enrichment, and Tehran strongly refusing to accept any significant reverses in its atomic program.
This is where negotiators may begin to parse the enrichment capabilities. Continued...