By Jill Dougherty
Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers are supposed to begin in one week in Istanbul, but there's a hitch: Iranian officials at the last minute have been tossing out proposals for alternate locations, such as Beijing, Damascus or Baghdad.
U.S. officials are drumming their fingers, eyes on the clock. "We are ready to get down to business and get this process moving forward," one senior official told CNN.
Hitches and glitches with Iran are nothing new. Last month President Barack Obama accused Iranian officials of "hemming and hawing and stalling and avoiding the issues."
But now, squeezed by biting economic sanctions from the international community, Tehran says it's ready to talk.
It's that "sustained pressure" that's bringing Iran's leaders back to the negotiating table, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week in Istanbul, "and we hope that it will result in a plan of action that will resolve our disagreements peacefully."
Obama says there's a window for a diplomatic resolution to the tensions between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program, but that window is closing.
Iran's leaders, he says, must "prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons."
A senior administration official outlined to CNN the skeleton of a deal: "There is the potential for a diplomatic resolution that recognizes Iran's right to peaceful nuclear power if it can meet its international obligations and demonstrate that its program is peaceful."
As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Tehran does have the right, like other countries, to enrich uranium for commercial and research reactors. But there's a problem: the same facilities that are used for peaceful enrichment can be used to enrich uranium for a bomb. And that's exactly what many Western countries believe Iran is doing.
Iran hid its initial attempts at enrichment and has been enriching at higher levels, closer to those needed to produce a nuclear weapon. That, Western officials say, undermines trust.
Obama says there's no wiggle room: "My policy here is not going to be one of containment," he says, "My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons."
If Iran shows up for the April 13 talks, wherever they may be held, another senior U.S. official told CNN, it has to be "ready to engage seriously on its nuclear program."
"In particular, Iran must be prepared to engage concretely on practical steps that can build confidence in its intentions in the nuclear field."
"We are well past the point of pretending that we're just treating Iran like everyone else," intelligence expert Paul Pillar of Georgetown University said. "We aren't."
Any agreement that would be "salable" in the United States or in Israel, he said, "would have to push the Iranians beyond what are the general obligations under the likes of the Nonproliferation Treaty and include more intrusive, special-just-for-the-Iranians safeguards and inspection requirements."
The Iranians complain they're being singled out for strict treatment. As the days before the nuclear talks dwindle, Pillar says he's not surprised by the game-playing over a location.
"The Iranians are skilled bargainers," he said. "Lots of dickering" is to be expected.
"Remember the Vietnam peace talks? We spent a year just dickering over the shape of the conference table," he added.
"I think our proper approach is to expect this to be a long, difficult process," Pillar said. "We should also expect critical voices here, and certainly in Israel, saying, 'Oh, diplomacy is failing, diplomacy is failing.' This (dickering) does not indicate it's failing, it indicates this is the kind of long, difficult bargaining process that, given the players and given the issues, we ought to expect."