By Elise Labott, reporting from Jerusalem
If you know anything about bargaining here in the Middle East, the final offer is not made until the last moment, and not a second before.
The same principle, say Israeli officials, could be applied to the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
"We will only know at the last minute of the last round if Iran has an offer to make and wants to strike a deal," one Israeli official said.
Tehran and the so-called P5 Plus One - the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain - agreed to hold five rounds of talks aimed at persuading Iran to curb its nuclear program, because of suspicions that the program aims to produce weapons.The first two rounds, in Istanbul and Baghdad, produced only enough progress to move to the next round in Moscow.
In Baghdad, the six major powers made a proposal for Iran to curb its production of high-grade uranium, ship any stockpile of it out of the country and close its underground facility at Fordo, where uranium enrichment is taking place.
After signs of an impasse, Iran said it was willing to discuss the proposal next week in Moscow in exchange for easing sanctions.
But Israel sees Iran's gestures as all part of the game. And while officials will be watching next week's talks with great fanfare, they aren't expecting any breakthroughs.
"All we have seen so far is posturing, preparing the ground and atmospherics," the Israeli official said. "This was to be expected."
Israel believes Iran is playing for time. The talks, officials say, are simply an effort by Iran to stall the West and delay crippling oil sanctions for as long as possible while it continues to develop its nuclear capability.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview that the U.S. and its partners have made "inadequate" demands of Iran at the negotiating table.
A growing fear that Israel will launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran has increased pressure on the U.S. and its partners to show progress in Moscow.
It also has prompted an American campaign aimed at boosting Israeli confidence in the diplomatic effort, which includes a stream of high-level visits to Israel and statements that reaffirm the U.S. commitment to keeping up the pressure on Tehran.
Israeli officials say Iran is already feeling the heat of existing sanctions and point to an ongoing debate in Tehran about whether the nuclear standoff is worth the economic cost.
The decisive fifth round will come on the heels of a potentially devastating oil embargo against Tehran that takes effect July 1. Israel is hoping the prospect of further economic hardship will pose a clear choice for Iran.
Of course, things could go awry in Moscow and the talks could fall apart. Iran could decide that it doesn't want a deal.
But Israeli officials believe that if the old souk mentality has anything to do with it, the talks will go through to the fifth round. And the session will be a nail biter.
"They won't completely change their tunes, but that's when we will see if they are suicidal," another Israeli official said. "But that doesn't mean we have to give them any leeway until then."
But just like in the souk, the offer won't be made until the other party is ready to walk away. Iran must make sure that if it is ready for a deal, its price is one the major powers, and Israel, can buy into.