Can diplomacy prevail with Iran?
Iran must now accept or reject a proposal that offers some sanctions relief in return for Tehran’s reducing its stockpile of uranium enriched close to weapon-grade. This hopeful note – Tehran’s reaction was positive – comes as a showdown looms, because Iran continues to inch ever closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.
In a diplomatic process where expectations are low, the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday and Wednesday were considered a success. The United States and its negotiating partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – got what they wanted. A senior U.S. official said Washington was “not expecting a breakthrough in Almaty.” It was enough, the official said, that the six major powers had the “opportunity to put a new and promising proposal on the table.”
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called the new proposal “more realistic” and, according to one Western diplomat, even carried out a “charm offensive.” Said Jalili, “They tried to bring proximity in some points between the viewpoints of Iran and their own, which we believe is positive, despite the fact that we have a long way to reach the optimum point.” He was also less confrontational during the closing press conference. He did not, for example, present pictures of Iranian scientists allegedly assassinated by a U.S.-Israel covert operation, as he had before.
Western diplomats were cautious, however. The Iranian nuclear crisis has been characterized by rounds of talks that have raised hopes only to end in deadlock, since Iranian and U.S.-led positions fundamentally contradict.
Washington wants Iran to show its good faith by stopping the enrichment of uranium to near 20 percent — a giant leap toward making weapon-grade uranium of more than 90 percent enriched for the U-235 isotope, which favors chain reactions. This so-called confidence-building measure would be followed by talks about Iran’s main stockpile of enriched uranium, which is refined to 5 percent, the level needed for power reactors. If an agreement were reached about this stockpile — which, if enriched further, is currently enough for five nuclear bombs — the West would begin lifting the sanctions that are now crippling Iran’s ability to sell oil and do international business.
But Iran is insisting that sanctions be lifted as a first step, and its right to enrich recognized – before it makes concessions.
The United Nations has indeed called on Iran to suspend enrichment, due to fears that Iran seeks the bomb. Iran insists its program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity and that it has the right to enrich under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The new proposal massages this divide. It calls for “a suspension” of making 20 percent enriched uranium, rather than for closing the key plant where this is done. It also offers some immediate sanctions relief — allowing Tehran to trade in gold and precious metals, for example, which is a way of bypassing currency restrictions imposed under sanctions. These two offers are what led Jalili to say the six negotiating nations were being positive.
This is a step toward compromise by the Iranians. Before, they were insisting that the oil and banking sanctions be lifted immediately.
The next meeting will be of nuclear experts in Istanbul on March 18. There, Iranians will have the opportunity to ask questions about the proposal’s technical details. A second meeting of the senior foreign ministry directors follows in Almaty on April 5-6, when Iran is due to respond to the proposal.
Diplomacy is being revived here, after falling apart when the gulf between the two sides blocked progress last June. Talks were again frozen as the Iranians waited to see who would win the U.S. presidential elections in November.
Obama declared as he began his second term that the window for diplomacy was open. This week’s Kazakhstan meeting signals that it has opened another notch. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday in Paris that Iran, engaging seriously, “could pave the way for negotiations that lead towards a longer-term and comprehensive agreement.”
The problem is that Iran is continuing to move forward with the uranium and plutonium production lines for possible weapons, according to a U.N. nuclear report. It has increased its capacity to make low enriched uranium, and it could increase production quickly for 20 percent-enriched uranium, with enough already stockpiled to be half what it would need to refine into an atomic bomb. Tehran says this 20 percent enriched uranium is for fuel for a research reactor. Iran is also finishing work on a reactor that could produce plutonium.
The fear remains that Iran wants to draw out talks while it develops its nuclear program.
Diplomats have said that Iran was warned that increasing its nuclear program to approach weapon-grade uranium would not be helpful. The Iranians responded that they are already showing self-restraint.
The hope is that Tehran wants to save its economy, which has been crippled by sanctions, and will take a face-saving way out — where it gets to keep some enrichment work. The Almaty meeting shows diplomacy is still alive.
PHOTO (Top): Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (2nd R, front) walks down the stairs before talks in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool
PHOTO (Insert): Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, gestures as he arrives for a news conference in Almaty February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov