WASHINGTON: The United States and its allies would like to have a “face to face” meeting with Iranian officials before the end of the year, even as they struggle with just what to offer the Islamic Republic.
Talks are going on now among the six countries negotiating with Iran – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — aiming at reaching a decision within three to four weeks about a proposal.
The problem is how to go forward with Iran: should we stick with the requirement that the Islamic Republic give up medium-level enrichment as a confidence-building gesture, without getting anything right away in return. Or should we offer more and be willing to give more, namely relief from the current crippling sanctions which Iran wants.
There is a limit to how large the United States is willing to go at this point. Apparently, there will not be a “grand bargain” proposing a settlement of all the old scores between the two adversaries. Forget about assurances against regime change, the larger issue of Iran’s right to enrich being guaranteed seems not for resolving now. One thing that will not be on the table, at least not right away, is letting Iran get the endgame it wants of being allowed to keep the capability of enriching uranium. This is, however, one of Iran’s primary demands.
Iran chafes about being under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend uranium enrichment in order to alleviate suspicions that it seeks the bomb. Uranium is enriched for a higher concentration of the U-235 isotope to make fuel for power reactors, but the same process can produce the fissile core of atom bombs. The United States claims that Iran is using a civilian nuclear program to hide weapons work while Iran insists its atomic effort is a strictly peaceful effort focused on making electricity.
Talks earlier this year ended in stalemate. The six nations, known as the P5 plus 1, pitched their negotiating stance on Iran shutting down its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, higher than basic fuel use needs and a key step on the way to the weapon-grade level of over 90 percent. Iran recoiled from the idea of making such a concession without having sanctions lifted. The sanctions are seriously hurting Iran’s ability to sell oil. They are also forcing the Iranian currency, the rial, to plummet, thus disrupting the economy. It is not clear, however, if this will push Iran to compromise on its nuclear program.
There was no chance for movement before the U.S. presidential election as Iran wanted to see with whom it would be negotiating. With Barack Obama chosen for a second term, the time has come to test Iran’s will once again. Reuters news agency quoted a Western diplomat in Tehran saying: “The clock is ticking and we need to get it sorted. If the Iranians are looking for a way to climb down, this is a good chance.”
Diplomats said the United States and its negotiating partners are willing to be flexible as long as that may lead to a deal. One idea being discussed is to propose that Iran suspend, limit or ship out of the country the large amount of low-enriched uranium it has made, at 6,876 kilograms enough for several atomic bombs. Iran would get sanctions relief if it went this far, since this would involve its main stockpile of enriched uranium. The problem is that there is great suspicion about whether Iran would take such a step or simply use the promise of it as a negotiating point in order to ask for more, mainly that they have an unimpeded right to enrich as they wish. Frustration with Iran led the United States to harden its position in June at the last talks in Moscow.
Meanwhile, diplomats played down reports about extensive US contacts probing the possibility of bilateral talks with Iran. There have already been such talks within the framework of the meetings between the P5 plus 1 and Iran, and none of Washington’s negotiating partners would have a problem with the United States doing something on its own with Iran. Obama’s stated policy has consistently been to go as far as possible with diplomacy, so that if military action were taken no one could say all peaceful avenues had not been tried. Obama said Wednesday: “I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialog between Iran and – not just us but the international community – to see if we can get this thing resolved.” He added: “We’re not going let Iran get a nuclear weapon, but I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically.” Senior officials from the P5 plus 1 are now set to meet in Brussels on November 21 to discuss how to move towards new talks.
Israel has softened its position on talking to Iran. It had previously said that the Islamic Republic should not be rewarded with direct talks with the United States before it had made concessions. But shortly after the US election November 6, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon spoke out for US-Iranian talks saying Obama “already has a formulated policy” and so could be “effective.”. At the same time in Iran, a senior official Mohammad Javad Larijani said it was “not taboo” to have direct talks with the United States.
In a surprising twist, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry released a report — “The Reasons and Obstacles to an Attack on Iran by the Zionist Regime” — last week which described taking “diplomatic and political measures” and using “the potentials of international bodies” as a “necessary and less costly option” to being attacked by the outside world, the Washington Post reported. This week, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, said his nation hoped talks would resume “at the earliest (possible time).”
The re-election of Obama opens a window for talks in a diplomatic process that had run into a dead-end in Moscow. But it is only a window. The Iranian New Year, when the country basically shuts down, comes in March and after that Iran will be preoccupied with its own presidential elections, which are in June.
The key now is what will be discussed if and when the two sides meet again. That is why the current phase of deciding what to offer is so crucial.