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Iran Sees Success in Stalling on Nuclear Issue (NY) TIMES) By THOMAS ERDBRINK TEHRAN, IRAN 05/15/12) Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/world/middleeast/iran-sees-success-in-stalling-on-nuclear-issue.html?ref=world&gwh=F64825844BCFF63C6E1A4CE3469ACBF0
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TEHRAN — As Iran starts a critical round of talks over its nuclear program, its negotiating team may be less interested in reaching a comprehensive settlement than in buying time and establishing the legitimacy of its enrichment program, Iranian officials and analysts said.
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That is because though Iran finds itself under increased financial pressure from tightening sanctions, officials here argue that their fundamental approach has essentially worked. In continually pushing forward the nuclear activities — increasing enrichment and building a bunker mountain enrichment facility — Iran has in effect forced the West to accept a program it insists is for peaceful purposes. Iranians say their carefully crafted policy has helped move the goal posts in their favor by making enrichment a reality that the West has been unable to stop — and may now be willing, however grudgingly, to accept.
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“Without violating any international laws or the nonproliferation treaty, we have managed to bypass the red lines the West created for us,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is close to the negotiating team.
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Iran’s envoys met on Monday with officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to discuss the agency’s desire to inspect facilities that it suspects have been used to test explosives capable of detonating a nuclear charge, which Iran denies. The talks, however, are also seen as an informal precursor to talks scheduled this month in Baghdad, between Iran and the United States and other nations.
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While there remains a significant gap in trust between the two sides — and little likelihood that Iran will give the I.A.E.A. the access it wants to a military site — Iran’s public posture fuels a sense that both sides are searching for a way to declare victory and defuse the crisis. For the West, officials have said that success, at least in the short term, would mean a deal that has Iran ship all its medium- enriched uranium out of the country, which would increase the amount of time needed to make bomb-grade material.
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In Tehran, Mr. Taraghi was promoting a narrative that might pave the way for public, and political, acceptance of a compromise over a program that has broad public support, even among competing political factions. Enrichment is seen as a matter of national sovereignty and pride.
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Mr. Taraghi ticked off Iran’s successes. First, he said, Western countries did not want Iran to have a nuclear power plant, but its Bushehr reactor was now connected to the national grid. Second, the West had opposed Iran having heavy-water facilities, he said, but it now has one in Arak.
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Third, the West had said no to any enrichment.
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“But here we are, enriching as much as we need for our nuclear energy program,” Mr. Taraghi said with a smile, referring to the thousands of cascades of centrifuges spinning for years in the half-underground facility in Natanz. Since January, dozens more centrifuges have been online in the Fordo mountain bunker complex, near Qum, built to withstand a heavy attack.
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Mr. Taraghi and other officials say their policy has forced the United States to accept enrichment, though five resolutions by the United Nations Security Council have called for it to suspend it. Obama administration officials dispute that view.
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But some Iranian and Western officials have hinted that the White House may now be willing to accept some level of enrichment activity, in return for highly intrusive inspections and other guarantees. Tehran, too, may be willing to compromise, ending its enrichment up to 20 percent, a level at which it is easier to enrich it to weapons grade.
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Even before a preliminary meeting in Istanbul last month, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, Fereydoon Abbasi, announced that Iran was willing to stop enriching uranium up to 20 percent. Iran has said it was enriching uranium in order to power up a 43-year-old American- designed medical reactor to produce medical isotopes used to treat cancer.
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Mr. Taraghi also said that in the Istanbul talks, Iran had managed to convince the West of the importance of a religious edict, or fatwa, by Ayatollah Khamenei, against the possession of nuclear weapons. He said that doing so helped sell its position that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. “The West is secular, they do not believe that religious decisions are more important for us than political ones. This took some convincing from our side,” he said. American officials describe it differently, saying that they brought up the fatwa in an effort to offer the Iranians a face-saving way to reach a compromise.
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Iran’s negotiators left the Istanbul meeting believing they had scored a major victory. “We have managed to get our rights,” said Mr. Taraghi in his office in downtown Tehran. “All that remains is a debate over the percentage of enrichment.”
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But it is not clear from either Washington or Tehran where optimism ends and posturing for negotiations begins. American officials say no compromise on nuclear enrichment was offered in the Istanbul talks, which potentially sets the Iranian side up for major disappointment.
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Instead, last week the United States called upon Iran to take “urgent, practical steps,” without specifying what, before the meeting in Baghdad, on May 23.
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Empowered by the opinion that escalating sanctions mixed with military threats have intimidated the Iranians, Western officials have leaked several central demands they might make at the Baghdad talks.
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One is for Iran to allow United Nations inspectors back into the Parchin military complex, to investigate accusations by Western intelligence agencies that Iran has been working on triggers for a nuclear weapon. There are also demands for Iran to close the Fordo complex, which is under I.A.E.A. supervision. And, if any deal is to take place, Western powers want the Islamic Republic to sign a voluntary agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, allowing wider inspections.
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United States officials have said they could imagine an enrichment program on Iranian soil — but only years from now and only under a series of conditions, including: full answers to all I.A.E.A. questions about possible work on weapons technology; allowing the I.A.E.A. to conduct inspections without warning at declared and suspected sites; and suspension of enrichment until these commitments are fulfilled.
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“This illustrates that the nuclear case is just another pretext for trying to keep us down,” said Aziz Shah Mohammadi, an expert formerly connected with Iran’s National Security Council, which, together with Ayatollah Khamenei, maps out Iran’s nuclear policy. “Therefore, we view each round of negotiations as a separate phase, not as leading to an all-out solution,” he said.
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Independence from the West is a pillar of the Islamic Republic’s ideology, which makes it very hard for Iran’s leaders to compromise on issues such as closing nuclear sites or foreign inspections beyond the current agreements under the nonproliferation treaty, analysts here said.
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Rather, expect the country to start a new nuclear project, if talks fail, one analyst said. “Wait for our leaders to announce, for example, a new mountain bunker so Fordo will be forgotten,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss this topic. “In case of failure we will try to hold out again until better opportunities for reaching our goals arise.”
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Mr. Taraghi did not want to consider the possibility of the talks failing, though he said Iran would have demands of its own in Baghdad, including an end to sanctions against its Central Bank.
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“We view the nuclear episode as a heavy retreat for the Western powers,” he said. “But acceptance of our nuclear program takes time, we understand that.”David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 05/15/12)
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