Iran nuclear concession would test big power unity (REUTERS) By William Maclean and Fredrik Dahl LONDON/VIENNA 05/16/12 5:29am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Facing an imminent toughening of sanctions, Iran is
hinting at a readiness to give some ground in its long nuclear stand-
off with world powers, but any flexibility could split their ranks
and lead to protracted uncertainty about how to respond.
The stakes are high, for the longer the impasse goes on, the closer
Iran will get to the technological threshold of capability to develop
atomic bombs, raising the odds of last-ditch Israeli military strikes
on its arch-foe and the risk of a new Middle East war a troubled
global economy cannot afford.
A succession of optimistic statements by Iranian officials and
academics has raised speculation that Tehran may offer concessions to
its six main negotiating partners in talks scheduled for May 23 in
Baghdad, a move that could ease regional tensions and soothe fears of
a fresh spike in oil prices.
Such an offer would also be closely studied by Israel, which has
threatened to use force to destroy nuclear installations the Islamic
Republic says are purely civilian in nature but the West suspects are
geared to gaining a weapons capability.
Any talk of a diplomatic breakthrough, though, is almost certainly
Whatever concrete gestures are tabled by Iran would test anew the
cohesiveness of joint Western, Russian and Chinese efforts to prevent
an Iranian atom bomb capability, and might simply lead to months of
inconclusive consultations among its interlocutors about how to
answer Tehran´s move, analysts say.
Differences in how best to match an Iranian offer - for example by
suspending some sanctions in return for Iran shelving enrichment of
uranium to 20 percent purity, a level that worries U.N. nuclear
experts - could snag efforts to turn any such initiative into
meaningful movement towards negotiations.
"Don´t expect a ‘Kumbaya´ (celebratory) moment. It´s going to be a
poker play" between Iran and the major powers, French analyst Bruno
Tertrais said. "I would be surprised if what happens in Baghdad was
more than an agreement on interim steps."
There is "no doubt " that Iran´s policy would be to split the six,
known as the P5+1, says Dennis Ross, until November a chief Middle
East strategy adviser at the White House.
"I also have no doubt that they probably will put something on the
table that they think will be attractive to some of the members of
the P5+1," Ross told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center in
He said one such move could be Iranian assurances on a halt to
stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium.
That level, well beyond the 5 percent of fissile purity suitable for
running civilian nuclear power plants, is intended only to replenish
the fuel stocks of a medical isotope reactor, Iran says. But it also
moves Iran farther down the road towards the highly enriched grade of
uranium usable in bombs.
One Western government assessment is that it would take Iran two to
three years to manufacture a usable nuclear weapon in the event that
authorities in Tehran decided to attempt that task.
Analysts and some diplomats have said Iran and the global powers must
compromise for any chance of a long-term settlement, suggesting
Tehran could be allowed to continue limited low-level enrichment if
it accepts more intrusive U.N. inspections.
But Iran has often managed to limit its diplomatic and economic
isolation by sowing rifts among the six states spearheading
international efforts to rein in Iran´s nuclear program, leading to a
watering-down of U.N. sanctions.
Western analysts are on alert for any new such gambit now.
A united front among Russia, China, the United States, France,
Germany and Britain is the most powerful leverage the outside world
has in ensuring Iranian compliance with international safeguards
intended to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Western
And yet that unity has always been fragile.
Russia and China, which both have strong trade ties to Iran, have
supported four rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed since 2006 on Iran
over its refusal to suspend enrichment-related activity and grant
unfettered U.N. inspections to resolve suspicions of military
dimensions to its nuclear program.
But Moscow and Beijing criticized the United States and the European
Union last year for meting out extra unilateral sanctions against
Iran. Russia has made clear its opposition to any further U.N.
Security Council measures against Tehran.
"I think P5+1 will have significant problems whenever it comes to
Iran actually moving and how they respond," a European diplomat told
Reuters. "At this moment in time it is easy and nothing has been
promised by Iran ... but I think it will become very difficult and
very tense on the P5+1 side once they have to start reacting to an
"EARLY TEST OF UNITY"
Mark Fitzpatrick of London´s International Institute for Strategic
Studies said an Iranian demand for an easing of sanctions in return
for its concessions "will present an early test of P5+1 unity. For
the West, any lifting of sanctions would require significant
limitations on the enrichment program."
There is little debate about what may be encouraging Iran to indicate
new flexibility: Iran, analysts say, wishes to stave off the planned
July 1 start to a European Union ban on imports of Iranian oil, a
significant measure since the EU takes a fifth of the country´s
But there is plenty of speculation about the extent to which Russia
and China are prepared to reward any Iranian shift.
Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute said divergence
between Russia and China and its other partners would likely emerge
on the price the world should demand for dropping the insistence,
enshrined in the Security Council resolutions, that Iran cease any
He said the United States would want to see the dismantling of an
enrichment plant buried deep under a mountain at Fordow south of
Tehran, the Iranian nuclear site best sheltered from any possible air
"The Russians and Chinese may recognize that this is unlikely, and
may accept Iranian offers short of this," he said.
"So we should expect to see Iran attempt to split the Russians and
Chinese from the others by offering something concrete and
significant, but short of dismantlement."
Tehran has ruled out closing the bunkered Fordow site.
SIGNS OF NEW IRANIAN APPROACH
Diplomats and analysts say an agreement is still far off, but the
signs are growing that Iran´s leaders are changing their approach and
preparing public opinion for a potential shift.
Tehran´s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, now a
visiting scholar at Princeton University in the United States, said
last month Iran and major nations had a "historic opportunity" to
settle their decade-old nuclear dispute.
On May 2, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadehhe said
in a speech in Vienna: "We continue to be optimistic about upcoming
In April, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran was "ready to
resolve all issues very quickly and simply".(Editing by Mark
Heinrich) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 05/16/12)
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