Heading Into Talks With Iran, U.S. Sees Hopeful Signs (NY) TIMES) By MARK LANDLER WASHINGTON 05/19/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-Top
WASHINGTON — American negotiators, heading into a crucial round of
talks with Iran over its nuclear program next week in Baghdad, are
allowing themselves a rare emotion after more than a decade of
fruitless haggling with Tehran: hope.
With signs that Iran is under more pressure than it has been in years
to make a deal, senior Obama administration officials said the United
States and five other major powers were prepared to offer a package
of inducements to obtain a verifiable agreement to suspend its
efforts to enrich uranium closer to weapons grade.
These gestures, the officials said, could include easing restrictions
on things like airplane parts and technical assistance to Iran’s
energy industry, but not the sweeping sanctions on oil exports, which
officials said would go into effect on schedule in July.
The oil sanctions, which the Iranians are seeking desperately to
avoid, are one of several factors that American officials believe may
make Tehran more amenable to exploring a diplomatic solution. In
addition, the recent decline in oil prices has magnified the pain of
the existing sanctions on Iran; a new government coalition in Israel
has strengthened the hand of its hawkish leader, Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu; and Americans believe that recent blustery
statements from Iranian officials are laying the groundwork for
concessions by Tehran.
None of this guarantees success. Several officials played down the
prospect of a major breakthrough from the meeting on Wednesday, which
will include Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, in addition
to the United States. Mr. Netanyahu on Friday repeated his skepticism
that there would be any progress.
But American officials said that at a minimum, the Baghdad meeting
should be a genuine test of Iran’s willingness to do more than
talk. “They’re nervous enough to talk,” said a senior administration
official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the
delicacy of the negotiations. “Whether they’re nervous enough to act,
we don’t know yet.” Another senior official said, “We have a tail
wind going into this.”
For President Obama, the stakes are huge. A successful meeting could
prolong the diplomatic dance with Tehran, delaying any possible
military confrontation over the nuclear program until after the
presidential election. It could also keep a lid on oil prices, which
fell again this week in part because of the decrease in tensions.
Lower gasoline prices would aid the economic recovery in the United
States, and Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects.
In a sign of the increased diplomatic efforts, the International
Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that its director general, Yukiya
Amano, would travel to Tehran on Sunday to try to negotiate access to
a military site where Iran is suspected of having conducted tests on
nuclear-weapons triggers. It would be the first visit by the agency’s
head to Iran since 2009, and it could add to the momentum in Baghdad.
“The Iranians are in the position of needing to pursue diplomacy, if
anything, even more than they did before,” said Dennis B. Ross, one
of Mr. Obama’s senior advisers on Iran until last year and now at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not like they have
any other good news right now.”
Moreover, Mr. Ross said, Iran’s recent statements signal that its
leaders are preparing their domestic audience for concessions.
Iranian officials have declared that the West has effectively
endorsed Iran’s right to enrich uranium, a step they portrayed as a
major strategic coup. American officials insist the United States has
not done that and has been deliberately ambiguous about whether it
would ever grant Iran the right to enrichment.
Still, as Mr. Ross said, “if you’re looking for a way to present a
compromise, you want to present it as a victory.”
Like other experts, he added a cautionary note. After an initial
meeting in Istanbul last month that served mainly to test if Iran was
willing to talk seriously about its nuclear program, the United
States and its partners must now get into the kinds of nitty-gritty
issues that torpedoed previous negotiations with Iran.
The major powers’ initial goal is to halt the activity that most
alarms Israel: the spinning of thousands of centrifuges to enrich
uranium to 20 percent purity, which is within striking distance of
the level needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. That would buy time for
negotiations over the ultimate fate of a program that Iran claims is
for peaceful energy purposes, but that the United States and Israel
fear is in pursuit of at least a nuclear weapons capability.
In addition to halting enrichment, officials said, Iran must agree to
ship out its stockpiles of 20 percent uranium and to cease operations
at an enrichment facility buried in a mountainside near the holy city
of Qum, which Israel says could soon be impregnable to an airstrike.
If Iran agrees to those interim steps, officials said, the talks
could shift from high-profile meetings once a month to more regular
meetings, at working levels, where officials could delve into
technical details, like how to ship out the uranium or monitor Iran’s
suspension of operations at the plant near Qum, known as Fordo.
European Union and Iranian officials have already met in Geneva to
prepare the agenda for the meeting in Baghdad.
“You could really use the summer to have weekly, if not daily,
meetings to get to the point where the U.S. could say, ‘We think
there is a deal out there to avoid war,’ ” said R. Nicholas Burns,
who led talks with Iran under President George W. Bush and is now a
professor at Harvard. But, he added, the Obama administration “has
also got to be willing to walk away from it.”
On Tuesday, the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro,
sought to reassure an Israeli audience that the United States not
only was willing to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring
a nuclear weapon, but had made preparations to do so. And Mr.
Netanyahu’s public position on the negotiations has remain unchanged,
while his ability to order military action may actually be enhanced
by his new, broader coalition, analysts said.
In his comments on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his demand that
Iran cease all enrichment, even to 3.5 percent purity; ship out all
stockpiles of enriched uranium; and dismantle, rather than simply
switch off, the Fordo facility. “When this goal is achieved, I will
be the first to applaud,” he said during a visit to Prague. “Until
then, count me among the skeptics.”
Analysts said it was hard to gauge what kinds of concessions from the
Western nations, Russia and China would draw a positive response from
Iran, beyond lifting the oil embargo. European officials have
suggested that the European Union could suspend a ban on insuring oil
tankers that has had a far swifter effect on Iran’s sales elsewhere
in the world than originally intended.
The major powers, officials said, are also likely to offer a
variation on an earlier proposal to enrich uranium removed from Iran
and ship it back into the country for use in medical research. Steven
Lee Myers and David E. Sanger contributed reporting. (Copyright 2012
The New York Times Company 05/19/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY