While expectations for any major breakthroughs in the latest round of talks between Iran and the major powers are virtually nonexistent, the two-day meeting that begins Friday in Istanbul could help ease growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.
The most realistic hope among those who favor enhanced efforts to engage Tehran is that Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany – will agree at this session to continue negotiations, possibly to broker a confidence-building measure, such as the aborted nuclear fuel swap deal that was first put forward in October 2009.
"Given the level of distrust between the sides and the problems we have had in the past with diplomatic engagement, I would regard the commitment to have another meeting to constitute success," said Greg Thielmann, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst, currently with the Arms Control Association (ACA).
"I wish for other outcomes as well, including bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Iranian delegates," he added, "but a commitment to continuing diplomatic engagement is sufficient for now."
The U.S. delegation will be led by the undersecretary for political affairs, William Burns, who has taken part in all three previous meetings between the P5+1 and Iran dating back to the last months of the administration of President George W. Bush.
"We’re not expecting any big breakthroughs, but we want to see a constructive process emerge that leads to Iran engaging with the international community in a credible process and engaging and addressing the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner Thursday.
While he ruled out the possible lifting of existing sanctions against Iran, he also stressed that Washington was open to reviving the October 2009 proposal to swap most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in exchange for more highly enriched rods that are needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes.
That proposal initially fell victim to attacks against it in Tehran by both reformist and conservative critics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had endorsed it. It was revived last spring in a mediation effort by Turkey and Brazil, but Washington rejected the deal on the grounds that Iran’s LEU stockpile had doubled in the intervening period so the original amount to be exported for reprocessing was no longer sufficient.
Turkey, which Iran had wanted to host this week’s meeting, has offered to take up the initiative again if the parties express a willingness to pursue it.
Pro-engagement forces here, both within and outside the administration, have been heartened by the recent assessment – one that accords with U.S. intelligence estimates – by the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon until 2015 at the earliest, presumably as a result of existing sanctions on technology transfer, sabotage, and other covert activities.
"Fortunately, time exists to pursue a diplomatic solution," noted a statement signed and released Thursday by some two dozen Iran and non-proliferation experts who urged the administration of President Barack Obama to "re-invigorate" the diplomatic track of his Iran strategy both by engaging Tehran "more persistently" on a range of issues, as well as the nuclear question, and by dropping "unrealistic" positions, such as demanding that Iran cease enriching uranium entirely.
"Diplomacy is the only sustainable means of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, avoiding the dangerous folly of military confrontation in the Middle East, and enabling progress in other critical areas of U.S. interest, such as Afghanistan and the human rights situation within Iran," said the statement.
It was signed by a former British ambassador to Tehran, Sir Richard Dalton, and the recently retired deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, Amb. John Limbert, as well as a number of other senior retired U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials.
More hawkish forces both in Israel and among its allies here, on the other hand, have pooh-poohed Dagan’s assessment, stressing that there were serious differences of opinion within Israel’s intelligence community and that, in any case, Iran could shorten the time-line if it received technology and other assistance from North Korea, for example – a point which Dagan himself conceded this week, reportedly under heavy political pressure from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
They have also warned against Western acquiescence in any protracted negotiations and insisted that the current round of talks be quickly followed up by new sanctions and other measures, including a build-up of U.S. military forces around Iran, to increase pressure on it to abandon its uranium enrichment efforts altogether.
While Israel, a nuclear-armed state which has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), opposes any uranium enrichment by Iran, the Obama administration has been more ambiguous.
Senior officials have hinted they are prepared to accept some limited enrichment under strict international safeguards, a position that was stated most explicitly last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"We’ve told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven’t yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC on the eve of the last round of P5+1 talks in Geneva.
"They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," she added.
Clinton’s statement provoked an immediate response from some of Israel’s most aggressive Congressional supporters here.
"(G)iven the government of Iran’s patterns of deception and non-cooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future," wrote a bipartisan group of five senators in a letter to Clinton.
The same senators, as well as colleagues in the House of Representatives, are also readying legislation that would broaden unilateral U.S. sanctions against third-country companies doing business in Iran and reduce Obama’s powers to waive their application.
But a growing number of Iran specialists have complained that Obama’s "dual-track" policy of diplomatic engagement and pressure has relied too heavily on the latter and may even have strengthened the positions of hard-liners in Tehran.
In November, the Congressionally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace and the non-partisan Stimson Center here released a report by more than 40 recognized Iran and non-proliferation experts that criticized the administration’s "emphasis on sanctions and related coercive steps", which it said may prove counterproductive.
It called on the administration to "rebalance" its approach, mainly by clarifying its view of a "mutually acceptable agreement on the nuclear issue" and conveying "its readiness to discuss a range of issues of potential mutual concern", such as Afghanistan, drug trafficking and energy policy.
(Inter Press Service)