After weeks of rapidly escalating tensions, particularly between Israel and Iran, signs emerged this week both in Washington and in Tehran that serious negotiations over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program may soon get underway.
The most concrete step was a long-awaited positive RSVP from Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalali, to an invitation extended last October by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet with the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) for a new round of talks.
"We voice our readiness for dialogue on a spectrum of various issues, which can provide grounds for constructive and forward-looking co-operation," Jalali wrote in his letter.
In response, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ashton herself emerged from a meeting here Friday expressing cautious optimism about prospects for a resumption of negotiations, which have been effectively suspended for more than a year.
"[W]e think this is an important step and we welcome the letter," Clinton told reporters, adding that Jalili’s letter "appeared to acknowledge and accept" a Western condition that Iran has previously resisted: that any talks "begin with a discussion of (Iran’s) nuclear program."
A formal response by the P5+1, whose members are still consulting with each other, may not, however, be forthcoming until after the scheduled visit next week by a high-level delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the second in the past month. If Tehran accedes to certain requests that it denied the delegation in its last visit, confidence will be enhanced, U.S. officials said.
The latest developments come after several months of escalating tensions, the most recent spiral of which began in late December with the adoption of "crippling" sanctions by Washington and the EU and threats by some Iranian officials to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Since then, officials in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its allies here repeatedly urged Washington to build up its forces in and around the Gulf to make the threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities more credible. They have also warned that Israel may attack Iran unilaterally as early as this spring without necessarily consulting the U.S. in advance.
Israel also accused Tehran of attempting to carry out a series of bombings this week against Israeli diplomatic personnel in India, Georgia and Thailand, presumably in retaliation for the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists over the past several years, the most recent one on Jan. 11.
Most experts believe Israel’s Mossad, possibly with the help of an Iraq-based terrorist group, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, was behind the scientists’ killings. For its part, Tehran strongly denied responsibility for this week’s bombings.
These developments come amid signs of major differences between Israel and the administration of President Barack Obama with respect both to possible military action against Iran and what each considers an acceptable negotiated solution to its nuclear program.
The Israelis have argued that Iran, once it decided to build a nuclear bomb, could throw out IAEA inspectors from its new underground Fordow facility near of Qom and begin producing weapons-grade uranium at any time. The facility is buried so deep that it would be impervious to Israel’s biggest conventional bombs. In its view, Tehran could thus enter a "zone of immunity" within months.
The administration, however, has argued that the situation is not nearly as urgent, not only because Washington has munitions that could penetrate Fordow, but also because Iran faces many more challenges in building a missile-deliverable weapon, challenges that could be made more difficult to overcome by concerted international action, including ever-tighter sanctions.
The latest estimates suggest that a deliverable bomb would take at least two to three years to build from the time that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, authorized such an effort, a decision that both U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies agree he has not yet taken.
In Washington’s view, there remains much more time to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program as a last resort. Moreover, absent clear evidence that Iran is indeed building a weapon, any attack would be seen as by the international community as aggression and increase Tehran’s determination to build one as a deterrent against future attacks.
The two allies also appear to disagree over the terms of an acceptable negotiated settlement and what constitute "red lines" over which Iran should not be permitted to cross. While administration officials most often insist that it is "unacceptable" for Iran to obtain a nuclear "weapon" or "bomb," the Israelis insist that a nuclear weapons "capability" – a much lower and vaguer threshold – is unacceptable.
Israel opposes any uranium enrichment by Iran, a position that was shared by the administration of President George W. Bush and, at least until very recently, by France, which has consistently demanded that Tehran comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its enrichment activities.
Although the Obama administration has not said so in so many words – no doubt to preserve its negotiating position – it has been signalling since Congressional testimony by Clinton last March that it would be prepared to accept Iran’s enrichment of uranium to a limit of 3.5 percent, provided that Tehran accept a much more intrusive IAEA inspection regime and clear up all outstanding questions posed by the IAEA regarding evidence of weaponization activities.
These were the conditions set out explicitly by Obama’s former top Iran adviser, Amb. Dennis Ross, in a New York Times op-ed this week. It also suggested that Washington was open to a step-by-step Russian proposal that called for international sanctions against Iran to be eased in response to confidence-building steps by Tehran, such as halting its 20-percent enrichment program and shipping its accumulated stock out of the country.
He noted that Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said recently P5+1 talks could be based on the Russian proposal.
Ross’s op-ed was regarded as especially significant for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he continues to dispense advice to the White House from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near Policy (WINEP), a think tank founded by the most powerful organization in what is known as the Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
For its part, however, AIPAC is lobbying heavily for Israel’s position. Half a dozen of its most loyal Senate allies this week introduced a resolution that asserts that the prevention of Iran’s acquisition of a "nuclear weapons capability" is "a vital national interest of the United States."
The resolution, which was cosponsored by some 30 Republicans and Democrats, also insists on a "full and sustained suspension" of all Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and "a verified end to (Iran’s) ballistic missile program" – demands that appear calculated to sabotage any possible prospects for a successful negotiation.
In a letter to Obama Thursday, the main sponsors, who include Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham, independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and New York’s two Democratic senators, said they will oppose "any proposal…in which Iran is permitted to continue enrichment on its territory in any form."
AIPAC is expected to push for a Senate vote on the resolution, as well as a companion measure in the House of Representatives, before or during its annual Washington convention, to be attended by Netanyahu, most members of Congress, and thousands of staunchly pro-Israel activists, in early March, when the P5+1 talks may also get underway.