U.S. Faces Uphill Battle in Istanbul
April 13, 2012
Meeting in Istanbul for another round of nuclear talks with Iran, the U.S. and five world powers start a new round of diplomacy. Faced with stinging international sanctions preventing Iranian oil sales, Tehran must compromise on its nuclear enrichment program or expect more sanctions. Despite enriching uranium to 20%, the step right before weaponizing, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insist Iran’s nuclear program is for “peaceful purposes.” Had Ahmandinejad not hosted Holocaust denial conferences and threatened to “wipe Israel off the map,” Iran would not face intense scrutiny on its nuclear program. Western powers, including Russia and China, want Iran to halt all centrifuge enrichment activity. If Iran eventurally agrees to limit enrichment activity to 5% it might help lift the current oil embargo.
Ahmandinejad has made it clear that Iran has the right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, claiming its program was designed for power-plants and making radioactive medical isotopes. Western powers haven’t bought Iran’s explanation, finding more evidence of nuclear bomb or warhead development. Appearing “completely different” than the last round of talks 15 months ago with chief Iranian nucleaer negotiator Saeed Jalili, an anonymous U.S. diplomat showed some cautious optimism. State Department officials have had low expectations for prior talks that yielded little progress. Iran prides itself on its nuclear program that was begun with U.S. help under the Eisenhower administration in the early1950s. Ahmadinejad has resisted all prior attempts to corral Iran’s nuclear program, calling the West “bullying powers.”
Iran rejected out-of-hand past attempts to contain its nuclear enrichemt program. Ahmandinejad staged one publicity stunt after another, touting on national TV Iran’s great nuclear accomplishments. He declared boldly in 2007 that “Iran was a nuclear power,” not referring only to electric power generation. With all of Iranian secrecy over its nuclear program, it’s difficult to assess proximity to building A-bombs. “He [Jalili]seems to have come with an objective to get into a process which is a serious process,” said the unnamed official, hoping Iran was not engaged in elaborate stalling tactics. Judging by past recalcitrance, it’s too early to express optimism over anything. Calling the discussion a “process” says nothing about Iran’s real intent. Despite new U.N. and U.S.sanctions that take a big bite out of Iran’s oil revenues, Iran has shown no willingness to stop enriching uranium.
Recently discovered “secret,” underground enrichment facilities near the ancient city of Qom revealed Iran’s attempt to circumvent U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Burying enrichment sites deeply underground reveals a strategy to survive a U.S. or Israeli bombing campaign. “I would say it has been a useful morning’s work,” said the unnamed official, showing, if nothing else, Iran began the meeting with less preconditions and outward resistance. “For their own reasons, each side wants to give diplomacy a chance at this point, to start a process rather that force a quick-fix,” said Michael Adler, an analyst with Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Judging by the word “process” coming up, there’s been no real progress winning concessions from Tehran. Western officials, including Russia and China, won’t measure progress until Iran makes real concessions.
Recent sanctions that affect Iran’s intenational oil sales could account for over 50% of Iran’s total revenue output. Whatever new attitude Iran shows in Istanbul, the U.S. and Israel are reaching the end of their rope. Judging by the past, what seems like a new attitude could very well be as stalling tactic. “They met in a constructive atmosphere,” said European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann ‘Given that oil revenue accounts for over half of government income, the budget will be under significant strain this year as oil exports fall as a result of sanctions and oil production is cut back by Iran as its pool of buyers begins to shrink,” said Dubai-based analyst Mohammed Shakeed. Iran’s chief negotiator Jalili promised new bridging proposals, suggesting a different attitude. There’s no real reason to assume Khamenei and Ahmandinejad changed their tune.
Istanbul has brought nothing new other than a new venue and start of talks. Other than showing a willingness to meet near the Blue Mosque, there’s little evidence Iran is willing to stop enriching uranium. If diplomats start with low expectations, any progress is possible. “My tip is to set your sights low,” said the anonymous diplomat, realizing that Khamenei and Ahmandinejad wouldn’t bend too much. “Stopping 20 percent enrichment would be seen as a gesture to start negotiations, not to lift sanctions,” said an unnamed diplomat. Western diplomats would like to avoid military action in the Persian Gulf but also know that Istanbul could be the last ditch attempt Judging by past Iranian behavior, the talks could easily deteroriate or get stretched out indefintiely. Whatever concessions the EU or U.S. win from Iran, it won’t stop the Persian nation from enriching uranium.
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