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Iranian Nuclear talks: Time is ticking


As talks on Iran’s nuclear program continue, and progress seems to have been made, Tehran believes its Western detractors want to put the dispute on hold until after the US elections.

Iranian negotiators went into last week’s round of talks in Baghdad on the country’s nuclear program aiming to consolidate three achievements they made at the preliminary discussions held in Istanbul last month with the so-called “5+1”group (consisting of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany).

The first of these was overt Western recognition of Iran’s right to possess a peaceful nuclear program, including its right to acquire the necessary expertise and facilities and its right to enrich uranium, with no percentage of enrichment specified.

The second was an undertaking to leave the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to handle details of the program, which in practice means withdrawing the issue from the purview of the UN Security Council and the direct supervision of the big powers.

The third was a letter from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Said Jalili, expressing willingness to hold further talks to discuss any ideas and suggestions put forward by Iran on modalities of cooperation between the two sides.

It was on the basis of these assurances – which were fundamental to overcoming Iranian mistrust – that expectations were raised that an understanding could be reached in Baghdad. They were bolstered by messages conveyed to Tehran from Washington upholding Iran’s nuclear rights, and hinting that the US would become more engaged in dialogue with Iran if President Barack Obama won a second term.

Tehran was convinced that “the United States and the Western countries went to the negotiations in Baghdad with the minimum goal of getting any agreement out of them that would avoid an announcement of failure,” according to reliably informed Iranian sources.

“We knew the West wasn’t coming to make concessions,” the sources said. “We hoped, given what happened at and after Istanbul, that the West was regaining its senses and had decided to abandon the policy of double standards. But we did not go so far as to expect a change in its stance. All it wants is an agreement, any agreement, and to put disputes on hold until the end of the year,” they said.

In Tehran’s mind, the Europeans “fear the outbreak of a war whose consequences they would find unbearable, given the financial bankruptcy they are experiencing. They want a quick way out that halts the oil embargo, which was forced on them by the Americans and Israelis even though they will not be able to bear it for long,” the sources said.

The US “showed at the negotiations that its previous messages were not sincere,” the sources said. ”All it wants is to buy time. It wants negotiations for the sake of negotiations. That would allow the US administration to restrain Israel and prevent it from declaring dialogue with Iran to have failed, and using that to justify the alternative military option, and at the same time to tell the world that it is still putting pressure on the Iranians and keeping their nuclear program under control.”

As for Iran itself, “as far as we are concerned, it was very simple. Not foiling the Baghdad talks was our bottom-line requirement too,” the sources said.

“Time works to our advantage,” they explained. “Every delay in resolving the issues gives us more time to develop our nuclear program. Not announcing failure is itself a guarantee, to add to Western affirmations, that there will be no military adventure against the Islamic Republic soon. That is a setback for Israel, which seems to be the only party which wants to wreck the talks and push for that scenario”.

Washington and Tehran could therefore be said to have gained most from the latest round of talks, though Iran failed to achieve a key goal it has pursued from the outset: the transfer of the nuclear dossier from the UN Security Council to the IAEA. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had indicated repeatedly in recent weeks that the Baghdad talks would witness the start of the countdown to the resolution of the nuclear dispute.

According to information from Tehran, the Europeans, who sought concessions from Iran under the pressure of sanctions, verbally put forward a four-point proposal in Baghdad in which they upheld the gains made by Iran in Istanbul, while calling for:

- The closure of the Fordow nuclear facility near Qom – although it is no different to other Iranian facilities other than that it is built within a mountain, and is therefore not vulnerable to aerial attack.

- Iran to commit to not enriching uranium to 20 percent – thus reaffirming the 5+1 group’s recognition in principle of Iran’s right to enrich.

- Iran to announce that it agrees to the inspection of the Parshin munitions plant east of Tehran, which US intelligence claims to have suspicions about.

- Iran to sign the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which the Iranian parliament opposed, just as the US Congress did previously.

The Iranians presented a written proposal under three headings: Energy Security and Economic Cooperation; Regional Security and Pressing Issues; and Security of Transportation Routes and Global Security.

The general point made in this document was that the Istanbul talks should be treated as having brought a period of negotiation under pressure to a close, and that it is now time to continue dialogue in a context of cooperation. Accordingly, it was suggested that broader regional issues should be discussed, such as the crises in Bahrain and Syria, as well as nuclear disarmament in the Middle East as a whole, specifically including Israel. It also referred to the two fatwas issued by Iranian leader Ali Khamenei proscribing the production or use of nuclear weapons, urging that they be used as a basis for encouraging all other countries to follow suit.

The Western negotiators responded by welcoming the fatwas, according to the sources, albeit only as a positive goodwill gesture from Iran rather than as an example to be emulated. But they refused to discuss Bahrain or Syria – despite the Iranians’ assurance that they were prepared to have a flexible and open-minded dialogue – or go anywhere near the Israeli nuclear program.

The Iranians stressed a key point. “We did not agree to the Westerners imposing anything on us outside the IAEA framework,” the sources said. “ We told them that everything in the European proposal is under the authority of the IAEA, as the 5+1 group concurred in Istanbul, especially as we have just received (IAEA chief Yukia) Amano and reached understandings with him on everything. So why should we discuss these items with you?”

Accordingly, the view in Tehran is that the Baghdad talks were something of a holding operation, during which the Iranians reinforced the gain they made in Istanbul in terms of the IAEA’s authority. They expect much the same at the next round of talks planned for Moscow, and any other meetings that are held between now and the US elections and the end of the year.

As for Iran “time works to our advantage,” they explained. “Every delay in resolving the issues gives us more time to develop our nuclear program. The question of IAEA authority is no minor detail as far as Iran is concerned. The two sides always dealt with any issues directly, in line with international norms, until the 2001 London meeting at which Western nations proposed referring the nuclear question to the UN Security Council, where it has remained ever since.

This perceived Western ruse did more than anything else to break Iran’s trust in the other side. At the time, it only had first-generation centrifuges which it had bought on the black market from Pakistan. It resorted to that after the IAEA declined to assist it, even though the agency is bound by charter to provide technical and logistical aid and knowhow to every member-state which is an NPT signatory. Hence the remarks made by Jalili in Baghdad about inequity in the rights and duties of IAEA member-states.

Nevertheless, Tehran has pressed ahead with its ambitions. It has built nuclear facilities, developed a fourth generation of sophisticated centrifuges, enriched uranium to 20 percent, and manufactured fuel rods to supply the Amirabad medical reactor in Tehran. This was all done while the West was continuing to besiege Iran, before it proceeded to politicize the nuclear issue completely at the Geneva 1 and 2 and Istanbul 1 and 2 talks.

The first step in the politicization process was the referral of the nuclear file to the Security Council, from where a succession of resolutions were issued against the Islamic Republic, even though the permanent members have delegates at the IAEA whose job is to deal with the technical and legal questions involved.

The second step was taken in Geneva, where the “5+1” framework was devised, thus placing the issue directly into the hands of these big powers.

As Tehran sees it, the latest meeting in Istanbul showed that the West has finally been persuaded that, “Jalili has no white flag to raise.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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