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By not lifting sanctions, West and Obama are helping Iran enrich uranium

The West just blew its latest chance to rein in Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Though Iran expressed willingness to compromise on key demands, by refusing to ease sanctions, the P5+1 nations offered no meaningful reciprocity, derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran.

By Yousaf Butt / May 25, 2012

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton addresses a news conference after talks in Baghdad with the P5+1 and Iran. Op-ed contributor Yousaf Butt warns 'Unless the P5+1 nations can specify exactly what Iran would need to do in order to begin to ease the sanctions, further talks – planned for next month in Moscow – seem like a waste of everyone's time.'

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

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The West just blew its latest chance of reining in Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

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Iranian officials expressed willingness to comply with some of the major demands being made by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the “P5+1” (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). But, evidently, these countries just could not take “yes” for an answer. By refusing to ease sanctions on Iran in any meaningful way, the P5+1 offered no meaningful reciprocity in return for Iranian compliance.

The P5+1's attitude of “take but not give” directly led to the failure of the talks. And by derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran, these global powers are essentially helping Iran stockpile even more enriched uranium.

The hawks in the West who don't seem to want to ease sanctions are helping the hawks in Iran who want to continue gathering more and more enriched uranium, which might give them a nuclear weapon option in the future. Deadlock rewards the hawks on both sides, and increases the chance of armed conflict in the Middle East.

There were two main demands being made of Iran going into the latest round of talks: that it must halt enriching uranium to 20 percent (a level closer to weapons-grade), and that it must shutter its highly secretive Fordow enrichment facility.

The Iranians offered as an initial gesture to give UN inspectors access to the Parchin military base, where the International Atomic Energy Agency believes Iran may have done nuclear-weapons related work in the 1990s. Iranian officials have also conveyed a willingness to compromise on the 20 percent enrichment issue, given the right incentives. 

Naturally, in return, Iran asked that at least some sanctions begin to be lifted. This is, of course, the natural give-and-take of negotiations.

Unfortunately, in exchange for these major Iranian concessions, the P5+1 states only dangled the paltry promise of access to some spare parts for civilian airplanes, help with nuclear safety, and supplying Iran with some fuel plates for its research reactor. If Western countries were serious about their alleged worry about Iran's nuclear program they would have been more willing to reciprocate properly, for example, by beginning to ease the draconian sanctions on Iran.

It makes one wonder if the West is really worried about Iran's nuclear program or if it just wants to prolong the pain in Iran in hopes of inducing a regime change there.

Why not cap Iran's enrichment and in return ease some of the sanctions? Certainly, election-year politics and hawkish congressional pressure ensures that the US administration (which leads the P5+1 in these talks) cannot consider easing sanctions no matter what Iran does with its nuclear program. President Obama would be cast as “weak” if any of the sanctions were lifted before the elections. Oddly, a successful diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear issue would be spun as a failure.

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