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Underground Iran nuclear enrichment makes diplomatic path suddenly rockier (+video)

The nuclear enrichment at a once-secret underground facility in Iran, confirmed Monday by the UN, is seen as both an argument to resume negotiations and an obstacle to their resumption.

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But advocates of a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear defiance of the international community insist on the contrary that ever-tightening sanctions could doom the chances of negotiations resuming.

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Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, says that stronger sanctions are on the verge of becoming an end in themselves rather than a means to an end – in this case compelling Iran to negotiate a change in its nuclear program. 

And if the European Union sticks to its plans to impose an oil embargo on Iran by the end of the month – the EU buys about one-fifth of Iran’s oil – the window for diplomacy is likely to close for good, Mr. Parsi adds.

The EU has exchanged letters with Tehran on a resumption of nuclear talks, but Western powers insist that the Iranians first accept placing a halt to their enrichment activity on the negotiating table. The Iranians say they will never give up uranium enrichment, and their announcement of higher-grade enrichment at the Fardo facility appears to underscore that position.

The Obama administration insists it has not given up on a two-track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions to compel Tehran to modify its behavior.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the administration is following a “responsible” path of applying both diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. In a taped interview that aired on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Secretary Panetta suggested the strategy is working because Iran is still not at the point of building a nuclear weapon.

He went on to warn Iran’s leaders that, if it comes to it, the US won’t allow Iran to take the step of going nuclear.                        

That is not new administration policy; Obama has said the same many times before.

But word of Iran’s imminent enrichment at an underground facility risks making the US position sound like an idle threat, since the clear purpose of moving Iran’s highest-grade enrichment activity to a site deep inside a mountain is to shield it as much as possible from military attack.

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