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A stronger Iran returns to nuclear talks in Geneva

Iran began talks Monday in Geneva with world powers eager to curb its expanded nuclear capabilities.

By Staff writer / December 6, 2010

In this Aug. 23 photo released by the International Iran Photo Agency, technicians work at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. UN nuclear inspectors say that Iran halted most of its uranium enrichment because of technical difficulties.

Ebrahim Norouzi/IIPA/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

Fourteen months after Iran last sat down for "urgent" nuclear talks with the United States and other world powers, negotiators are dusting off their dossiers for highly touted talks Monday.

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But some Iranian officials say their nuclear program (which has made substantial progress on nuclear enrichment, despite new sanctions) won't even be on the agenda. And if it is, the political and technical landscape has changed so much in the past year – proof that US efforts have backfired, say analysts – that Iran's hand is stronger going into these talks.

"While Iran is set on pursuing its independent uranium enrichment policy, and when the US is not in a position of starting a new war in the region, time is against Washington," says Kayhan Barzegar, an Iran specialist at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"Perhaps the Obama administration is now willing to initiate the talks, but it has not reached a final decision yet because it is waiting to see the impact of tough sanctions against Iran," says Mr. Barzegar, contacted in Tehran, where he also serves as a director at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies. "This is the wrong policy because sanctions will not change Iran's nuclear policy."

The October 2009 nuclear talks yielded a tentative agreement: Iran would export 1,200 kg (2,600 lbs.) of its homemade low-enriched uranium (LEU) – the bulk of its stockpile at the time and theoretically enough to fabricate a single atomic bomb if enriched from 3.5 percent to more than 90 percent. In exchange, it would receive 20 percent enriched nuclear fuel necessary for a small medical research reactor.

Iran ultimately rejected the deal, calling it a ploy to deprive the Islamic Republic of its right to fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So in February, Iran announced it had boosted its own enrichment levels to 20 percent, and would make the fuel itself.

In May, Brazil and Turkey got Iran to sign a virtual replica of the US-backed October 2009 deal. But neither deal required Iran to stop enriching uranium altogether, as demanded by UN Security Council resolutions.

The US dismissed it immediately as not going far enough – considering that Iran had expanded enrichment – and orchestrated a fourth round of United Nations sanctions that passed the next month.

News reports have suggested that the US is preparing an "upgrade" of the 2009 fuel swap deal. It would require Iran to export 2,000 kg of LEU, to take into account that Iran's stockpile has grown to roughly 2,800 kg.

But what started as a confidence-building measure has now turned into a tangled mix of Western motivations and Iranian defiance, complicating the talks that are about to begin.

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?

Which way forward?

The diplomatic challenge is more daunting, now, after a 14-month hiatus from talks. Among the possible outcomes:

• Exchange: Iran agrees to swap home-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.

• Acceptance: World powers accept Iran's enrichment in exchange for stricter safeguards.

• Stasis: One or both sides raise accusations of high-handedness, and talks fail.

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