Iran nuclear talks: What's on the table, what's at stake
Iran nuclear talks began in Istanbul today with topics that could include a revamped version of a nuclear fuel swap deal and ongoing sanctions.
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But other aspects of Iran’s nuclear program may well enter the discussion. The negotiators – with undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns representing the US – are likely to be grappling with several key topics, such as a revamped version of a nuclear fuel swap deal, in which Iran would agree to export much of its homemade enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel rods it needs for a small reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes.Skip to next paragraph
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Billed as a confidence-building measure in October 2009 the proposal went nowhere. A similar version mediated by Turkey and Brazil was agreed with Iran in May 2010, but rejected by Western nations because it left enough nuclear material in Iran to serve as a building block for a weapon. News reports suggest both sides may have prepared updated proposals.
Iranian analysts suggest a “win-win” solution, in which the US and other world powers accept uranium enrichment in Iran – a process that has already been underway for years in the Islamic Republic – in exchange for much more intrusive inspections and guarantees.
Western diplomats note privately that Iran is not likely to give up enrichment wholesale under any circumstance, so agreeing on restrictions is perhaps the best they can hope for.
And accepting enrichment might not yield an immediate breakthrough, though it would be a “good” and “substantial” shift by the P5+1, says Mohtasham, who knows several of the key Iranian officials.
“Whatever the West says, Iranians by nature and because of their experience would always doubt this,” says Mohtasham. “They say, ‘Look, if they made such a proposal, there must be … some sort of evil behind it, so we have to find out what the evil is.’”
“It does take time,” adds Mohtasham. “The West should look at this as a process, rather than just accepting or rejecting immediately. That is the main problem with all diplomatic proposals and negotiations with Iran, [the West] just want things to happen quickly.”
Where's the common ground?
Despite the challenges, Iran also has reason to find common ground – not least to have sanctions removed and its isolation eased.
To get there, a host of mostly American Iran specialists – including John Limbert, the US government’s former top diplomat on Iran, who was a hostage in Tehran from 1979-81 – on Thursday issued a joint statement saying it was “imperative that the Obama administration reinvigorate its diplomacy by pursuing engagement with Tehran more persistently, setting realistic objectives, and broadening the US-Iranian dialogue.”
Diplomacy was the “only sustainable means of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons [and] avoiding the dangerous folly of military confrontation in the Middle East,” said the range of veteran experts, officials, officers and activists. “Unrealistic outcomes, such as insisting that Iran cease uranium enrichment entirely, however desirable, must be set aside.”
In the pretalks gameplay, both sides hewed to long-established positions. Iran repeated that nuclear weapons were “illegitimate and against humanity,” but said that it would not be deprived of the ability to enrich uranium for its own nuclear fuel.
“You could not stop us from being nuclear,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in the Iranian city of Yazd on Wednesday. “The Iranian nation will not retreat an inch. The nuclear issue is over from the Iranian point of view.”
The Americans and the P5+1 have also not yet veered from their position of no uranium enrichment. Iran has already installed more than 8,000 centrifuges and has plans for tens of thousands more, all of them, it says, in the service of peaceful nuclear power.