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Iran nuclear talks: Are sanctions on the table?

A senior Iranian figure stated that Iran's 'minimum expectation' for the upcoming negotiations was a lifting of some sanctions, but sanctions are notoriously hard to remove.

By Staff writer / May 10, 2012

This file satellite image, provided by DigitalGlobe and the Institute for Science and International Security, shows the military complex at Parchin, Iran, about 19 miles southeast of Tehran. Iran has made no secret of its hopes for the next round of nuclear negotiations with world powers: Possible pledges by the West to ease sanctions as a step toward deal making by Tehran.

DigitalGlobe-Institute for Science and International Security/AP/File

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When Iran agreed to serious engagement with world powers over its controversial nuclear program last month, it put special store in the agreed upon process: a "step-by-step approach and reciprocity."

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For the Iranians, that meant draconian sanctions imposed by the US, European Union, and the UN would be eased with each concession from Tehran. But as the next round of talks looms on May 23 in Baghdad, questions are being raised about whether the US can – or even intends to – ease sanctions no matter what steps Iran agrees to take. 

One senior Iranian figure last week stated that Iran's "minimum expectation" in Baghdad talks is lifting sanctions.

Yet in the US the power to adjust American sanctions resides not with President Barack Obama but with Congress, which has voiced a hawkish stance on Iran in a US election year. Iran is also under four sets of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC), and starting July 1 will be subject to a European oil embargo, which may be the most negotiable set of trade restrictions. Historically, the lifting of sanctions against various regimes has been a slow, conservative process.

Administration officials say that "sanctions relief is not on the table unless and until we see substantial concessions" from Iran, says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"I don't think there is really any give on the sanctions issue ... in part because in a political year, an election year, with a Congress that is very solidly behind these sanctions, it would be very difficult for the president to appear to be waffling on them at all," says Ms. Maloney.

The word "incentive" is rarely used in Washington, regarding Iran, though other measures may be offered in Baghdad.

"I do worry that there is a disconnect," says Maloney. "The Iranians from their perspective need something to demonstrate some sense of victory, and to persuade the skeptics within their own camp that there are rewards to be gained from cooperation, not just preventing any further pressure, but actually lifting some of the sense of siege."

Iran has signaled it may stop 20 percent uranium enrichment – used to fuel an existing reactor in Tehran, but also just a few technical steps away from weapons-grade material for a bomb – and cap enrichment levels to below 5 percent, to fuel ordinary power reactors.

Iran may also accept a more stringent inspection regimen by implementing the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

A critical test will come next week, when Iran meets with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss outstanding claims of past weapons-related work, and access to a military base at Parchin, which Iran has rejected twice since January.

Iran 'cleansing' sensitive site? 

Satellite images published this week by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington have prompted speculation that Iran was "cleansing" the site a month ago, prior to any inspection.

Senior Iranian officials have proclaimed that all such issues will be resolved "very quickly and simply" in Baghdad, given the right attitude on the other side of the table.

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