Is Iran ready for a nuclear deal?
At talks next week, Iran may offer to stop controversial fuel enrichment, a key demand of negotiators, in order to lift painful sanctions.
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Middle East Editor
Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog.
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Iran will arrive at next week's nuclear talks in Geneva with an offer to halt production of borderline weapons-grade nuclear fuel in exchange for an easing of painful sanctions that have brought the Iranian economy to its knees by freezing it out of the international banking system and oil industry.
Citing anonymous Western diplomatic officials, The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran is expected to offer to stop enriching its uranium to 20 percent purity, a level the international community considers too close to weapons-grade purity, and to grant more access to nuclear inspectors. It may also offer to close an underground enrichment facility named Fordow, which the US and Israel believe is part of a weapons program.
The world powers negotiating with Iran, known as the P5+1, offered at the last meeting in April to end sanctions on Iran's petrochemical exports and precious metals in exchange for ceasing 20-percent enrichment and work at the Fordow site. According to the Journal, Iran never responded to the offer.
Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's election victory in June, Iran has stunned the international community with the speed with which it has tried to launch a negotiation process, leaving world leaders scrambling to understand the overtures and develop a cohesive response.
The rapid progression has fostered skepticism about Mr. Rouhani's true intentions, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning at the United Nations General Assembly that the new Iranian president is a "wolf in sheep's clothing" who is tricking the international community.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist for Bloomberg View and prominent commentator on Middle East issues, is one of those warning the US to treat his overtures with skepticism. He writes that Rouhani recently boasted about advancing Iran's nuclear program during his time as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.
Rouhani didn't talk about this during his recent visit to the United Nations. He came bearing a different message: Iran seeks a peaceful resolution to its decade-old nuclear standoff with the international community.
Yet in May, shortly before he was elected, Rouhani appeared on state-run IRIB TV to defend his nuclear work, appearing defensive as a hard-line interviewer essentially accused him of bowing before the West. … Rouhani at one point became flustered by the insinuation that, as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator 10 years ago, he kowtowed to the West by bringing his country's nuclear activities to a stop.
"We halted the nuclear program?" he asked, rhetorically. "We were the ones to complete it! We completed the technology."
[The interviewer] pushed Rouhani harder, claiming that uranium enrichment at a facility in Isfahan had been suspended while Rouhani was in charge. Rouhani denied the accusation, and then claimed credit for the development of a heavy-water reactor in Arak in 2004.
"Do you know when we developed yellowcake? Winter 2004. Do you know when the number of centrifuges reached 3,000? Winter 2004."
Mr. Goldberg warns against looking at Rouhani's comments as solely for domestic consumption and simply an effort to calm anxious hardliners who have implied Rouhani is moving toward rapprochement too quickly. He urges world leaders to "pay close attention" to everything Rouhani says as they move into negotiations, not just what he says in Geneva.
“We are pessimistic about the Americans. We do not at all trust them,” Ayatollah Khamenei told graduating Army cadets, according to a translation on his official website. The US “is an arrogant, unreasonable and untrustworthy government which is completely under the influence of the international Zionist network.”
On the US side, Mr. Obama noted in his UN speech, also on Sept. 25, that US-Iran “mistrust has deep roots,” though a nuclear deal can be a “major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” He assured the Iranians that the US is not seeking regime change. …
When US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman was asked while testifying before the Senate last week if the US trusted Rouhani after those events of a decade ago, she replied, “Senator, I don’t trust the people who sit across the table from me in these negotiations,”
Referring to that period, Sherman, who is the top US negotiator at the nuclear talks, said, “We know that deception is part of the DNA.”
But while skepticism does not seem a solid base for such difficult negotiations, mutual trust is not a prerequisite for progress, Mr. Peterson writes. Both US and Iranian officials, most notably the foreign minister and his US counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, have said in the the last week that its unlikely the two countries will become "friendly" or have a relationship "based on trust."
But if both sides want a deal, mutual steps toward that could be enough to keep negotiations moving forward, officials told Peterson.
“The question of trust boils down to 'what are the ultimate objectives of one side or the other?'” says an Iranian academic now in Washington, who asked not to be named.
One model may be Russia and the US, which cooperate and have embassies, but also “really have deep-seated differences,” says the Iranian academic.
Iran will likely insist on the right to continue enriching uranium to between 3 and 5 percent, a level suitable for use in power reactors – essentially civilian energy production.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been adamant that Israel could not accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Accepting the Iranian proposal could divide the US from some of its Middle Eastern allies, the Journal notes.
By falling short of a complete shutdown of enrichment, the anticipated Iranian offer could divide the U.S. from its closest Middle East allies, particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have cautioned the White House against moving too quickly to improve ties with Tehran, according to American and Mideast officials.
Senior Obama administration officials have refused to say whether the U.S. would accept Iran maintaining the ability to enrich uranium on its soil.
"I'm not going to negotiate in public," the Obama administration's chief Iran negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, told a Senate hearing last week. "All I can do is repeat what the president of the United States has said: We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."
Those countries resisting rapprochement with Iran could be left behind by world powers eager not to let this opportunity be scuttled. Britain and Iran announced Tuesday that they would appoint diplomats to each other's countries once again.
The posts were dissolved in 2011, after the British embassy in Tehran was attacked and relations were "dissolved to the lowest level short of a break," The New York Times reports. Each country will appoint a chargé d'affaires, a rank below an ambassador, and reopening the embassies is on the table for discussion.
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