World powers on Wednesday sent a fresh warning to Iran to accept talks soon on the country's nuclear program or face toughened economic sanctions.
They also responded to a statement from Iran's chief nuclear negotiator – an action that may have inadvertently caught them up in Iran's domestic politics.
Officials from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain) as well as Germany met in Frankfurt Wednesday. They issued a statement calling on Iran to formally accept, within weeks, the negotiations that the international community has called for since April.
President Obama and other world leaders have set a deadline for Iran: before this month's UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 23. If Tehran doesn't agree to talks by then, it risks the imposition of what would be a fourth round of economic sanctions. Such sanctions, international leaders say, would deeply damage the Iranian economy this time.
The German spokesman for the group of six countries meeting Wednesday also found it necessary to respond to a statement made the day before by Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. He said on Iranian television that the nation has prepared an updated nuclear proposal and is ready to discuss it with international powers.
Some experts in Iran's nuclear diplomacy said Jalili's statement was a classic delaying tactic designed to convince international public opinion – and perhaps Russia and China, major commercial partners for Iran – that Tehran is being cooperative.
But others say Jalili, who was named to his post by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was addressing a domestic audience and should be heard in the context of Iran's bitter internal political struggles. Mr. Ahmadinejad's reelection in June has been contested.
"This has less to do with addressing the world and international public opinion and more to do with the far right in Iran and the people around Ahmadinejad," says Alex Vatanka, senior Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's in Alexandria, Va. "They want to make sure the nuclear issue does not become a chain around their necks vis-à-vis the Iranian opposition."
The opposition has criticized, among other things, Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear issue. It has also been vocal about the economic deterioration that's due to the nuclear dispute.
Ahmadinejad is determined to silence the opposition by jailing its leadership over the postelection turmoil, Mr. Vatanka says. To help achieve that, he adds, Ahmadinejad has sought to avoid the nuclear issue – which would explain Jalili's statement.
"Until he has a free hand, he has to be sure the nuclear issue is not used against him," Vatanka says.
Ahmadinejad is not the only party facing hurdles. Countries like the US favoring a tough approach to Tehran received a potential setback this week when Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a published interview that Iran's nuclear threat has been "hyped."
Mr. ElBaradei, whose term ends in November, told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that while there is cause for concern, there is no proof Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Fears that the world will wake up to a nuclear Iran tomorrow, he said, are exaggerated.
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