Iran nuclear talks: Is compromise offer from Tehran good news?

Ahead of scheduled weekend talks in Istanbul on its nuclear program, Iran rejects some demands but signals it could halt uranium enrichment after stockpiling enough for research.

A file satellite image taken in September 2009, provided by DigitalGlobe, shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. Talks between Iran and world powers are scheduled for this weekend in Istanbul on its nuclear program.

With high-stakes talks on Iran’s nuclear developments scheduled for the weekend, Iranian officials on Monday suggested a readiness to address some of the international community’s chief concerns about the nuclear program.

Depending on one’s degree of suspicion of Tehran, the willingness to lay out potential compromise positions even before the talks begin is either a hopeful sign – or evidence that Iran is out to use the talks to buy time for its nuclear advances.

Laying out a path for working with world powers on its nuclear program suggests Iran is feeling the pain of toughened economic sanctions, some officials conclude – and what’s more, is worried about a looming oil-export embargo set to take effect this summer.

On the other hand, some nuclear experts (and some more hard-line officials, including from Israel) worry that a compromising tone from Tehran is encouraging Western officials to ease what was once a categorical demand that Iran cease all enrichment activity.   

The hints at potential compromise began with the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, who suggested Iran’s willingness to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity once the country stockpiles enough of the fuel to operate a small research reactor for the creation of medical isotopes. World powers view the stockpiling of 20 percent uranium as one of the most alarming developments in Iran’s nuclear program, since enough of the fuel can be further enriched over a matter of weeks to the higher 90 percent purity required for a nuclear weapon.

Feyredoon Abbasi, who heads Iran’s atomic energy agency, said Iran’s enrichment to 20 percent purity was only necessary to fuel the Tehran research reactor and that once that need was met it was “even possible to reverse to only 3.5 percent,” he told the Associated Press. The lower level of enrichment is all that is required for civilian power generation, which Iran insists is the goal of its nuclear program.

American and other Western officials who will take part in the weekend talks have suggested that their opening position will be that Iran cease enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and ship its existing stock out of the country to meet international concerns. One option would be for another country in return to provide the fuel for the research reactor.

That proposal is reminiscent of a 2009 fuel-swap proposal that ultimately failed to attain the approval of Iran’s highest powers. And given that Iran now has its own stock of the fuel, its officials now seem even less inclined to accept such a deal.

Mr. Abbasi was quoted by Iranian media Monday as insisting that Iran had “made an investment” in developing its own fuel for the research reactor and has “no interest” in swapping out its fuel for another supply from “other countries.”

Reports that Western officials will open the talks by laying out tough demands are rankling Iranian officials, who are rejecting any suggestion of preconditions for the negotiations. In addition to the demands concerning the 20 percent uranium, Western officials say they will demand that Iran close – and eventually dismantle – an underground nuclear site.

But Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, rejected any pre-meeting demands, telling the Iranian parliament’s website that “none of the parties will accept conditions set before the talks.” Mr. Salehi added that he still thought a “win-win” was possible where Iran would “preserve its rights” to enrichment as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while addressing global concerns about its program.   

The sides engaged in pre-talks positioning even as details of the weekend meeting remained cloudy. Some Western officials said the talks will begin Friday, while some Iranians said they would start Saturday. And after the Iranian side suddenly balked last week at the planned venue of Istanbul, it now appears Tehran has reconsidered and will accept the Turkish city for round one – as long as a future round takes place in a locale more to its liking.

Iranian officials last week nixed Istanbul as a site for the talks because they said Turkey was no longer a “neutral” country as a result of the evolution in its approach to neighboring Syria –which happens to be one of Iran’s chief allies in the region. But by Monday Istanbul was back on as meeting host, with Iranians officials saying Tehran had relented because agreement had been reached that an eventual second round of talks would take place in Baghdad.

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