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Iran nuclear talks: New plan barely masks failure

A 'tense' and 'tough' round of Iran nuclear talks ends in Moscow without a compromise, but fearing the fallout from a collapse in negotiations, world powers set a new round for July.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton listens to a question during a news conference after discussions on the controversial Iranian nuclear program in Moscow Tuesday.

World powers, all too fearful of the ramifications of an outright collapse of talks with Iran on its nuclear program, on Tuesday decided to mark an inability to reach even a minimal agreement with Iran by scheduling another round of discussions for sometime next month.

But the case of diplomatically kicking the can down the road seemed unlikely to mask the bleak prospects for compromise with Iran on its nuclear ambitions – and that reality appears certain to agitate world oil markets, speed up the clock ticking on yet another military confrontation in the Middle East, and become a major factor in the US presidential campaign.

Russian officials who hosted this week’s round of talks in Moscow and European Union chief diplomat Catherine Ashton, who led the negotiating from the world powers’ side of the table, acknowledged at the end of what were called “tense” and “tough” discussions Tuesday that no compromise had been found between two sides that remained far apart.

Lady Ashton told reporters at the end of talks Tuesday that there is still a “very very long way to go” before Iran adequately addresses concerns about its nuclear program.

The best Ashton could muster was an agreement to meet again on July 3 in Istanbul – but even that meeting will be at the lower expert level, and thus won’t include the high-level (and potentially decision-making) officials who attended the Moscow meetings, such as Ashton and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili.

The Moscow talks were unable to bridge any of the yawning gap separating the two sides – what might be called a three-demands-to-two faceoff.

The P5-plus-1 world powers, composed of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France – plus Germany, had three basic demands, which they summarized as “stop, shut, and ship:” To address international concerns that it is amassing the elements of a nuclear bomb, Iran should stop enriching uranium to 20-percent purity, a level not far from weapons-grade; shut its underground nuclear facility at Fardow; and ship its stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium out of the country.

On its side, Iran had two key demands: that the international community recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that world powers (specifically the US and the EU) agree to soften economic sanctions on Iran as an inducement for Iran to accept certain limits on its nuclear program.

The failure of the two sides to find any common ground was already sending jitters trough the global energy market, with oil prices ticking upward. But the stalemate seemed certain to further complicate the already prickly Iran issue for President Obama.

On one side, foreign policy hawks will almost certainly declare the bankruptcy of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran – which they will say is masterfully playing the world for time to achieve nuclear weapons capability – and will call for tougher measures on Iran and even closer cooperation with Israel on the issue.

On the other hand, dovish foreign-policy advocates will chide Obama for failing to calm the winds of war by refusing a compromise with Iran. Already the commentator Robert Wright, writing in The Atlantic, says Obama, by refusing any compromises, is drifting toward war with Iran out of fear of the pro-Israel lobby.

Pressure is certain to mount on the administration to walk away from the talks – especially now that Iran has rejected the world powers’ “stop, shut, and ship” trio of demands. Already on Friday, a near-majority of US senators sent Obama a letter demanding the administration drop the talks and proceed to even tougher economic sanctions if the Moscow talks failed to secure a set of commitments from Iran on curbing its nuclear program.

“It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful,” 44 senators said Friday in a bipartisan letter coordinated by Sens. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey and Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri. “Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability.”

Echoing the world powers and the three key demands they presented to Iran in the talks, the senators said the stop, shut, and ship trio of demands was the “absolute minimum” Iran would have to accept to justify any continuation of diplomacy.

The announcement of a July meeting of low-level officials representing Iran and the six world powers is unlikely to quiet congressional demands for even tougher constraints on Iran’s oil trade. At the same time, the failure in Moscow will almost certainly renew talk of US-assisted Israeli air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Opponents of further negotiations with Iran are likely to cite Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has repeatedly warned the Iranians that the US is “not interested in talks for talks’ sake.”

And with a presidential campaign heating up, American voters should expect to hear growing talk of an “October surprise” and what an attack on Iran would mean for the electoral outcome in November.

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