Iran nuclear talks: Will they veer off course?

Meeting in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton underscore their preference for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear program.

Mike Theiler/Reuters
Secretary of State John Kerry makes remarks to the media as EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton listens before their bilateral meeting at the State Deptartment in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

With world powers set to resume what have been off-and-on talks with Iran on its nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton underscored their preference for a diplomatic solution when they met in Washington Thursday.

But Secretary Kerry also put Tehran on notice earlier in the day that the United States will not accept the restarted diplomatic effort if Iran makes it into more talks for talk’s sake.

“We are not going to get trapped into a delay-after-delay process here,” Kerry said as he greeted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the State Department Thursday morning. Referring to the international talks set for Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Kerry said it will be “incumbent on the Iranians to prove that they are prepared to meet our willingness, President Obama’s willingness ... to be open to a diplomatic resolution.”

Before meeting with Ms. Ashton, Kerry remained mum on the talks’ prospects, saying, “We hope that the talks in Almaty in a few days can show some further progress, perhaps open some additional opportunities.”

Kerry and Ashton represent four of the six powers set to meet with Iranian officials. The six countries sitting down with Iran are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Britain, Russia, China, and France – plus Germany. They’re hoping Iran will indicate at the initial meeting that it is ready to enter serious negotiations toward a deal to verifiably limit its advancing uranium-enrichment program.

Western nations say everything Iran is doing in its nuclear program – including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, which is well beyond the level required for civilian power generation – suggests the country is secretly preparing to reach nuclear-weapons capability. Iran insists its program is for purely peaceful purposes.

Tehran has sent out mixed signals concerning the purpose of the Kazakhstan meeting. European officials say it has moved in recent months to accept that the talks must address Iran’s enrichment program and a package of measures for limiting its stockpiling of enriched uranium.

Iran said this week that it has converted some of its enriched uranium into reactor fuel – a move that, if verified, could help reduce tensions since reactor fuel is not easily converted to weapons-grade fuel.

On the other hand, Iran has also suggested recently that it sees the talks as an opportunity to discuss regional issues, including Syria’s civil war and unrest among Shiite Muslims in Bahrain. On Tuesday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, was quoted by the Iranian news agency Mehr saying that Iran has proposed to Western countries that the Kazakhstan agenda include Syria and Bahrain.

In the past, talks that Western countries assumed would focus on Iran’s nuclear program have broken down after Iranian officials used them to air a list of grievances and to discuss every international issue but its nuclear program.

Ashton, who represented the six powers in communications with the Iranians on the goals of renewed talks, insisted on specifics from the Iranians concerning their readiness to discuss uranium enrichment and measures for limiting it, European officials say.

One factor that worries Western officials is the calendar – the fact that Iran will hold presidential elections in June. When prospects for renewing international talks with Iran brightened last fall, diplomatic experts spoke then of a window of opportunity that would remain open perhaps through March. After then, it was assumed that Iran, in full campaign mode, would be far less likely to move on a nuclear deal.

Now another event with potential repercussions has been marked on the international diplomatic calendar: Mr. Obama’s planned trip to Israel March 20. Officials in both countries agree that Iran will be topic No. 1 when Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But is Obama’s visit more likely to deter or encourage Iran’s willingness to negotiate a deal? By taking to Israel his vow that Iran will not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon, Obama will be even more convincing to the Iranians that the US will not accept simply containing a nuclear Iran, some diplomatic experts say.

“I believe there is greater confidence all around today than there was not so long ago that Obama means what he says when he tells us that containment is not an option,” says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is a special envoy for Mr. Netanyahu.

In Washington this week for meetings, Mr. Shoval says Netanyahu will be looking for specifics on what it means for the president to vow that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.

“If America says we are not going to allow Iran to get the bomb, what does that mean in real terms?” he says. “It can’t just be, ‘All options are on the table.’ It has to be that the option is a military strike if diplomacy doesn’t work. Without that,” he says, “the Iranians will continue to play the US.”

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