Iran nuclear talks: negotiators cite progress ahead of Baghdad meeting

Two days of UN-IAEA talks in Vienna signal some flexibility on both sides ahead of key nuclear meeting in Baghdad next week.

Ronald Zak/AP
Herman Nackaerts, deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), speaks to journalists as he arrives for talks with at the permanent mission of Iran in Vienna, Tuesday.

Negotiators from Iran and the UN's nuclear watchdog agency have made enough progress during two days of technical talks in Vienna that they will resume next Monday.

The unexpected result indicates that there has been some flexibility from both Iran and UN nuclear negotiators regarding access to a military base at Parchin and agreement on a plan to resolve all questions about allegations of weapons work.

The Monday meeting is set to occur just two days before Iran sits down with world powers for much broader, geostrategic nuclear negotiations in Baghdad. Analysts and officials had said progress in Vienna would raise chances of success in Baghdad.

"The primary focus of our discussion was how to clarify issues related to possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program," Herman Nackaerts, the International Atomic Energy Agency deputy director general, said after the talks. "We had a good exchange of views."

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, said both sides had "fruitful discussions in a very conducive environment ... we have had progress."

Opening Parchin without a fuller agreement – something Iran refused to do despite two requests earlier this year – may still remain elusive before the Baghdad talks unless Iran gets a detailed framework for resolving all other outstanding issues. "They just don't want to concede this before they get what they want on other parts of the discussion," says Peter Jenkins, a former British permanent representative to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006.

Iran's wider goal is to ensure that in the future, "they are not going to continually have exploited against them every will-of-the-wisp [allegation]," says Mr. Jenkins. "It's not altogether satisfactory the way one member state comes up with allegations and then the IAEA turns these virtually into accusations and says to the Iranians: 'Prove to us you are innocent.' "

Last November, the IAEA reported that a large containment vessel was built at Parchin in 2000 that may have been used for high explosive tests that would be "strong indicators of possible weapon development."

Iran has dismissed those allegations as "childish" and "ridiculous," but said new arrangements were necessary to visit the military base. It is not a declared nuclear site and was already inspected twice in 2005, though not the structure currently under suspicion.

But IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has singled out Parchin as a test case, in an unconventional move that has surprised former IAEA officials.

Parchin "has become like a symbol," Mr. Amano told Michael Adler, an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in recent days. "We'll pursue this objective until there's a concrete result.... We don't see the reason why they cannot grant us access to Parchin."

Amano has said that “activities” at the suspect site mean the IAEA should visit soon. Recently published satellite images appear to show a stream of water, which some analysts suggest could be Iranian attempts to “sanitize” the site. Iran has dismissed the claims as a “joke.”

Preparations for the critical Baghdad meeting are currently being conducted in secret between deputy nuclear negotiators, the European Union's Helga Schmid and Iran's Ali Bagheri.

Cooling the heated rhetoric

Escalating tensions toward war, fanned especially by Israeli leaders and conservative US politicians, eased last month when Iran met for the first time in 15 months in Istanbul, Turkey, with the United States, Russia, China, England, France, and Germany, a group known as the P5+1.

The result was a "useful and constructive" agreement to resolve questions about Iran's nuclear efforts with a "step-by-step approach and reciprocity," said Catherine Ashton, the P5+1 chief negotiator.

For Iran, that means recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and lifting of economically crippling sanctions.

For the P5+1, that means Iran halting its 20 percent-level enrichment (which is a few technical steps away from weapons grade of 90 percent), accepting a host of IAEA inspection measures, and resolving questions about possible past weapons-related work.

The political signals suggest compromise, and building on the unexpectedly positive energy of Istanbul.

"If the same positive atmosphere and the cooperation approach [in Istanbul] reigns [in Baghdad], we can see positive results in the upcoming talks," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Fars News today.

Indeed, such optimism may be at its highest since an EU-Iran process broke up years ago, says Jenkins, the former ambassador to the IAEA.

"I think the Iranian side is more together and more capable of coming to an agreement than at any time since 2005," says Jenkins. While "optimistic," he says, he remains "very vigilant and worried because there is no doubt to me there is a whole army of spoilers out there."

Both sides say they're negotiating from strength

Both sides have portrayed themselves as talking from a position of strength – a crucial calculation that points toward progress.

On one side, Western politicians declare that ever-tightening sanctions, like those on Iran's central bank and oil exports (a European oil embargo is set to begin July 1) have forced Iran to negotiate.

"I don't think there is any question that the impact of this pressure played a role in Iran's decision to come to the table," David Cohen, the US Treasury Department undersecretary, said last week.

On the other side, Iran denies that sanctions are causing any harm, much less forcing its hand. It touts another narrative: success because the Islamic Republic has made sweeping technological progress, despite US-led efforts to block its first nuclear power plant, for example, or prevent any enrichment at all.

"The Iranian nation will never give up its fundamental rights," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd yesterday in a northeast province. "Hegemonic powers are attempting to deter Iran's development, and the Iranian people will never be deceived by the alien powers."

Iranian media report that Iran will demonstrate further technical prowess on the day of the Baghdad talks by launching its fourth satellite into orbit.

"Without violating any international laws or the non-proliferation treaty, we have managed to bypass the red lines the West created for us," Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative politician and adviser to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told The New York Times in Tehran.

Iranians say their "carefully crafted policy has helped move the goal posts in their favor," the Times reported. In years past, any enrichment was declared by the US and EU as forbidden, Mr. Taraghi noted: "But here we are, enriching as much as we need for our nuclear energy program."

A reminder that Iran has been targeted by a covert war came today, as Iranian media reported the hanging execution of Majid Jamali Fashi, convicted of assassinating Iranian scientist Massoud Ali Mohammadi in January 2010.

At least four scientists linked with Iran's nuclear program have been killed on the streets of Tehran. Iran has also been rocked by unexplained explosions, deep-penetration stealth drone flights run by the CIA, numerous espionage actions, and computer viruses such as Stuxnet.

State-run PressTV reported that Mr. Fashi had been trained by Israel's Mossad intelligence agency "inside Israel," and had received $120,000 for the killing.

NBC News last March quoted two unnamed US officials as confirming that the scientists had all been killed by  members of Iran's exiled opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq – listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department – who were financed and trained by Israel.

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