Iran nuclear talks: delaying tactic or platform for peace?

A return to the negotiation table could relieve some of the tension that has built up over threats of an Israeli military strike on Iran nuclear targets.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Obama speaks during their meeting, Monday, March, 5, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

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The European Union has accepted Iran’s offer of nuclear talks with the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany, potentially providing an outlet for pressure that has built up during recent months’ talk of a military strike on Iran. But while the talks were hailed as a positive step, they raise the stakes, as their failure could lead to a stronger drumbeat of war.

The international community, particularly the US, has struggled to dial down war talk between Iran and Israel.

Yesterday, President Obama struck back at Republican presidential candidates, who have criticized his “diplomacy first” approach to Iran and vowed that they would take a tougher stance against the Islamic Republic if elected. Mr. Obama implied that candidates Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship by “beating the drums of war.” 

Reuters reports that Israel, which has lately stressed its willingness to launch a strike on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, “cautiously” welcomed the resumption of talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, stressed to Israel’s Army Radio that the goal remains for Iran to give up its “military nuclear capability,” not just promise to not pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

Israel is at odds with the P5 + 1 – as the group of the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, and Germany is known –  over what nuclear work of Iran’s is considered acceptable. The Islamic Republic insists that its program is for peaceful purposes – mostly electricity generation, plus some medical work – and the world powers have acknowledged its right to have a civilian nuclear program.

Mr. Netanyahu insists that all of Iran’s uranium enriched beyond 3.5 percent, the level needed for electricity generation, be removed. Iran has some uranium enriched to 20 percent, which it claims is needed to produce medical isotopes. Nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to 90 percent, according to Reuters.  

The Obama administration has insisted on more time to allow diplomatic and economic sanctions to work, but Mr. Amidror insisted to Army Radio that a military threat from Washington is the only thing that will get Iran to “relent,” Reuters reports.

Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani warned today that if the world powers put “pressure” on Iran during the negotiations, the talks will fail, Agence France-Presse reports. 

In the letter proposing the resumption of talks, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said Iran was ready to reopen stalled negotiations as long as the P5 + 1 acknowledged its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The last talks, in January 2011, fell apart over Iran’s “preconditions,” such as a lifting of sanctions, for even discussing its nuclear program, according to AFP. There have been no reports of similar demands this time. 

Time is of the essence for negotiators,” The New York Times reports. There is concern that the talks are a stalling tactic by Iran to buy time to further develop its nuclear capability and to relocate its nuclear equipment to places that would be harder to bomb.

“We don’t want to waste our time talking to the Iranians about the international cost of pistachios,” the French official said.

Time is of the essence for negotiators because many fear that any stalling by Iran will give the country more time to relocate enrichment centrifuges deep inside mountain bunkers that are difficult to bomb.

There was little optimism in the West that talks would lead to significant breakthroughs, much less to an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, warned Iranian officials against using talks to stall.

Iran only damages its own interests through “tactical maneuvering and playing for time,” Mr. Westerwelle said.

A repeat of the January 2011 talks, when Iran refused to discuss nuclear issues, could increase the risk of military action, the president of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, told the Times. Failure to make progress in addressing nuclear issues could undermine support for alternatives to military action.

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