High stakes for Iran nuclear talks

This weekend is seen as Tehran's best opportunity to make concessions on the Iran nuclear program if it is has any intention of doing so.

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The stakes are high as Iran prepares to meet six world powers for nuclear talks in Istanbul this weekend, but the meetings will be considered a success if all parties agree merely to keep talking.

How Iran approaches these negotiations will be a good indicator of how successful sanctions have been at convincing its leadership to make concessions on its nuclear program, which the international community suspects is designed not only for nuclear power but also nuclear weapons, the L.A. Times reports. Western officials say that this weekend is Iran's best opportunity to scale back its recalcitrance if it is has any intention of doing so. As sanctions bite harder in coming months, it will become more difficult for Iran's leaders to explain a compromise with the West.

As the Los Angeles Times sums it up, the outcome of the talks could determine the likelihood of nuclear war, the global economic recovery, and the 2012 US presidential election. But diplomats just need to find enough agreement between the world powers (known as P5+1) and Iran to keep talks going beyond the weekend. It appeared less than certain that the talks would even happen until a week ago.

Bloomberg reports that the P5+1 might use the European Union oil embargo, scheduled to begin July 1, as leverage. It could offer to stay that embargo, as well as lift any of the four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions currently in place. In exchange, said a former British ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency who hosted previous negotiations, the powers might request that Iran cap the production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which takes only a matter of months to turn into weapons-grade uranium.

The Associated Press reports that Iran feels it has the upper hand going into negotiations and that in some ways it has already succeeded. "The West — at least at this stage — no longer calls for an all-out halt to uranium enrichment as it did last year. If this path stays, Iran can boast about outmaneuvering the Western demands and keeping the heart of the nuclear program intact. The U.S. and others will then have to sell this outcome to the Israelis," AP reports.

Iran could accede to the world powers' request that it halt its 20 percent enriched uranium production "without any direct pain to its nuclear program" and demand a lifting of some of the sanctions in return, according to AP. It could also comply with demands that it close a recently opened second enrichment site, known as Fordo, without slowing its enrichment too much because another site provides most of Iran's fuel.

According to a separate AP report, the Obama administration wants proof of progress quickly, both to hold off Israel from a military strike and to uphold its own commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. and other world powers are stopping short of saying the gathering in Istanbul is a make-or-break situation. But as they sit down with Iranian officials for the first time in more than a year to press yet again for an agreement on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, American officials say the window for a diplomatic breakthrough is closing. And in the event the talks fail completely, all U.S. options remain on the table. 

In an Op-Ed for the Washington Post published yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Salehi says that Iran has already proven its commitment to talks. "Despite sanctions, threats of war, assassinations of several of our scientists and other forms of terrorism, we have chosen to remain committed to dialogue," he writes, identifying the "key issue between Iran and the United States" as a lack of trust.

To reestablish trust, all sides must assume an honest approach with a view toward moving past the barriers to sincere dialogue.

A key aspect of entering a conversation based on mutual respect is recognizing the other side’s concerns as equal to one’s own. To solve the nuclear issue, the scope of the upcoming talks among Iran and the “P5+1” (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany) must be comprehensive. The concerns of all sides must be addressed. Complex matters that have been left unaddressed for decades cannot be solved overnight. Another sign of mutual respect is a willingness and readiness to both give and take, without preconditions. This form of reciprocity is distinct from approaches that involve only taking. Most important, and this cannot be stressed enough, is that dialogue must be seen as a process rather than an event. A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build.

In a report for the Monitor published yesterday, Scott Peterson explains the roots of Iranian distrust and why it sees the UN's IAEA as a tool for hostile foreign governments to undermine Tehran.

The Islamic Republic has been targeted by an escalating covert war, widely attributed to the United States and Israel and their proxies. That war has included the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the Stuxnet computer virus, American CIA spy drone flights deep into Iranian airspace, and a host of unexplained explosions and acts of espionage.

"I think [Iran] has reason to be suspicious," says Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish former director of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq in the 1990s. "The Iranians don't trust the other side at all. When these killings are taking place ... they have all the more reason to be angry and upset; it's cruel [killing] scientists going to their job." 

"There is a consensus within Iran that more access [with the IAEA], more cooperation, [means] more assassinations, more sabotage," says [Seyed Hossein] Mousavian [a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team]. "Which means there is a great, great mistrust from the Iranian point of view to the real intention of the IAEA. They are really concerned that the IAEA has been used as an instrument for espionage, sabotage, covert action and preparing the ground for a military strike."

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