Iran: New negotiations on way?

Jan. 27, 2012 at 3:25 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The stream of anti-Western vitriol and saber rattling from Iran's leaders has lessened, replaced by an offer to meet at the negotiating table.

The suggestion that Iran was willing to return to talks with representatives of U.N. Security Council members was made earlier this week by various government officials and reiterated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but not without attitude and spin.

"It is you who come up with excuses each time and issue resolutions on the verge of talks so that negotiations collapse," Ahmadinejad said during a speech Thursday.

Negotiations with Western powers over Tehran's nuclear enrichment program -- suspected to be the precursor to building nuclear weapons -- has been an on-again, off-again affair. The last round of talks collapsed in January 2011 as Iran did nothing to temper its enrichment program. About the same time, Tehran spurned an offer to be supplied fuel rods for its reactors if it sent its enriched uranium abroad.

In November, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, which in the past has monitored Iranian nuclear activity, said it had detected that Tehran was engaged in possible research for nuclear weapons development.

The United States and Israel, dead set against a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran, reiterated demands that it cease and desist and publicly stated that a military option to stop Tehran's nuclear ambitions weren't off the table.

The administration of U.S. President Barak Obama, however, has been seen to lean on Tel Aviv to refrain from pre-emptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities and instead moved to hit Iran at its purse strings -- crippling its ability to sell oil abroad by barring foreign financial institutions, including central banks, from dealing with U.S. institutions if they handled payments for Iran's oil exports.

The European Union, which imports nearly 20 percent of its oil from Iran, followed with its own heavy sanctions earlier this month while simultaneously urging Tehran back to the negotiating table.

Oil and natural gas revenues make up about 60 percent of the Iranian economy and account for nearly 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. Little wonder, then, for Tehran to appear more reasonable and less bellicose.

A glaring question, however, presents itself. Is Iran sincere in its apparent willingness to return to the negotiating table or will it use talks to try to buy time for continued nuclear development and/undermine EU resolve.

The EU sanctions regime won't kick in until summer. Under the agreement, countries importing Iranian crude can continue to do so until summer but no new contracts can be entered into. With European economies struggling amid the global financial crisis any cut-off of Iranian oil imports would cause further economic damage.

Europe imports about 20 percent of Iran's crude exports.

The Iranian Majlis, meanwhile, is reported to be preparing to debate soon a cutoff of Iranian oil exports to the EU in retaliation for the sanctions regime.

Even U.S. sanctions provide wiggle room that Iran could exploit while appearing to have forthright talks on dismantling its nuclear program, which it insists is for peaceful purposes and which is its right as a sovereign state.

Under the U.S. sanctions, which Obama apparently opposed but which Congress slipped into a defense funding measure to block a veto, the prescription won't be enforced for six months and the president could grant waivers for countries that would suffer severe economic hardship if they stopped receiving Iranian crude.

Besides EU countries, India, China, South Korea and Japan are major importers of Iranian oil.

A delegation from the IAEA is to visit Iran soon to discuss the country's nuclear facilities and programs and their monitoring.

As with previous international negotiations and monitoring efforts, any progress or agreements made would need to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Despite earlier IAEA inspection regimes Iran built clandestine facilities, which became public through information gathered by an Iranian resistance group.

Two U.S. Navy carrier groups are in the region, as are naval vessels of other Western countries to protect the Strait of Hormuz, a major shipping route for sea-borne petroleum from the Persian Gulf, which Iran has threatened to close and which Iran uses itself for shipments to Asia.

The West has pushed for negotiations. Iran now appears willing.

Negotiations shouldn't just be about words, Catherine Aston, the EU's head of foreign policy said. Negotiations should be an honest opportunity to resolve the crisis.

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