Iran talks: Wishful thinking at play

May 29, 2012 at 2:07 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- The second round of talks this year between Iran and world powers over Tehran's suspect nuclear enrichment program, not surprisingly, accomplished little if anything.

Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, apparently staked out and held to a maximalist stand in talks in Baghdad with representatives from the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the European Union.

Iran's enrichment of nuclear fuel, which it says is for peaceful purposes, is its sovereign right, one it won't abandon.

Secondly, world demands that Tehran stop enrichment of nuclear materials to a 20 percent level won't be considered until the United States and European Union scale back economic sanctions that have caused the country economic hardship and which, from July 1, could serious hamper, if not cripple, Iran's export of oil, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

"There is no reason for us to back down on 20 percent level enrichment, because we produce only as much 20 percent material as we need, " Fereidoun Abbasi, Iran's nuclear chief, said later.

So much for the U.S.-backed carrot that negotiators hoped Tehran would grab: a package of inducements, such as the supply of nuclear material and spare parts for civilian aircraft in exchange for a freeze on 20 percent enrichment.

"It's been a difficult few days," a European diplomat was quoted in the Financial Times as saying after the talks. "After our first meeting Istanbul (Turkey) a few weeks ago, we were euphoric.

"Now we're a lot more realistic about just how difficult this negotiation is."

Given Tehran's track record in not adhering to U.N. resolutions, its intransigence in previous talks -- which fell apart -- and its threats and ability to close, at least temporarily, the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf waterway through which one-third of the world's seaborne oil is transported, one has to wonder what the diplomats were thinking. Talks with Tehran in the past have failed. Economic sanctions, although they can be punishing, seldom work as loopholes are exploited.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking. The fact that Tehran signaled for the first time that it was willing to discuss its actual nuclear programs may have raised hopes in European capitals, which face the real prospect of further economic buffeting as they cease importing Iranian oil.

Perhaps the leadership at the U.S. State Department -- in a combination of hubris and hope -- thought the looming economic cudgel Iran faces would surely open a path in negotiations that would head off a possible pre-emptive military strike by Israel to thwart Iran's nuclear activities, which it suspects is for developing nuclear weapons.

Any such strike would sooner or later involve the United States, the last thing U.S. President Barack Obama wants to occur in an election year.

The United States has reportedly been pressing Israel for months not to take such action. There has been speculation that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's public remarks earlier this year that he thought Israel would attack in April, May or June was a public attempt to undermine or delay any such Israeli action.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton later accused the Obama administration of leaking intelligence that Israel had worked a secret deal with Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, for stationing its aircraft there. Such a stationing would have cut down the distance to striking Iran, the amount of fuel consumed in ingress and egress, thus lengthening over-target time by aircraft. It also could have possibly lessened Israeli need for U.S. aerial refueling assets in any attack.

New talks between Iran and the international community are scheduled for early next month in Moscow. Diplomats, while admitting the failure of Baghdad talks to achieve concrete progress in resolving the Iranian nuclear situation, are nonetheless putting on a brave face and even engaging in a bit of public relations spin, if not outright grasping at straws. At one point, during a break in talks, the Iranian negotiator said a few private words to the U.S. negotiator -- something that had not occurred before, they pointed out.

But new wrinkles also emerged. The International Atomic Energy Agency disclosed in its quarterly report that rather than cutting back on nuclear fuel enrichment, Tehran has increased it -- from about 161.6 pounds in February to nearly 320 pounds. The number of centrifuges that enrich the nuclear fuel also increased from some 300 to more than 500.

Those centrifuges, which haven't been put into use, are apparently in a facility buried into the side of a mountain and thus difficult to destroy in a bombing attack by aircraft.

Israel has repeatedly warned that Tehran is simply buying time with so-called negotiations to transfer much of its advanced operations to the tunnel facility.

AEA inspectors also apparently found trace particles at the underground facility that could indicate Iran has at least been experimenting at enrichment at a 27 percent level.

Weapons grade enrichment level is about 90 percent.

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