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The clock ticks as talks on Iran take place

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The first discussions in 15 months focusing on Iran’s highly contentious nuclear program produced two sharply divergent assessments of the outcome.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed skepticism, suggesting that Iran had engaged in deception and was brazenly trying to buy yet more time. By contrast, Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called the talks  “very successful.”

The Iranian perception was supported by the United States, Israel’s ally, which characterized the negotiations as “a positive first step,” and by the European Union’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, who described them as “constructive and useful” and disclosed that the next round would be held in Baghdad on May 23.

The third set of negotiations with Iran in three years brought the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany to Istanbul, Turkey, on April 14 to discuss two basic topics: Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, a key component of its controversial nuclear program, and Iran’s need to fully co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As the talks got under way, the atmosphere was tense and the level of mutual mistrust was high, even as western diplomats told reporters that Iran had shown “serious engagement” on major issues.

There was, of course, a clear understanding in both camps that failure might impel the United States and particularly Israel to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that the talks risked wasting time and that Israel had not promised the United States not to attack Iran while they were taking place.

U.S. President Barack Obama categorized the talks as Iran’s “last chance” to resolve the dispute through diplomatic means. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just as emphatic, warning Iran that Washington would not tolerate any further foot-dragging or prevarication. Backing up its rhetoric with military might, the United States dispatched a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, which Iran has threatened to close in the event of war.

In a message to Israel, Clinton asserted that a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran would not be “in anyone’s interest.” China and Russia – which have extensive commercial relations with Iran and take a far more conciliatory approach to its nuclear program – put out similar declarations. The host of the talks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “disastrous” and devastate the Middle East.

Iran, in keeping with past pronouncements, claimed that its nuclear program is peaceful in nature and designed to produce energy and medical isotopes. To underscore its claim, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa against the acquisition of nuclear weapons, saying they contravene the principles of Islam.

Striking a skeptical tone, the six powers observed that Iran’s success in enriching a portion of its stockpile of uranium to 20 per cent purity, just a few technical steps away from bomb grade, aroused suspicion.

The Obama administration, having promised Israel it will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear arsenal, delivered something of an ultimatum to Iran on the eve of the talks. Washington insisted that Iran must dismantle a newly built facility in Fordo (from which IAEA inspectors are barred), halt the production of uranium fuel and ship stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium out of the country.

Israel, watching these developments warily, presented still more stringent demands. Two weeks before the talks were to convene, Defence Minister Ehud Barak made several demands: Iran must transfer 20 per cent enriched uranium to a third-party country, ship the majority of low-enriched uranium out of Iran, leaving just enough to generate electricity, and close the Fordo facility altogether.

Netanyahu was even blunter. In a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, he demanded a complete cessation of all uranium enrichment by Iran. Swiftly rejecting Israel’s conditions, Iran went to Istanbul with several objectives in mind.

Primarily, Tehran wants United Nations and western sanctions to be lifted or at least eased, since they have badly damaged Iran’s economy. The sanctions have disrupted Iran’s banking system, increased inflation, decreased the value of its currency and affected oil exports, which account for 80 per cent of its foreign revenue. As well, Tehran seeks United Nations acknowledgement of its right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology.

In a public relations blitz preceding the talks, Iran displayed a mixture of bravado, defiance and conciliation. Declaring he would never surrender Iran’s nuclear rights, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran could ride out the sanctions, thanks to its huge reserve of foreign currency holdings. But in a nod to diplomacy, he promised that Iran would present “new initiatives” in Turkey.

A week before the talks got underway, Iran cut off oil exports to Germany, Spain and Greece in retaliation for an EU oil embargo due to go into effect on July 1. And in a show of bluster, the commanding officer of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Pakpour, professed not to be worried by the prospect of an attack on its nuclear sites. “No country dares attack Iran,” he said, repeating a mantra that Iran’s leadership has self-confidently conveyed.

When the talks ended, Netanyahu voiced disappointment. “My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie,” he remarked, saying that Iran had been handed a five-week reprieve to upgrade its nuclear program and strengthen its defences.

Since the last round of talks more than a year ago, Iran has made significant advances in enriching uranium, having placed many more centrifuges in the well-protected facility in Fordo.

Cyber warfare, sabotage and the assassination of Iranian scientists have set back but not incapacitated Iran’s nuclear program.

After the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi portrayed them as “a turning point” in Iran’s “dialogue” with the west and proclaimed that Iran is ready to resolve all nuclear issues in the next round in Baghdad, provided sanctions are eased.

Delivering a far different message, Obama warned Iran that “the clock is ticking” and that further sanctions will be applied should there be no breakthrough in Baghdad.

If Iran is merely playing games, which well might be the case, Israel will be sorely tempted to resort to military force, an option that has divided the Israeli elite.

Two months ago, Netanyahu warned Iran that an attack may be imminent. More recently, Barak said that Israel’s patience should not be tested. As he grimly stated, “It [an attack] is not needed within weeks, but it is also not something that can wait a number of years.”

Judging by these comments, the pressure is on Iran to make considerable concessions in Baghdad next month.

This column appears in the May 26 print issue of The CJN

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