Bloomberg News

U.S. Torn Between Israel’s Nuclear Demands Versus Iran’s

May 23, 2012

U.S. negotiators went into Iranian nuclear talks today under pressure to reconcile two fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable demands before the clock runs out on a diplomatic solution.

Iranian leaders want the international community to accept that their nation has a right to enrich uranium on its soil for peaceful use. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Jewish state will never be safe unless Iran ceases all enrichment so it can’t secretly build an atomic bomb.

That put the U.S. in a difficult position as it began a second round of nuclear talks in Baghdad with its five partners -- the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia.

All six have agreed to demand that Iran provide greater transparency and safeguards against illicit weapons development. They put forward a proposal today that concerned Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, according to Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who provided no details.

“The U.S. is negotiating on two fronts -- with Iran and with Israel,” Vali Nasr, a former U.S. State Department senior adviser, said in an interview. “A deal that would work with Iran would not satisfy Israel probably,” and the reverse is also true, he said.

The stakes are high for Iran and Israel -- and, politically, for President Barack Obama. Obama is under pressure in an election year to forestall any Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran, while blunting attacks from Congress and Republican challenger Mitt Romney that portray him as not being tough enough on Iran.

Core Issue

Oil declined for a second day in New York after Iran agreed to grant access to United Nations nuclear inspectors and the euro slumped to a 21-month low against the dollar. Crude for July delivery declined 55 cents to $91.30 a barrel at 9:37 a.m. in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

A preliminary agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency -- which would grant greater access to Iranian sites suspected of housing undeclared nuclear activities -- doesn’t change the core issue of uranium enrichment, which has drawn threats of possible military strikes this year by Israel.

Public and private posturing on all sides has marked the run-up to a second round of nuclear talks, following a meeting last month in Istanbul.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to Washington last week for talks on Iran, following an unpublicized visit by Israeli Military Intelligence chief Major General Aviv Kochavi to Washington and the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Enrichment ‘Right’

Iranian leaders have insisted in state-run media reports over the last month that the world has recognized their right to enrichment activities. U.S. diplomats dispute that.

The U.S. and European Union have stuck to a hard bargaining position: that Iran must meet all international obligations and resolve all concerns about its nuclear program. U.S. and Western officials have said there will be no relief from punishing oil and financial sanctions until a deal is done.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s former chief adviser on Iran, said a deal between Iran and the six powers meeting in Baghdad is achievable over time if Iran were to agree to start implementing certain confidence-building steps.

Those might include halting 19.75 percent uranium enrichment, shipping out stockpiles of that medium-enriched uranium, answering questions about possible military dimensions of the nuclear program and accepting additional transparency measures, said Ross, now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While medium-enriched uranium is needed to make medical isotopes to treat cancer patients, it also can be enriched further to fuel a nuclear weapon.

Curtailing Enrichment

In the longer term, Ross and other analysts suggested, Iran would need to accept steps that would prevent the conversion of a civilian nuclear power program into a weapons effort. Those measures might include forgoing enrichment and receiving fuel from an international fuel bank or accepting strict limits on enrichment at levels of less than 5 percent, restrictions on the number of centrifuges and intrusive inspections.

U.S. and Western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. and its European partners haven’t decided yet whether a low level of domestic uranium enrichment might be acceptable ultimately if Iran were to comply with the rest of the international community’s demands.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, said yesterday that the right to domestic enrichment has been understood as a right by every Iranian government dating back to the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last monarch who was deposed in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

‘Red Line’

“It was a red line under the Shah, who was an ally of the U.S.,” Mousavian, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey, said yesterday. No Iranian government will be in a position “to sell the rights of the nation under the NPT,” he said, referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Nuclear specialists debate whether the treaty guarantees the right to domestic uranium enrichment or simply the right to a civilian nuclear program. Iran’s critics say the nation is in violation of the NPT and several UN Security Council resolutions in any case, and therefore forfeits rights it would have under the treaty.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday reiterated Israel’s demands that Iran halt all enrichment. “In addition, all enriched uranium should be removed from Iran,” he said.

Promises, Actions

The deal announced yesterday to grant UN inspectors expanded access to Iranian military sites “is a net positive, but it is premature to make too much of it” because Iran has a record of unfulfilled commitments, Ross said. “Let’s see the actions, not just the promises.”

U.S. diplomats said Iran’s talks with the IAEA are a separate track from the Baghdad negotiations and insisted they wouldn’t reward Iran’s concessions to the IAEA with relief from oil and financial sanctions.

Rather than relief from oil sanctions, U.S. officials said the six major powers meeting in Baghdad are ready to offer a basket of confidence-building measures to assist Iran’s civilian energy program if Iran were to cease medium-level uranium enrichment.

Other incentives for Iran’s compliance might include lifting restrictions that have prevented Iran from importing spare parts for civilian aircraft, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity about private deliberations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Olli Heinonen, former chief inspector at the International Atomic Energy Agency and visiting professor at Harvard University, discusses the Iranian nuclear talks held today in Baghdad. He speaks from Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Manus Cranny on Bloomberg Television's "Last Word." (Source: Bloomberg)

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