Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran must decide whether it wants to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program through negotiations, warning that President Barack Obama is “prepared to do whatever is necessary” to stop the Islamic Republic from getting an atomic weapon.
Kerry, in his first comments on Iran since becoming the top U.S. diplomat a week ago, yesterday described as “disturbing” Iran’s announced plans to install additional advanced centrifuges to produce more enriched uranium, which could be used to fuel a weapon.
Kerry signaled his desire for a negotiated settlement with Iran, while warning that the U.S. is committed to preventing that nation from acquiring a nuclear weapon. His comments come 2 1/2 weeks before negotiators from the U.S., Europe, China and Russia are set to meet Iranians to resume talks after what will have been an eight-month lapse.
“I want to underscore to Iran: The window for diplomacy is still open,” Kerry said, using his first press conference at the State Department to remind Iran’s leaders of the Obama administration’s position. “The choice is really ultimately up to Iran. The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance.”
It was the first high-level U.S. response after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to spurn an offer by Vice President Joe Biden for direct talks between the U.S. and Iran on the sidelines of the international meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, set for Feb. 26.
“The U.S. holds a gun at Iran and says we need to negotiate,” Khamenei, the highest authority and ultimate decision maker in the Islamic Republic’s affairs, said Feb. 7 at a meeting of his air force commanders. “They say the ball is in Iran’s court. The ball is in your court, and you need to answer: What is it worth” for Iran “to negotiate under threats and in the absence of good intentions?”
Iran may come to the table in Kazakhstan demanding relief from financial, energy and trade-related sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations. The Obama administration and its European allies have added dozens of penalties since December 2011 in an effort to squeeze Iran economically and persuade its leaders to abandon illicit aspects of the country’s nuclear program.
In talks that ended in June last year, Iran complained that the international community wasn’t offering strong enough incentives to secure Iran’s agreement to stop producing medium- enriched uranium and ship it out of the country.
Advocates of tough sanctions have expressed concern that a second-term Obama administration might weaken oil-related sanctions in its eagerness to secure a deal. Administration critics have also suggested that Kerry and Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, will be softer on Iran than their predecessors.
Kerry’s remarks showed no indication of a willingness to ease the penalties. He said the U.S. will “continue our dual- track policy of both pressure and engagement.”
He also called “disturbing” Iran’s announcement last month to the United Nations’ atomic energy agency that it’s installing advanced IR-2m centrifuges that can enrich more uranium in less time. The U.K. and Russia were among the nations that denounced the move, demanding that Iran freeze its uranium enrichment in line with UN Security Council orders.
On Feb. 6, a new set of U.S. sanctions took effect requiring countries that import Iranian crude, including China, Japan and India, to pay for oil in local currency that Iran must spend on goods and services in that country. The measures took effect half a year since the U.S. began requiring oil-buying nations to “significantly reduce” their purchases of Iranian crude to avoid being expelled from the U.S. banking system.
Iran exported 1.2 million barrels of crude a day in December, with China, South Korea, Japan and India accounting for 84 percent of those sales, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in a Jan. 18 report. Sales were less than half of what Iran shipped on average in the first 10 months of 2011, according to the IEA.
While expectations are low that this month’s nuclear talks will yield an agreement, the U.S. and the five other nations involved are keen to keep negotiations going in hopes that Iran’s leaders will conclude that a nuclear weapons capability isn’t worth the price to the economy.
Kerry said yesterday that while “we are prepared to let diplomacy be the victor in this confrontation,” it is Iran that has “to prove to the world that it is peaceful” by meeting the UN’s requirements to scale back its program.
If a diplomatic solution isn’t possible, Kerry said, Obama “is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make certain that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.”
The U.S., its European allies and Israel say Iran is using its nuclear activities as a cover for a covert atomic weapons program. Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research.
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