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U.S. Prods Iran for One-on-One Meeting

February 22, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Washington’s Overtures Ahead of Almaty Talks Seen Creating a Split in Tehran.  The U.S. is moving to raise the stakes of international talks next week in Kazakhstan, seeking to hold a one-on-onetsr.iran.president.new.york.cnn.640x360 meeting with Tehran in a bid to accelerate nuclear diplomacy ahead of Iran’s presidential elections in June, according to American officials.

U.S. diplomats are skeptical Tehran will accept their offer to meet in Almaty as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate arbiter on foreign relations, has come out strongly in recent weeks against any direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington.

“They say, ‘Let us negotiate to force Iran to accept what we tell them,’ ” Mr. Khamenei said in a speech Sunday in Tehran. “Such talks would be worthless. Such talks will lead nowhere.”

Still, U.S. and European officials said they believe Washington’s overtures are creating fissures within Iran’s political elite as the June presidential vote looms. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who can’t run for a new term, and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi both have publicly indicated an openness to meet directly with the Americans.

Even if Tehran ultimately turns down the U.S. offer, Obama administration and European officials believe, pressure on Mr. Khamenei inside Iran and internationally could increase if he is seen as the main impediment to progress in the diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.

“If Iran says ‘yes,’ that would be great,” said a European diplomat working on Iran. “If not, we think they’ll be more isolated.”

The Almaty talks begin on Tuesday and include Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, a group known as the P5+1.

U.S. officials said they will convey to Iran their desire for direct talks, as they have during previous meetings, through the office of Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign-policy chief who leads the P5+1 team.

The Almaty meeting will be the first focused on constraining Iran’s nuclear program since June. During that time, Tehran has significantly advanced its nuclear capabilities, according to U.S. and European officials.

On Thursday, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that Iran had installed nearly 200 of its more advanced centrifuge machines at the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility in central Iran. These machines are seen as capable of tripling the speed at which Iran grows its stockpile of fissile material.

The IAEA report said that Iran over the past three months increased to 167 kilograms its holdings of uranium enriched to 20% purity, a level viewed as dangerously close to weapons grade. Nuclear experts estimate Tehran needs 250 kilograms of this fissile material to build one atomic bomb, though the material would have to be processed further.

But the agency also said Iran has converted some of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium into fuel rods for Tehran’s research reactor. The move makes this fissile material virtually unusable in a weapons program, and may be an attempt to reduce Western fears ahead of the Almaty talks, U.S. officials said.

The IAEA also reported that Tehran has continued to deny U.N. inspectors access to Iranian facilities believed to have been used to conduct nuclear-weapons research. Tehran also refused to make available scientists and documents that the IAEA believe are related to this work, according to the report.

“The installation of new advanced centrifuges would be a further escalation and a continuing violation of Iran’s obligations” to the U.N., said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday. “It would mark yet another provocative step.”

The U.S. and its diplomatic partners will request in Almaty that Iran ship out its entire stockpile of 20% enriched uranium and freeze further production, said U.S. and European officials involved in the diplomacy.

The P5+1 will also ask Iran to shut its underground uranium-enrichment facility in the holy city of Qom, which produces higher-enriched fuel and is seen as largely immune from military attack, these officials said.

In return, they said, the Obama administration will recommit to providing Iran with economic assistance, including sales of airplane spare parts and equipment used in civilian nuclear-power programs. The P5+1 will also offer to ease some sanctions imposed on Iran in recent months, including the banning by the U.S. and European Union of trade with Iran in gold and precious metals.

President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials in recent weeks have publicly voiced a desire to hold direct talks with Iran to end its nuclear program.

The White House views 2013 as a critical year for the program as Iran could reach a point where it possesses the technologies to quickly “break out” and develop an atomic bomb.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the international community needs to be prepared for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations by the middle of this year to prevent Tehran from reaching this point.

Many U.S. officials said that while Mr. Khamenei publicly opposes direct talks, his leadership understands that Washington is the only global power that can provide Iran the sanctions relief and diplomatic recognition it covets. The Pentagon also maintains a robust military presence along Iran’s borders in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

“If the offer to Iran is going to be sweetened, we’re the ones capable of delivering it,” said Dennis Ross, who oversaw Iran policy at the White House during Mr. Obama’s first term. “We could test them more through direct talks.”

The Obama administration sought to talk directly with Iranian diplomats during past meetings of the P5+1 and Iran, but was largely rebuffed.

U.S. diplomats did meet with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on the sidelines of 2009 talks in Geneva. The Iranian team initially agreed to a deal to ship out a majority of the country’s nuclear fuel, but then pulled out due to opposition by Mr. Khamenei, according to U.S. and European officials.

The U.S. delegation in Almaty will be headed by the State Department’s No. 3 diplomat, Wendy Sherman. It will also include Puneet Talwar, the White House’s point man on Iran.

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Jay Solomon – Wall Street Journal

February 22, 2013

Related link – http://tinyurl.com/bx942q7

 

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