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Iran's Proposal for Atomic Discussions Under Scrutiny: White House

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, shown testifying on Capitol Hill earlier this month, on Thursday said a new Iranian proposal for nuclear discussions is a possible sign that sanctions against the country are making an impact (AP Photo/Cliff Owen). U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, shown testifying on Capitol Hill earlier this month, on Thursday said a new Iranian proposal for nuclear discussions is a possible sign that sanctions against the country are making an impact (AP Photo/Cliff Owen).

The Obama administration on Thursday said it was examining an Iranian proposal for resuming multilateral dialogue over its disputed atomic activities, Reuters reported (see GSN, Feb. 16).

The Iranian message, transmitted one day earlier to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, raises the possibility of convening a new round of nuclear discussions with the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, according to a previous report. The United States and other Western powers suspect Iran's atomic efforts are geared toward establishing a nuclear-weapon capacity, but Tehran has consistently denied the contention.

The Middle Eastern country most recently met with the six nations on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving the dispute (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011)

"We're reviewing the letter," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in reference to Iran's latest communication. "The Iranians needed to respond to that (October) letter and so they have, but I don't want to make any qualitative judgments about their response at this time,"

"There is time and space here for a diplomatic solution to this, if Iran chooses to engage in constructive behavior," the spokesman said.

A high-level Obama administration source said the statement from Iran "could lead to further diplomacy, provided that they're serious about it."

"We have made clear that this has to be a dialogue about their nuclear program specifically," the insider said (Reuters I, Feb. 16).

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added: "The letter today is something that, obviously, we need to consult ... to determine what the next step should be, but we have always maintained that it's in our interest to try to resume talks with Iran, assuming that those talks are constructive."

The message is now a focus of discussions between Europe and the United States, and the powers would determine in roughly one week if they would move to plan the timing and placement of a meeting, U.S. and European government sources told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. The insiders said they were not open to any further discussions with Iran in the absence of a pledge that senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili would address the atomic dispute (Solomon/Norman, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17).

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Thursday said the Iranian proposal "remains ambiguous but it is probably the beginning of an opening on the part of Iran, which is saying it is prepared to talk about its nuclear program."

"We will have the opportunity to test Iran's sincerity during the visit by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors on Feb. 20 and 21," Agence France-Presse quoted Juppe as saying. A high-level IAEA delegation is expected on those dates to travel to Iran for the second time in a month in a bid to answer questions the Vienna, Austria-based organization has raised over the nation's nuclear program.

"If Iran shows it is really prepared to talk, to show both its (nuclear) sites and its documents, I think the conditions could be in place to resume talks," the French minister said.

Any curbs on punitive measures against Iran would be unacceptable to Paris as prerequisites for restarting the discussions, Juppe said.

"It's up to Iran to make the first gesture of goodwill," he said (Agence France-Presse I/Now Lebanon, Feb. 16).

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Thursday said Iran's latest communication was an "interesting" development and a possible indicator that steps to isolate the country are making an impact, the Washington Times reported.

“We’ll see whether, you know, the Iranians may be changing their mind,” Clapper said in testimony to lawmakers.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), though, said he was "skeptical about putting any significance in" the development.

The U.S. intelligence community suspects Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would ultimately determine "on a cost-benefit analysis" whether to move forward in developing a nuclear bomb, Clapper said.

"A nuclear weapon at any price" is not an Iranian goal, he said.

Clapper said “there are certain things [the Iranians] have not yet done” to complete an atomic armament, but he refused to describe the “decision indicators” to lawmakers in public testimony.

A period still remains for penalties coordinated by Washington to potentially sway Tehran's positions, the intelligence chief said, adding the Persian Gulf state would require no less than 12 months to complete a bomb's nuclear component and between 12 and 24 additional months to incorporate it into an armament with combat potential.

“The impacts that the sanctions are already having on the Iranian economy, the devaluation of their currency -- the thought is that that could change their policy,” the official said (Shaun Waterman, Washington Times, Feb. 16).

"Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, and it is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile force, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload," Clapper added in comments reported by CNN (see related GSN story, today).

"Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so," he said (Suzanne Kelly, CNN, Feb. 16).

Israel has yet to commit to any use of armed force against Iranian atomic facilities, AFP quoted Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess as saying before the committee (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Feb. 16).

Clapper said Israeli military action could eliminate between 12 and 24 months of Iran's atomic progress, the Los Angeles Times reported (Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 16).

The United States has ruled out no potential moves in dealing with Iran if the Middle Eastern state breaches any established "red lines," Panetta said in a separate hearing.

“We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” a Pentagon press release quoted him as saying in testimony before a House Appropriations panel.

Findings indicate Iran is still bolstering its uranium enrichment capacity, Panetta said. The enrichment process can produce civilian reactor fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material.

Still, “intelligence does not show [Iranian leaders have] made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon,” he said. “That is the red line that would concern us and that would ensure the international community, hopefully together, would respond."

Any Iranian effort to block the Strait of Hormuz would not be tolerated by other governments, Panetta added. Officials and lawmakers in Tehran previously threatened to close the waterway, a key channel for the shipment of Middle Eastern petroleum, in retaliation to an embargo on oil exports (U.S. Defense Department release, Feb. 16).

Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen pressed the European Union earlier this month to prevent Iranian financial institutions from using an international system for the movement of funds, a U.S. government insider told AFP on Thursday.

During a trip to Brussels, Belgium, Cohen "discussed the issue of [the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication] providing services to designated Iranian banks and urged the EU to take action on the issue," the source said (Agence France-Presse III/Google News, Feb. 16).

Greece stands to suffer more than other European powers from anticipated restrictions on petroleum imports from Iran, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

European Union nations last month finalized a six-month time line for prohibiting oil purchases from Iran; European envoys said the delay was primarily intended to give Athens time to secure other unrefined petroleum sources.

Earlier this week, Tehran hinted it might halt petroleum sales to EU states before the embargo takes effect.

“It’s not a coincidence that Iran is targeting Greece right now, because Greece is the weak link of the European Union,” said Georgios Filis, an expert at the American College of Greece. “We’re going to find ourselves in a very desperate situation” (Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post, Feb. 16).

In Washington, 32 Republican and Democratic senators were set on Thursday to submit a nonbinding measure voicing opposition to any U.S. strategy based on deterring a nuclear-armed Iran, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

The proposal backs "U.S. policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to ‘contain' a nuclear weapons capable Iran." In addition, it "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat" (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, Feb. 16).

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday said he had "been urging ... all senior authorities of the Iranian government that the onus is on the Iranian side to prove, to convince, the international community that their nuclear development program is genuinely for peaceful purposes," Reuters reported.

The U.N. chief added he was "deeply concerned" by a November IAEA assessment of Iran's atomic efforts (see GSN, Nov. 8, 2011).

"The Iranian authorities must fully comply with relevant Security Council resolutions," Ban said in reference to a number of measures the body has adopted in the last six years over Iran's nuclear program.

"All these issues should be resolved peacefully through negotiations, through dialogue ... there is no alternative," he stated (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, Feb. 17).

In Islamabad, Iran's president on Friday said interactions between officials should no longer include references to nuclear weapons, Kyodo News reported.

"Nuclear bombs should be deleted from the terms (of) current political relationships," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said after meeting with his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts.

"We must go beyond 'nuclear bomb' or some temporary orientation in trying to build our relationship with other nations," Ahmadinejad said (Kyodo News, Feb. 17).

Nations in possession of nuclear armaments are no better than other countries, AFP quoted him as saying.

"(The) nuclear bomb is not going to bring about superiority," the Iranian president said (Agence France-Presse IV/Spacewar.com, Feb. 17).

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday said his country would neither endorse nor host any U.S. strike on Iran, Russia Today reported (Russia Today, Feb. 17).

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