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Leading Iranian Cleric Lauds Nuclear Discussions

New comments from a leading Iranian religious figure offer further indications that the nation might be prepared to offer greater flexibility in negotiating a resolution to concerns over its controversial nuclear program, Reuters reported on Friday (see GSN, April 20).

Delegates from Tehran met on April 14 in Istanbul with representatives from world powers China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Another session is scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad.

The recent session demonstrated "success and progress," according to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the influential Guardian Council. "They (Western countries) are ready to accept that enrichment is Iran's right," official news organizations quoted him as saying during Friday prayers.

The U.N. Security Council has issued four sanctions resolutions aimed at pushing Iran to halt uranium enrichment, which could be used to produce reactor fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material. Tehran also faces a host of other penalties from the United States and other governments.

Iran denies claims it is seeking a nuclear-weapon capability, saying its atomic program is intended strictly for peaceful activities such as energy production. It has maintained its right to enrich uranium for civilian uses as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

A major point of discussion at the next round of talks is expected to be Iran's ongoing refinement of uranium to 20 percent enrichment, ostensibly for powering a medical research reactor in Tehran. Observers say enrichment to that level is a key step toward potential production of weapon-usable uranium, which has an enrichment level of about 90 percent. Iranian officials have suggested in recent weeks they could be prepared to halt that work at some point if assured of sufficient stocks of 20 percent enriched uranium.

"The West should lift sanctions against Iran but if they continue to insist on sanctions and then say they are negotiating with Iran, it is clear that [these] talks will be halted," Jannati said.

There are divergent opinions on Iran's actual level of interest in achieving a compromise with the world powers.

"Iran will bargain inch by inch in Baghdad but there is a genuine desire to reach an agreement," said Tehran University political science professor Sadeq Zibakalam. "They are paving the way and preparing the public for a deal with the West. But the language is about trying to maintain that it is not a submission and that they haven't given in."

"It seems to be that they are trying to shape the talks through public diplomacy. I think they are certainly looking for a deal but I am not sure they are going to get it," said Ali Ansari, a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "They are definitely trying to change the narrative."

However, an envoy from a Western nation said Tehran might simply be stringing the other nations along as it moves forward with its nuclear work.

Issue experts and certain envoys have said a future agreement might authorize Iran to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent for energy purposes under heightened monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (Marcus George, Reuters I, April 20).

"I see that we are at the beginning of the end of what I call the 'manufactured Iran file,'" Reuters quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying on Monday. "At the Baghdad meeting, I see more progress," he added.

"The last meeting in Istanbul came up with results that satisfied both sides," Salehi said. He did not offer specifics (Lin Noueihed, Reuters II, April 23).

Israel is ready to use force against atomic sites operated by its longtime foe, the Xinhua News Agency on Sunday quoted the head of the nation's military as saying.

The comments from Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz are in line with statements from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"In principle, we are ready for action. The state of Israel thinks that a nuclear-armed Iran is a very bad thing that must be stopped. ... We're preparing our plans accordingly," Gantz told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. He said this year is "critical" in Iran's atomic program.

Israel is "the only country in the world that someone is calling to destroy and is building the means to do so. But that does not mean I'm sending (air force commander Ido) Nehushtan to Iran this very minute," Gantz said (Xinhua News Agency, April 22).

Tel Aviv and Washington have disagreed over the handling of the nuclear standoff with Iran. Most recently, Netanyahu said Tehran had received a "freebie" in being allowed to move forward with its program between talks with the six powers. President Obama rejected that assertion.

“The Israelis have been given very, very strong assurances about their security by the United States, and I don’t think the United States has to apologize for anything on that score,” former U.S. national security adviser James Jones told the Washington Times.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that military action remains among its options for dealing with Iran. Jones declined to say whether he believes the White House would actually order an attack.

“I don’t want to speculate on that, although I do believe the president is very serious about the fact that all options are on the table,” according to the retired Marine Corps general. “But he also is correct in calming the rhetoric down about the necessity to strike Iran while the sanctions are still having a positive effect.”

It would be possible to contain an Iran that possessed nuclear weapons, Jones said.

“You would have to think that, on the basis of historical evidence of nation-states once they acquire a [nuclear] capacity, we’ve been able to contain them,” he said.

Jones added: “It’s not something that I think you would want to do. We’d like to see proliferation go the other way. We don’t want more nuclear-weapons capable countries, and in Iran's case, it’s particularly problematic because they traditionally export terror" (Ben Birnbaum, Washington Times, April 20).

Meanwhile, former IAEA officials are questioning the agency's emphasis on gaining access to the Parchin military site in Iran, which is suspected of having housed a vessel for explosive testing relevant to nuclear-weapon detonations.

Iran in March tentatively offered to permit the agency to inspect the base after denying access to high-level IAEA teams that made two visits to the country this year.  However, a recent message from Tehran's envoy to the U.N. organization did not mention a visit to the site, which it says is has not hosted atomic operations.

"I'm puzzled that the IAEA wants to in this case specify the building in advance, because you end up with this awkward situation," said former IAEA safeguard chief Olli Heinonen, who headed two agency visits to Parchin in 2005.

He added: "First of all, if it gets delayed it can be sanitized. And it's not very good for Iran. Let's assume (inspectors) finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, 'Oh, it's because Iran has sanitized it.' But in reality it may have not been sanitized. Iran is also a loser in that case. I don't know why (the IAEA would) approach it this way, which was not a standard practice; but they may have a reason."

A  March Associated Press article cited envoys as saying that satellite images indicated that Iran might be attempting to cleanse the facility of suspect material. Heinonen said he has seen satellite pictures that suggest "no immediate concern" on the matter.

Former IAEA official Robert Kelley said hydrodynamic testing does not often occur in tanks such as that described in a late 2011 agency safeguards report on Iran that addressed Parchin. Iran would also need significantly more than the 154 pounds of explosive material the report said would be employed by the 1990s-era container, he said.

"It doesn't hold together, it doesn't make sense. So I can't understand why [IAEA chief Yukiya] Amano would bet the agency's reputation on (Parchin)," Kelley said.

"Would somebody in 1998 have been expecting to try to fool the IAEA in 2012?" he added. "That's kind of the logic of all this, that (the Iranians) are going to build a container because the IAEA is coming" (Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, April 20).

 

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