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Powers Could Push to Revive Iranian Uranium Exchange

The seat for Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation Board of Governors, which suspended a meeting until Thursday to allow six major powers to discuss a potential joint statement on the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear program (AP Photo/Ronald Zak). The seat for Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation Board of Governors, which suspended a meeting until Thursday to allow six major powers to discuss a potential joint statement on the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear program (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany could in a planned meeting urge Iran to relinquish its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium and end production of the material, reducing the speed at which the Middle Eastern nation could generate fuel for a nuclear weapon, informed Western government personnel said in remarks reported by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday (see GSN, March 6).

In exchange, the Persian Gulf regional power would receive medical reactor fuel and a pause to any movements toward new U.N. penalties while negotiations take place on further steps.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday said the six powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- had decided to join new discussions with Iran over the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear program. Washington and other Western powers suspect the Iranian effort is geared toward generating a nuclear-weapon capability; Tehran has insisted its atomic ambitions are strictly civilian in nature..

Iran recently tripled production of 20-percent uranium, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said on Monday (see GSN, March 5). The higher-enriched material could enable the nation to more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent; Tehran says the material is intended for a medical isotope production reactor.

"You want to target the most dangerous stuff first," a European government source participating in planning the negotiating position. An agreement on the matter would serve as a confidence-building measure following Iranian negotiation efforts that Western envoys have described as delaying tactics, according to the Journal. Iranian officials most recently met with representatives from the six nations on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving concerns about Iranian atomic operations (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011).

Following a potential deal for Iran to eliminate its higher-enriched uranium, the six powers would aim to convince the country to give up a portion of its low-enriched uranium under an expanded version of a 2009 exchange proposal. Iran in 2010 ruled out sending a greater quantity of its stockpiled uranium to other countries under a potential revised version of the earlier plan (see GSN, Nov. 2, 2010).

Washington and allied governments want to obviate Iran's ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon, and then to achieve a full halt to the country's uranium enrichment program. "These first two actions will lead to a more formal negotiation about the nuclear program," the European source said.

Iranian officials have repeatedly said they would not be persuaded to suspend uranium enrichment.

"We're consulting with our P-5+1 partners in preparation for the resumption of talks, but we have not yet completed our approach," one high-level Obama administration insider stated.

The meeting's exact timing was still undecided. One high-level European government source said no talks were anticipated before the next Iranian calendar year starts on March 20 (Solomon/Norman, Wall Street Journal I, March 6). European insiders said they would seek to launch within two weeks initial communications aimed at scheduling the multilateral meeting near the beginning of next month in a "neutral" location still unchosen, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Tehran has to "discuss in a clear and forthright way" how to convince the global community of its compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the absence of a clandestine Iranian effort to acquire a nuclear bomb, President Obama told reporters on Tuesday.

"They know how to do that. This is not a mystery," Obama said.

Rapid advancement is improbable, he said, suggesting a time line might be needed for evaluating alternative means for addressing the dispute, including the possible use of armed force.

Still, "this notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts," he said (Richter/Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 6).

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Wednesday said he is "a little skeptical" about the prospects of the planned discussions, Reuters reported.

"I think Iran continues to be two-faced," Juppe said. "That's why I think we have to continue to be extremely firm on sanctions, which in my view are the best way to prevent a military option that would have unforeseeable consequences."

"There is still a debate in Israel (about a military strike) and it's our responsibility to bring to Israel's attention the unforeseeable consequences it would have," he added (John Irish, Reuters I, March 7).

Meeting participants could overplay the significance of any Iranian offers in an effort to avert war, one French government insider told the New York Times.

Iran's February proposal for the talks is vague, a high-level French official said, noting the nation referenced "various nuclear issues" as opposed to its uranium enrichment efforts.

“We don’t want to waste our time talking to the Iranians about the international cost of pistachios,” the source said.

A significant number of officials tied to the planned talks have expressed concern that Iran could aim to drag out the discussion process as it moves its uranium enrichment centrifuges to locations less vulnerable to airstrikes (Kulish/Kanter, New York Times, March 6).

The discussions would not succeed if the six powers "want to continue their previous course or get some advantages by threats," Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said on Wednesday in comments reported by Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

"The world powers know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons and even say that Iran has no such weapons but still they put pressure," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the former top Iranian nuclear negotiator as saying.

Larijani said the powers have hypocritically been "saying nothing" to nations, such as Israel, that possess nuclear weapons and do not accept International Atomic Energy Agency oversight.

"If the powers insisted on this double-standard policy, then they will gain nothing from the next talks," he said (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, March 7).

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Tuesday said his government would call for an end to all penalties delivered during the nuclear standoff if Iran submits to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's demands, RIA Novosti reported (RIA Novosti, March 6).

A top Israeli official on Wednesday said he was "very happy" about the planned multilateral talks, Reuters reported.

""There will be no one happier than us, and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] said this in his own voice, if it emerges that in these talks Iran will give up on its military nuclear capability," Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said (Dan Williams, Reuters II, March 7).

Separately, divisions persisted between the six world powers over the severity of a potential unified comment on the nuclear standoff at this week's IAEA governing board meeting, the Associated Press reported. Beijing and Moscow have called for softer language than Berlin, London, Paris and Washington, one Western government source said (George Jahn, Associated Press/Google News, March 7).

"Everybody is waiting for them to agree on this text," one source from a European nation told Reuters. "It is four versus two."

The board suspended its meeting until Thursday to allow diplomats from the six nations to communicate amongst themselves and with their home governments (Reuters III, March 7).

Iran's offer to permit international auditors to access its Parchin military base appears to be "too little, too late," Agence France-Presse quoted a Western diplomat as saying.

High-level IAEA teams were denied access to the facility during two visits to Iran this year. A November IAEA safeguards report referred to indications that Iran had assembled a tank at the installation for performing explosive detonations serving as "strong indicators of possible weapon development," according to earlier reporting.

"It doesn't seem like the fulsome cooperation the IAEA needs. The value of a one-time, conditioned visit after Iran may well have been sanitizing the site is questionable," the official said (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, March 6).

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz commended Obama for declaring this week that a nuclear-armed Iran to be unacceptable, but said citizens of his country "expect to hear things that are clearer" from the U.S. president, the Journal reported on Tuesday.

"What we have to do now is not give the same speech of all the options are on the table, but rather set a very clear deadline,'' Steinitz said in the wake of this week's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. "That is almost the only chance of getting the Iranians to stop their behavior" (Josh Mitnick, Wall Street Journal II, March 6).

"If Iran does not stop its drive for nuclear weapons by such and such a date, an air and sea blockade must be imposed," the Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying (Xinhua News Agency, March 6).

Former Israeli military intelligence head Amos Yadlin on Tuesday said "Israel is very close to the point when a very tough decision should be made -- the bomb or the bombing," AFP reported.

Obama and Netanyahu discussed the nuclear standoff in Washington on Monday.

"[Obama] didn't say it explicitly, but this can be seen, not as a green light, but as an amber light," Yadlin stated. "If Israel sees it is in danger and it has to do something about Iran, he will understand" (Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, March 6).

Israeli officials have expressed greater doubt than their U.S. counterparts over the likelihood that an Iranian push to complete a bomb would be spotted, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Top officials in the U.S. intelligence community have also said recently they do not believe Iranian leaders have made a final decision to pursue a nuclear weapon (David Sanger, New York Times II, March 6).

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said: “No greater threat exists to the security of Israel and to the entire region -- and indeed to the United States -- than a nuclear-armed Iran."

The United States “is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” a Pentagon press release quoted him as saying. “Let me be clear: we do not have a policy of containment. We have a policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (U.S. Defense Department release, March 6).

"Military action is the last alternative when all else fails," Panetta said in comments reported by Reuters. "But make no mistake, when all else fails, we will act."

"As the president has made clear, the United States does not bluff," the Pentagon chief said. "In this town, it's easy to talk tough. Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important," he added in seeming reference to Republican criticism of Obama's posture on the nuclear standoff (Jim Wolf, Reuters IV, March 6).

A bipartisan congressional initiative under preparation would extend U.S. sanctions to all Iranian banks, Foreign Policy magazine reported on Tuesday (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, March 6)

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