Window of opportunity may open in U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff


A multi-front campaign to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon has been stalled for months by the distractions of a U.S. presidential campaign, Tehran’s stop-and-go negotiating tactics and its role in deadly clashes in Syria and Gaza. Now that President Obama has a fresh four-year mandate and Iran’s influence with Middle East neighbors seems to be fading, Tehran is expected back at the negotiating table soon and, some observers believe, in a more constructive mood to resolve the nuclear standoff.

The Obama administration now has wider latitude for tackling one of its most complicated relationships. No longer shackled by the hawkish politicking of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, Obama could make an overture to Tehran to get negotiations back on track at a time when Iranian leaders need a face-saving escape from withering sanctions.

Multinational talks with Iran on its nuclear ambitions have been idle since June, as Tehran has refused to accede to the demands of foreign diplomats that it cease enriching uranium even for peaceful purposes like power generation and production of medical isotopes. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, met Wednesday with diplomats from the six powers involved in the talks--the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany--and was exchanging missives with Tehran about a possible resumption of talks in December, reported Friday.

“If Obama wants to create a legacy in foreign policy, he has an opportunity to do that if he can resolve the Iran dilemma,” said Iranian exile Najmedin Meshkati, a USC engineering professor and former advisor to the U.S. State Department office responsible for technology issues. Even as Iran may be pushed by sanctions that have halved oil exports and sent the rial currency into a freefall, the all-stick and no-carrot approach to negotiations isn’t likely to succeed, Meshkati predicted.

The ruling elite in Iran is untouched by the food shortages and soaring prices making life for average Iranians miserable, Meshkati said of his homeland, where he has maintained ties with family and academic colleagues during 30 years in exile.

“Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and its advancement of enrichment are not based on calculated economic study,” he said. “It’s based on very complicated security calculations and other factors, like national pride.”

Tehran is unlikely to engage in direct talks with U.S. diplomats without some inducement, he said. For example, he said, Washington could suspend the sanction preventing Iran from buying spare parts and maintenance services from U.S. suppliers for its aging fleet of Boeing aircraft. That would make civilian air travel safer, boost U.S.-made component sales and keep Iran as a U.S. aviation customer rather than driving it to convert to an Airbus fleet.

“Iran has said some element of enrichment is nonnegotiable, that it’s permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for civilian uses,” Meshkati said. “They feel if they let that chip go that they will lose face. What do they have to show the Iranian people, who are struggling, if they come to the table to negotiate away something that is their right?”

It’s been three months since the International Atomic Energy Agency gave up on its separate effort to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts expressed frustration after the last meeting in August failed to secure access for United Nations inspectors to the Parchin facility. Satellite surveillance of the base suggests Iran has been trying to clean up traces of a nuclear bomb test there nearly a decade ago. The Vienna-based agency reported this week, though, that Nackaerts would be meeting Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator on Dec. 13.

The moves to resurrect negotiations may have been spurred by recent reports that Tehran has doubled the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, though not all are operational. It has also stepped up processing to accumulate 110 kilograms of the nuclear fuel enriched to 20%, putting Iran about halfway to the 200-250 kilograms that nuclear experts say would be needed to make a single bomb.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in a report last week that the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union appeared to be having no effect on Iran’s pace of fuel production.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, sees a promising convergence of influences that could lead to more productive talks on the future course of nuclear development in Iran.

“The timing might be right now,” said Mukhatzhanova, pointing to what she sees as Iran’s conscious decision to keep enrichment stable and well below the volumes needed for weapons production. “There are signs within Iran that negotiations with the United States are not anathema. The head of the judiciary said recently that Iran should negotiate for its own benefit.”

She referred to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, who said this month that direct talks with the United States shouldn’t be ruled out if 30-plus years of accumulated grievances are to be resolved.


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.