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    Middle East
     Feb 18, 2012


US, Iran inching toward talks
By M K Bhadrakumar

The foreplay is nearing completion on the Iran situation. The surest sign is that there were no serious takers in Western capitals for the Israeli smear campaign this week that Tehran's agents had been going about placing bombs in New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Simply put, there is growing impatience that it is way past the time for histrionics.

Several indicators are available that matters are moving towards a substantive plane. One cluster of events this week consists of the Iranian reply to the letter from the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, penned by Tehran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Simultaneously, Tehran announced it was developing a new generation of centrifuges and augmenting its number of centrifuges from 6,000 to 9,000 as well as loading a research

 

reactor with Iran's first batch of domestically produced fuel.

While Tehran's announcement of new nuclear "achievements" might have appeared as a belligerent move - Washington derided it as "hype" meant for the domestic audience in Iran - the contents of Jalili's letter, and, more important, the initial responses of cautious optimism it generated within hours in Western capitals convey that there are positive stirrings in the air.
The reaction in Washington is particularly noteworthy. A White House official was quoted as saying, "It [Jalili's letter] could lead to further diplomacy, provided that they [Iranians] are serious about it. We have made clear that this has to be a dialogue about their nuclear program specifically."

Jalili's letter apparently said Tehran would have "new initiatives" and indicated Iran's openness to discussing the nuclear issue. It suggested that "[A] constructive and positive attitude toward the Islamic Republic of Iran's new initiatives in this round of talks could open a positive perspective for our negotiation".

Jalili concluded, "Therefore ... I propose to resume out talks in order to take fundamental steps for sustainable cooperation in the earliest possibility in a mutually agreed venue and time." Significantly, neither Ashton nor Jalili raised any pre-conditions for the talks. Quite obviously, Brussels has already begun consultations with Washington on setting the date and venue for the resumption of talks between the "Iran Six" and Iran after a gap of three years. The "Iran Six" - also known as the "P5+1", includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the US, France, China, Russia, Britain - plus Germany.

A second cluster of positive signs is the virtual toning down of rhetoric on both sides. The most significant contribution to an easing of tensions came from senior American intelligence officials in the course of a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday - within a day of receiving Jalili's letter. It is interesting that the hearing itself came on the heels of a bipartisan draft resolution being mooted by 32 senators "ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran".

James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, assessed that as of now, Tehran has not decided whether to build a nuclear weapon, although it has been acquiring some skills. He doubted whether Iran would really take the plunge, either:
We [US] believe that the decision would be made by the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] himself and he would base that decision on a cost-benefit analysis. I don't think he'd want a nuclear weapon at any price, so that I think plays to the value of sanctions. They are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.
Conceivably, Clapper was also acknowledging Washington's appreciation of the self-restraint Tehran has been showing in not optimally pursing its nuclear program. In parallel testimony, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, added that "Iran today has the technical, scientific and industrial capability to eventually produce nuclear weapons" and notwithstanding the international pressure through sanctions "we assess that Tehran is not close to agreeing to abandon its nuclear program".

Putting both testimonies together, the Barack Obama administration has unambiguously indicated that the time is most opportune to engage Tehran in talks. Both Clapper and Burgess downplayed the prospect of Iran posing security threats to the US or to the Strait of Hormuz.

A fascinating aspect of the testimony was that the US officials virtually admitted that Tehran was on the whole being reactive rather than being provocative or belligerent in ratcheting up tensions. Burgess went to the extent of saying Iran could be expected to respond if attacked, but that in the US estimation it was unlikely to start any military conflict on its own.

Clapper went a step further, directly linking any shifts in Tehran's peaceful nuclear program to an eventuality where "the [Iranian] regime feels threatened in terms of its stability and tenure". Clapper also agreed with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that at any rate, producing a bomb "would probably take them [Iranians] about a year, and then possibly another one or two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort".

Clapper added, "It's technically feasible [making a bomb] but practically not likely. There are all kinds of combinations and permutations that would affect how long it might take, should the Iranians make a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon." In sum, Clapper poured cold water on the Israeli scenario of "apocalypse now". (He also repeated that Israel was not planning to attack Iran.)

On the whole, these testimonies must be seen as a comprehensive assurance being held out to Tehran that there are, after all, enough folks in Washington who haven't lost their sanity through all these months of shadow-boxing and grandstanding in the US-Iran standoff.

Alongside, in a third cluster, Tehran, too, has resorted to a bit of public diplomacy to project its interest in constructively engaging the US. Prominent among these have been three articles penned by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who held a key position in Iran's nuclear negotiating team until six years ago (besides serving as Iran's ambassador to Germany for seven years.)

His opening article was featured in the influential US magazine Foreign Affairs. Mousavian looked back at the US-Iran standoff on the nuclear issue over the past eight years as a chronicle of wasted time, of missed opportunities and misunderstandings and mutual misconceptions feeding on each other with both sides resorting to miscalculations that ultimately didn't help matters, leave alone end the stalemate.

He placed the blame squarely on successive US administrations for not having cared to explore repeated Iranian overtures for a normalization of relations.

His refrain throughout has been that the nuclear issue should never have been regarded as a "stand-alone" question that could be dealt with separately from the larger issues of the confrontational relationship that the two countries have had since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

As he put it, "There won't be a solution to the nuclear dispute as long as officials in Tehran and Washington continue to base their relationship on escalating hostility, threats and mistrust, particularly if the ultimate US goal is regime change." (By an interesting coincidence, this was also the grain of what Panetta and Clapper said this week.)

In his latest and concluding third part, Mousavian suggested the "bottom lines" in the upcoming negotiations: "For Iran, this means the ability to produce reliable civilian energy, as it is entitled to do under [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty. For the US and Europe, it means never having Iran develop nuclear weapons or a short-notice breakout capability."

How are the expectations of the two sides to be harmonized? Mousavian has the following to say:
Specifically, the West should recognize the legitimate right of Iran to produce nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment; remove sanctions; and normalize Iran's nuclear file at the UN Security Council and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. To meet the P5+1 conditions, Iran should accept the maximum level of transparency by implementing the IAEA's Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty's Additional Protocol, which broadly enable intrusive monitoring and inspections of nuclear facilities.

To eliminate Western concerns about a possible nuclear weapons breakout using low-enriched uranium, any deal should place a limit on Iran's enrichment activities to less than 5 percent ... A deal should also cap the amount of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride that Iran can stockpile; limit its enrichment sites during a period of confidence building; establish an international consortium on enrichment in Iran; and commit not to reprocess low-enriched uranium during the confidence-building period.
The "Mousavian suggestion" is somewhat modeled on Russia's "step-by-step" plan that also includes full supervision by the IAEA; implementation of the Additional Protocol and Subsidiary Arrangement between the IAEA and Iran; limiting enrichment sites to one; and temporary suspension of enrichment.

Moscow proposed that in return, Iran would expect the "Iran Six" to remove sanctions and normalize Iran's nuclear file in the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council.

To what extent Mousavian's opinions reflect the thinking within the Iranian regime is hard to tell and indeed he is conscious that the "domestic political climate in both countries" has come in the way of meaningful negotiations between Washington and Tehran in the past.

But what is striking is that the testimonies by Clapper and Burgess are in broad harmony with what Mousavian has suggested as the way forward.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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