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Breakthrough on Iran?

Observers are cautiously optimistic that last week's talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany could lay the basis for a long-sought diplomatic breakthrough.

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Inter Press Service

While experts in Washington are being deliberately tentative in their assessments of last Thursday’s meeting in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1), there appears to be a growing sense that the results could lay the basis for a long-sought diplomatic breakthrough.

Much depends on whether Iran complies with its reported agreement to provide access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to its newly disclosed underground uranium-enrichment facility near Qom within two weeks. The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed El-Baradei, is expected in Tehran this weekend to work out the details.

But even more promising, according to analysts here, was Iran’s agreement in principle to ship most of the enriched uranium it has developed over the last several years at its Natanz facility to Russia and France for processing into fuel for a small reactor that makes isotopes for nuclear medicine.

“(If) the scheme is implemented, it would be a major confidence-building measure,” noted Gary Sick, a specialist at Columbia University who worked on Iran at the White House under former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.

“Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has been cited as Exhibit A in dire warnings that it is drawing perilously close to bomb-making capability, on the grounds that if further enriched, that stockpile could already provide enough material for a single bomb,” he wrote on his blog Friday.

“But the deal hammered out at Geneva would turn three quarters of it from its current gas form into solid fuel rods, which are extremely difficult to turn into weapons-grade material,” Sick wrote.

If, indeed, most of Iran’s LEU stockpile is shipped out of the country – the technical details of which are supposed to be addressed at an IAEA meeting Oct. 18 in Vienna, according to Iran’s PressTV – most experts here believe that regional tensions, which have been stoked by repeated Israeli threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities, should subside. This would offer more time for negotiations to build greater trust between Iran and its interlocutors, the U.S. foremost among them.

Similarly, the growing pressure from Israel and its right-wing supporters in Congress and elsewhere for “crippling sanctions” to be imposed against Tehran – multilaterally, if possible, unilaterally, if necessary – even as negotiations get underway could also fade, especially if the follow-up meetings create a sense of positive momentum.

Still, analysts were insistent on hedging their hopeful assessments by emphasising the necessity of Iran’s timely compliance with the agreements reached in Geneva, while neo-conservatives and other Iran hawks expressed strong scepticism, if not contempt, for Obama’s claims that the talks constituted a “constructive beginning” toward “serious and meaningful engagement.”

“On long evidence, the regime has no intention of stopping a nuclear program that would give it new power in the region, and new leverage against America,” warned the Wall Street Journal‘s neo-conservative editorial board, which also complained that the meeting itself had given “(President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and Iran’s mullahs) new legitimacy” after the unprecedented demonstrations against the government after the disputed June elections.

“Expect Iran to follow the North Korean model, stringing the West along, lying and wheedling, striking deals, only to reneg (sic) and start over,” it went on, asserting that the recently disclosed Qom facility may be just one island in “an archipelago of such small covert facilities…scattered around Iran.”

Writing in the far-right National Review, nuclear specialist Henry Sokolski charged that the administration and its P5+1 partners had “blinked” by “dropp(ing) any hint of penalizing Tehran and let(ting) it continue to make nuclear fuel at Natanz.”

He also cast suspicion on any deal to ship Iran’s LEU stockpile outside the country.” (T)he fuel that France and Russia will send back to Iran will be far more weapons-usable – it will be enriched with 19.75-percent nuclear-weapons-grade uranium – than the 3.5-percent-enriched brew Iran currently has on hand. If Iran were to seize this more enriched fuel, it could make a bomb much more quickly that it could now,” he wrote.

While that scenario was deemed highly unlikely by most analysts – one noted that it would badly embarrass Russia which, until now, has been Tehran’s most steadfast defender on the U.N. Security Council – even the most hopeful analysts noted that the Geneva talks marked just the first step down what could be a long and difficult road.

“One swallow does not a summer make, and it would be a mistake to think that the results of the Geneva meetings were anything more than the first baby steps along a perilous and unpredictable path,” according to Sick.

At Thursday’s meeting, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Iran’s senior representative, Saeed Jalili, reportedly discussed a range of issues, including human rights and regional security, during a 45-minute tete-a-tete. It marked the highest-level public diplomatic exchange between Washington and Tehran since relations between the two nations were broken off in 1979.

While that in itself marked something of a watershed, analysts noted the discussions themselves strongly suggested that both sides were prepared to be more flexible on key issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme than in the past.

“There is a tacit acceptance [by the U.S.] that Iran has the right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium, which has always been a key issue for the Iranians,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

“And the Iranians themselves have indicated that, if this principle is accepted, they can show greater flexibility, and it seems we saw the first sign of that yesterday when they agreed in principle to address concerns about their stockpiles of LEU,” he added.

“This expands the time horizon and enables the two parties to build trust,” he went on. “And in an environment where trust has been created, a solution can be found that is acceptable to all, which, from the Iranian perspective, includes their ability to enrich and proceed with what Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton has called a verifiably peaceful programme.”

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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