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Time Runs Short for Progress on Iran Nuke Talks

The first meeting between Iran and the world's major powers in more than a year ended with little to show apart from a vague promise to meet again next month in Turkey.

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Inter Press Service

The first meeting between Iran and the world's major powers in more than a year ended Tuesday with little to show apart from a vague promise to meet again next month in Turkey.

However, the disappointing results were expected – indeed predicted – by all sides before the two-day session in Geneva. The real question is whether progress on curbing Iran's nuclear programme can be made within the next few months. If not, pressure will grow in Washington and other capitals for new sanctions on top of more punishing implementation of existing measures against the Islamic regime.

Prior to the talks, Western officials had said that they hoped Iran would show a degree of seriousness and willingness to engage in a constructive and sustained manner. However, a Western official who attended the talks in Geneva and commented on condition of anonymity wrote in an email that the Iranians "were not terribly serious, no."

The official continued that the Iranians – who before the talks had said they were not prepared to discuss their nuclear programme – did spend considerable time doing just that, but "mainly to complain about IAEA".

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly criticised Iran for failing to provide adequate information to determine whether its nuclear activities are civilian, as Iran claims, or related to weapons, as the U.S. and many other nations suspect.

An October 2009 cable disclosed recently by Wikileaks quotes an unnamed U.S. diplomat as saying that IAEA chief Yukiya Amano of Japan is "solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision". That contrasts with Amano's predecessor, Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, who often criticised the U.S. approach to Iran. It is not clear whether the Iranians brought up the comment at the Geneva meetings.

Before the talks, U.S. officials had indicated that they had prepared a new version of a confidence-building measure that Iran had shown interest in a year ago. The plan would require Iran to send out large quantities of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a Tehran research reactor (TRR) that makes medical isotopes. In May, after mediation by Brazil and Turkey, Iran agreed to swap 1,200 kilogrammes of its stockpile, but the U.S. and its partners rejected the plan because by then, Iran had enriched more uranium.

The Western official said there had not been "much discussion of a revised TRR" this time in Geneva, suggesting that the U.S. and its allies did not think enough progress had been made to reopen the topic.

Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said he was not surprised by the meager outcome of the talks but that there would be "higher expectations for the next set to get to a concrete level of specificity".

The Iranians, he said, "did not want to look like they were knuckling under to sanctions and international pressure."

Prior to the talks, Iranian officials made clear that they would not discuss curbs on uranium enrichment. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the talks would be "fruitful" only if four rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran were lifted – a completely unrealistic demand.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that Iran would emphasise nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and the transfer of atomic technology.

The Iranians, who were led by their national security adviser, Saeed Jalili, also appeared to feel the need to look tough in the aftermath of the assassination of a top nuclear physicist and wounding of another in Tehran last week by unknown assailants.

Standing before a photo of the deceased physicist, Jalili told a press conference that halting uranium enrichment would not be discussed at the next meeting in Istanbul. Jalili declared that "today, more than ever, Iran is powerful. It is in the best economic, political, regional and international shape."

According to a report by Agence France Presse, Jalili rebuffed an overture by U.S. undersecretary of state William Burns to meet one-on-one. Last year, the two had a 45-minute private conversation. This time, Jalili met alone only with the Russian, Chinese and British delegations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said "there were brief, informal discussions" between U.S. officials and Iranians but said he wasn't in a position to say "what specifically came up".

Some analysts have suggested that Iran will feel more comfortable resuming negotiations in Turkey, whose Islamic- leaning government has expressed understanding for Iran's position and need to keep face in front of a restive domestic audience. However, no specific date for a new round of talks in Turkey has been set.

Katzman said that "if we go two-three months back and forth without a resumption [of negotiations], then the administration might start talking about new sanctions".

Already, the lame duck Congress has weighed in with a stern admonition to the Barack Obama administration not to compromise over uranium enrichment.

In a letter to President Obama on the eve of the Geneva talks, three Democrats and two Republicans in the U.S. Senate warned that there should be "no enrichment or reprocessing activities" on Iranian territory "for the foreseeable future".

The letter, signed by Democrats Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Republicans Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois, also said that "it is absolutely essential that the U.S. and its partners make clear & that we intend to continue ratcheting up this pressure, through comprehensive enforcement of existing sanctions as well as imposition of new measures until the full, verifiable and sustained suspension by Iran of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities."

In an interview with the BBC in Bahrain prior to the Geneva talks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was more conciliatory and said that Iran "can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."

Western officials have suggested they feel that they have more leverage now than in many years because existing sanctions are having an impact on the Iranian economy and Iran's nuclear programme has slowed in part due to sanctions, technological problems and sabotage.

The Geneva talks were "pretty much what we expected", the Western official said. "We are trying to start a process that will have practical steps that can begin to build confidence. We'll see where this leads. Good thing we still have time and can continue to ratchet up sanctions pressure."

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