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Renewed Talks with Iran Fuel Both Optimism and Caution

WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2012 (IPS) - U.S. and Iranian officials were optimistic about renewed talks over the weekend between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, but analysts here urge the United States to keep its expectations in check and establish clear goals for future negotiations.

“If the question is Iran coming out of the cold completely”, said Vali Nasr, an international politics professor who has advised the administration under President Barack Obama, “I don’t see that happening”.

“But if the notion of a deal is much more narrow, if it’s around a certain percentage of uranium enrichment, if its about a certain agreement that would essentially allow the status quo to continue, that’s a different story,” he said as part of a panel of speakers featured by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday.

Diplomats from the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany) and Iran reconvened for talks in Istanbul on April 13 after more than a year of silence, global fear and speculation about Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.

While Israel is not expected to strike Iran while negotiations are in progress, U.S. and Israel relations with Iran remain tense as Iran struggles to cope with the increasing strain of sanctions and covert actions on its soil.

A day before the first meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi repeated that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. He emphasised in a Washington Post op- ed published last Thursday Iran’s long-standing desire to be treated as an equal negotiating partner.

“If the intention of dialogue is merely to prevent cold conflict from turning hot, rather than to resolve differences, suspicion will linger,” wrote Salehi. “Despite sanctions, threats of war, assassinations of several of our scientists and other forms of terrorism, we have chosen to remain committed to dialogue.”

On Saturday, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, described the meeting with Iran as a “a positive first step” in a “constructive atmosphere”. Rhodes added that Iran needs to prove its nuclear program is only geared toward peaceful purposes.

“We have indicated along with the P5+1 that we would be open to a step-by-step process and reciprocal action if the Iranians demonstrate that seriousness,” he said.

No deal has been reached on Iran’s nuclear program, but Nasr said the meetings ultimately fulfilled their purpose. “What’s really been on the table, both from the Iranian and American side, is not a massive breakthrough, but a maintenance of status quo. I think in some ways, Istanbul (was) really about that,” he said.

Nasr added that U.S. President Barack Obama would not attempt significant diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran before presidential elections in November because it would be difficult to “sell” to Congress, which strongly favoured extending sanctions and in some cases even limiting diplomatic options with Iran.

On Saturday, Elliott Abrams, who previously served as George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, criticised positive interpretations of the talks. Iran’s moves, he suggested, were guided by its desire to prevent Israeli military action rather than negotiate its nuclear program.

“Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful, but from what we can see today that depends on what you are hoping for: stopping Israel, or stopping Iran’s nuclear program,” he wrote on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticised the outcomes of negotiations in Istanbul. “Iran now has 5 weeks during which it can continue to enrich uranium without limit,” he said on Sunday. The next round of talks is scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad.

The entire Carnegie speaker panel agreed that pursuing war with Iran was the worst option, the CFR’s Ray Takyeh stated that the threat of more punitive measures should be kept on the table.

“There has to be some punitive measures here for the credibility of the international legal process, for the credibility of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), for the credibility of the international security resolution and for the credibility of non-proliferation norms,” said Takyeh, recently an advisor at the State Department.

“We can denigrate that process…we can emasculate it, but I think we pay a certain price in terms of the credibility of this legal authority if we do so,” he said.

George Perkovich, the director of Carnegie’s nuclear policy program, responded that Iran has “already been punished” for failing to disprove the international community’s suspicions about its alleged nuclear ambitions.

He added that the Iranians are unlikely to commit to anything that is will compromise “leverage” in the negotiating process, “because their view is that the minute they give up leverage, there is going to be regime change”, said Perkovich.

“But if you design a deal that leaves them some leverage, they have less an incentive to cheat and if we try to screw them they can (return to their former position), ” he said.

On Monday, Laura Rozen reported in Al-Monitor that the Iranians had requested “100 times” for a delay in the European oil embargo scheduled for July and had “rebuffed” requests for bilateral meetings with all the delegations except China.

While Rozen concluded that substantial progress is unlikely to result from the Baghdad talks, Nasr said today that the Iranian government’s public insistence that Iran does not want nuclear weapons, demonstrates Iran’s willingness to stay behind Obama’s “red line” on its program.

Although Iran’s words are subject to interpretation, the Supreme Leader’s fatwa, or religious ruling, against building nuclear weapons should also be taken into account, he said. “It’s not 100 percent, it’s not ironclad, but it’s significant,” he noted.

Iran has “established a line” that will allow for political leverage and should not be dismissed, Nasr stated. “Say that we accept that you’ve established the upper limit,” he recommended. “Now we’re going to focus on making sure you keep it.”

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