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Guarded Optimism Over Iran Nuclear Talks

ALMATY, Apr 4 2013 (IPS) - With talks over Iran’s nuclear ambitions set to resume Apr. 5 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, there is guarded optimism that negotiators can build on the moderate breakthroughs made in discussions held earlier this year.

“The last rounds of talks in Almaty (in February) and in Turkey (in March) have increased hopes for more progress to be made in April,” Alex Vatanka, an Iranian-born analyst at The Middle East Institute in Washington D.C, told IPS by e-mail.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been readying their domestic audiences for some forward movement in the protracted negotiations.

“In recent weeks, both President Obama and (Ayatollah) Khamenei have in their own ways started to prepare their home audiences for a compromise. And neither side is at the moment pointing to any fundamental obstacles in the path of a deal,” Vatanka told IPS.

In February, the stalled talks between Iran and the P5+1 – the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, Britain and the U.S. plus Germany) – resumed after an eight-month hiatus. These talks saw new life breathed into the process which is attempting to reconcile differences over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The process had reached an impasse last June over what seemed like insurmountable differences between the two sides. Iran called for the immediate and unconditional end of sanctions, which have severely damaged its economy. The P5+1 group demanded Iran immediately stop medium-level enrichment and to close the Fordow underground enrichment facility before offering any easing of sanctions.

At the Almaty talks held on Feb. 26-27, the international group, chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, put some new ideas on the table, believed to be related to Iran suspending 20 percent enrichment for six months and converting its existing enriched uranium into uranium oxide for medical use in exchange for some sanctions-relief, according to the Al-Monitor website.

Iran insists its ambitions are peaceful and in line with its rights as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, while international negotiators contend Iran’s aims are to obtain nuclear weapons.

“If there is a political will – and I see there is a considerable degree of that on both sides – then the technical details can be resolved,” Vatanka told IPS. “At the same time, a bad political atmosphere can kill an otherwise attainable nuclear agreement.”

The strained political atmosphere is not being helped by the situation in Syria, with Iran a strong ally of the Assad regime in its two-year conflict with armed opposition groups.

IPS reported on Apr. 1 that Javier Solana, a former North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) secretary-general who was Iran’s chief European interlocutor from 2003 to 2009, felt that the opposing positions held by Russia, China, the U.S. and Europe on Syria could weaken the unity of P5+1 and have a knock-on effect on the talks with Iran.

Solana, speaking at a forum at the Brookings Institute in Washington, suggested that Russia and China would most likely oppose any additional sanctions against Tehran if the Almaty talks fail to make much headway, weakening the chances of a diplomatic solution to the problem.

For Vatanka, creating some distance between Syria and the Iranian nuclear issue could be key to reaching an agreement “If the nuclear question can be separated from other issues, then there is a much higher chance for a deal,” he told IPS.

Solving the Iran nuclear question was high on the agenda at the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Mar. 20. While Netanyahu remained bullish about a military solution, Obama reiterated that time remained for a diplomatic solution, whilst not ruling out other options.

“We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so. Iran’s leaders must understand, however, that they have to meet their international obligations,” Obama told reporters in Jerusalem. But he did not rule out military options, stating that “all options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.”

Political machinations within Iran as it prepares to go to the polls in June to elect a new president are not necessarily seen as an obstacle to moving forward in the ongoing discussions. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator for the P5+1 talks, is expected to be a candidate in the elections, but he is not felt to have too much influence, playing second fiddle to the Supreme Leader.

“Ayatollah Khamenei decides the fundamentals on Iran’s nuclear policy and he will be the Leader before and after the elections,” Vatanka told IPS. “Saeed Jalili is not a political heavy weight in his own right. His boss, Khamenei, will call the shots. Jalili does not have an ability to say or do anything different from the Leader.”

Ahead of the resumption of talks, Jalili sounded a challenging note saying on Apr. 4 that Iran’s right to enrichment should be recognised before any progress can be made with the discussions.

Khamenei’s position remains focussed on Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

“If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognise the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Khamenei said in a speech in Mashhad on marking Norouz, the Persian New Year on Mar. 21. “We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

Vatanka is not anticipating any major breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations as a result of the Almaty talks but sees the prospect of a nuclear deal of some sorts as “the catapult that could start a new era of Washington-Tehran relations.”

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