Iran, still time to talk

The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meets today in Vienna to weigh the latest agency safeguards report on Iran’s nuclear program.

On the one hand, according to the February 24th report, the Iranians have tripled production of uranium enriched to 20 percent (a level which remains far short of weapons grade, and the Iranians continue to deny that they are pursuing a nuclear weapons program). On the other hand, they are experiencing difficulties in moving ahead with an advanced design of the spinning centrifuges which are used to enrich uranium.

On their last visit to Iran, the IAEA weapons inspectors were denied access to the Parchin explosions test range which could house an explosive chamber that could be used for nuclear weapons tests. “The agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme,” according to IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano. Talks around such access are still ongoing.

However it is not clear how the 35-member body will react during its five-day meeting and there is still time to talk. Framing the Iran nuclear programme as one that affects the whole world, U.S. President Barack Obama said in an address yesterday to the annual meeting of the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC in Washington: “We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically… After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons.”

Obama went on to reiterate that all options remained on the table to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including a “military effort”.

However he tacitly rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pressing for military strikes on Iran, and who has been skeptical about another round of negotiations that could be used by Iran to buy time. Speaking before a meeting today with Netanyahu at the White House, Obama said there had been “too much loose talk of war.”

There are plenty of other issues on which Obama and Netanyahu remain divided. One is Israel’s condition for negotiations as stipulated by Netanyahu, who insists on a halt to all enrichment activities in Iran prior to the resumption of negotiations with the big powers. But this is a non-starter and has been rejected by the White House.

Another difficult issue that needs to be clarified, as former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk pointed out yesterday on National Public Radio, is the West’s desire for regime change in Tehran. Right now, as seen from Tehran, the tough international economic sanctions look like an attempt to topple the Iranian clerical regime.

But still, on balance, despite the mounting rhetoric, it is clear that there remains time to talk with Iran.
These are the personal views of the author.

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