Time for progress on Iran talks

The talks between the big powers and Iran resume in Moscow today, two weeks before the additional European sanctions against Tehran’s oil and banking sectors are fully implemented.

It is the third round of this year’s negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (P5 + 1) – France, UK, Germany, United States, Russia and China. The immediate task at this round is for the negotiators to persuade Iran to agree to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent U235, a grade which can be used to feed the Tehran Research Reactor for medical purposes. In return, Iran wants sanctions relief by the E3+3 under a step by step framework agreed at their first meeting in Istanbul. However the United States has shown no sign of being ready to move in that direction, apparently out of fears that President Barack Obama would risk being seen as weak only months before a presidential election, with Congress breathing down his neck.

As the former Iranian negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian put it in an article for the website al-Monitor: “in an election year, US officials are cautious not to antagonize Israel, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and the Republican Party.” What Mousavian did not mention is the oil price, a factor which could also damage Obama’s election chances if there is a spike once the increased sanctions come into force on July 1 or if the fears rise of a military strike or harsher sanctions.

Underscoring Mousavian’s point about the elections, Republican presidential Mitt Romney has now waded into the debate by accusing Obama of sounding “like he’s more frightened that Israel might take military action than he’s concerned that Iran might become nuclear.”

In fact, the Obama Administration has worked closely with (nuclear-armed) Israel on dealing with the Iranian nuclear challenge. What is more troubling is that a US official boasted to the Israeli daily Haaretz that Israel was briefed “in detail” on the most recent talks in Baghdad “before we updated our own government.”

Nevertheless, there is still daylight between the positions of the Obama Administration and Israel, which is demanding zero enrichment from Iran.

This two-day round of negotiations in Moscow must show progress toward a concrete result to avoid playing into the hands of the hardliners in Israel. They cannot continue as talks about talks until the American election in November. Iranians have hinted in Baghdad and again in recent days that they are ready to return to the negotiating table with a deal on their stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. If they do so, the six powers need to respond with a gesture on the sanctions, which have already hit the Iranian economy with a reported .5 billion in lost import revenues a month, if there is to be any realistic hope of salvaging a deal.

See yesterday’s BASIC briefing on the Russian approach, by Shivani Handa.

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