Iranian nuclear talks – A step forward

By David Ignatius

The Iran nuclear negotiations may not be headed toward a dead end in Moscow next week, as feared. Iran’s top negotiator has said he is ready to “engage on the proposal” from Western nations for Iran to export its supply of 20 percent-enriched uranium as a first step toward a broader nuclear deal.

Saeed Jalili, the Iranian chief representative in the talks, made the comment in a phone conversation Monday night with Catherine Ashton, the chief European Union diplomat who heads the “P5+1” negotiating group of major powers. Jalili also dropped Iran’s call for another preliminary meeting to prepare for the Moscow session, which is set for next Monday and Tuesday.

“They backed down,” a European diplomat who is involved in the talks told me Monday. “They had been setting up a failure in Moscow and preparing to blame us for it,” he said, arguing that the renewed agreement to engage, after several weeks of foot-dragging, was “a small diplomatic victory” for Ashton.

“The formula we have agreed is that they will engage in the substance of our proposal,” the diplomat said. “In turn we will think a bit about their ideas.” He added that the Western powers have not yet offered to halt the economic sanctions that will take effect June 28 and July 1, though they have said that Iran’s “steps will be met by reciprocal steps.”

The Iran talks have been a roller coaster of speculation, with hopes rising and falling as each side plays out the game of expectations. The opening meeting in Istanbul, in April, produced a surge of optimism, which plunged to foreboding after the meeting in Baghdad last month. Some have predicted that the talks might collapse altogether after next week’s meetings, given Iran’s behavior in Baghdad and since.

Is this just Tehran’s way of stringing along the talks, while it continues to push ahead with enrichment of uranium that could eventually be used to make a bomb? That’s precisely what some analysts predicted the Iranians would do — show just enough progress at each session to keep the negotiations going, without ever actually getting to yes.

The counterargument is that time is actually working against the Iranians, because the P5+1 have made no promise that they would remove major sanctions if Iran agreed to export its existing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent.

Iranian officials have yet to make their own formal proposal on the nuclear issue, even though Ashton presented them with a written plan in Baghdad. But intriguingly, the Iranians are said to have “left behind” in Baghdad some documents outlining their positions on Syria and Bahrain, two regional issues where Tehran has major interests.

The possible linkage of the nuclear issue to Iran’s broader diplomatic agenda is bound to be controversial. The United States and its allies have wanted to limit conversations to nuclear matters; Iran evidently seeks a diplomatic engagement that addresses a much wider range of security matters in the region.

The encouraging exchange between Ashton and Jalili comes after several weeks of growing pessimism about the negotiations. At the disappointing session in Baghdad late last month, Jalili said that Ashton and her team “must have been mistaken” if they thought the deputy Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri, had agreed to discuss details on exporting enriched uranium. In conversations since Baghdad, Bagheri is said to have been less cooperative, sending what the European diplomat described to me as “increasingly acerbic letters” to Ashton’s deputy, Helga Schmid.

A skeptic would caution that the Iranians, for all the hints and suggestions about exporting their stock of 20 percent-enriched uranium, haven’t yet put a word on paper. In contrast, Ashton’s Baghdad proposal was reiterated in letters sent by her deputy June 4 and June 11. In terms of the choreography of the talks, the Western powers appear to be chasing after Iran, which is never a good sign in negotiations.

In the background, as ever, remain the drivers for diplomacy: Economic sanctions have already damaged the Iranian economy and are soon going to get considerably worse; Iran also faces the threat of possible Israeli military action, and the now-confirmed U.S. use of cyberweapons to disrupt the program. There’s a lot of theater here, to be sure, but also a danger of significant conflict if progress isn’t made soon.

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