Analysis: Iran sees nuke talks leaning their way

April 12, 2012 - 3:46 PM
Mideast Iran Nuclear Analysis

FILE- In this Feb. 15, 2012, file photo, provided by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, is escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in northern Tehran, Iran. Iran's envoys are heading for nuclear talks with confidence that the chips are falling their way. (AP Photo/Iranian President's Office, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran's envoys are heading for nuclear talks with confidence that the chips are falling their way.

It could be dismissed as just political theatrics for the world powers that Iran will face in Istanbul on Saturday. After all, Iran has some serious matters on its plate: Tightening economic sanctions, near blacklist status from international banking networks and the threat that Israel or the U.S. could eventually opt for a military strike against Tehran's nuclear program.

But think like the Iranian leadership. The baseline objective is to keep the centrifuges spinning in its uranium enrichment sites. That now seems within reach — and the Islamic Republic could even try to leverage a few concessions from the West along the way.

That's because Iran has been very busy since the last attempts at negotiations nosedived more than a year ago with the same group: The five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, France, China, Russia and Britain — plus Germany.

Iran is now churning out uranium at 20 percent enrichment at a regular pace. That level — compared to the 3.5 percent needed for Iran's lone Russian-built energy reactor — is necessary to make isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical and research applications. But the U.S. and allies fear that higher-level enrichment puts Iran significantly closer toward possibly making weapons-grade material — a goal that Iran repeatedly claims is not on its agenda.

Yet the 20 percent material offers other opportunities for Iran.

It could agree — without any direct pain to its nuclear program — to Western demands to suspend the 20 percent production as an act of good faith that Iran would want reciprocated. Tehran could then ask 'how about easing some of the sanctions?'

Iran also has started operations at a second enrichment site, buried deep into a mountainside south of Tehran to protect against air attacks.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the new facility, known as Fordo, must be closed and on Thursday she called on Iran use the Istanbul talks to credibly address concern about its nuclear program.

Again, Iran could entertain the idea of closing Fordo without any real setbacks to its overall uranium enrichment. The far bigger labs at Natanz, in central Iran, provide almost all of Iran's nuclear fuel.

Other demands and counterproposals are likely to be raised in Istanbul. They include what to do about Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and access for future inspections by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency.

But what's not there is perhaps the most significant. The West — at least at this stage — no longer calls for an all-out halt to uranium enrichment as it did last year.

If this path stays, Iran can boast about outmaneuvering the Western demands and keeping the heart of the nuclear program intact. The U.S. and others will then have to sell this outcome to the Israelis. The pitch is that trying to whittle down Iran's enrichment capabilities and stockpiles — coupled perhaps with stricter inspections — is a more prudent route than launching attacks and possibly opening up another Middle East war.

"We're not going to prejudge these talks before they start, but the context going in is important," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Vietor said the rest of the world is more united than ever in opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb, and noted that Iran is facing the toughest sanctions yet as a consequence of its nuclear program.

Some advance lobbying may already be under way. In an interview aired Sunday by CNN, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to focus on gaining outside control of the uranium stockpiles rather than trying to push Iran to give up its ability to make nuclear fuel — something that Iranian officials have said is nonnegotiable.

Uranium enrichment, in fact, has been wrapped tightly around the powerful themes of patriotism, scientific achievements and international justice by Iran's leadership.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it the "locomotive" for all other high-profile programs, such as Iran's aerospace and biotech efforts. Enrichment is permitted under the U.N.'s treaty overseeing the spread of nuclear technology and the West's attempts to shut it down brought a predictable outcry over perceived bullying.

It's never said directly in Iran, but two scenarios are always background noise in Iran's nuclear considerations.

Libya is the cautionary tale. Moammar Gadhafi's decision to abandon his nuclear program is seen as weakening his bargaining power and opening his regime to NATO attacks and its eventual downfall last year. Pakistan tells another story to the Iranian leaders. Its development of nuclear arms is seen as sharply boosting Islamabad's international standing and respect.

During a ceremony in February to put the first domestically made fuel rod's in Tehran's research reactor, Ahmadinejad spoke on national television next to photos of five nuclear scientists and researchers killed since 2010 as part of a suspected shadow war with Israel. Iranians also are linked to recent attacks and plots against Israeli officials and others in Bangkok, New Delhi and elsewhere.

Although Ahmadinejad does much of the political grandstanding for Iran's nuclear program, he has little to say about any potential deals with world powers. Those big decisions rest with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei has two main talking points recently: Repeating that Iran will never consider giving up uranium enrichment, but claiming there is no intention to seek nuclear arms — even calling them against Islamic principles.

Khamenei has ever been much for bold policy gestures or initiatives toward the West, preferring to stick closely to Iran's narrative that Western culture is morally bankrupt and on the decline. But he's also not seen as inflexible.

The signals from the top in Iran in recent days appear to acknowledge that some movement is needed on the nuclear impasse. But if Iran has its way, the talks will be drawn out and incremental. This week in Istanbul is likely just the opening bid.

Iran is already proposing the venue for round two: Baghdad.

___

Murphy is the Associated Press chief of bureau in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and has covered Iranian affairs for more than 12 years.