When American First Lady Michelle Obama announced that "Argo" had won the Academy Award for best motion picture at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, more than a few officials in Tehran, Washington and Jerusalem sensed the irony.
On the eve of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers, the Academy bestowed the Oscar for best picture on a film about the days when the relationship between Washington and Tehran changed beyond recognition.
When the negotiating teams of Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany) heard that "Argo" won, they were en route to the Kazakh city of Almaty or had already arrived there. Today (Tuesday), after an eight-month-long standstill, a two-day round of talks began about the Iranian nuclear program.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has represented world powers in the talks with the Iranians, had been trying to schedule another round of talks since the American presidential elections last November. The Iranians were evasive in an effort to buy time. At first the talks were meant to take place in December, then they were postponed until January and they are finally taking place now, in late February. Then there was disagreement about the venue. Geneva was suggested first, then Istanbul. The Iranians refused, finally agreeing to meet in Almaty.
Unlike in the past, Jerusalem does not oppose the talks between the P5+1 and Iran. On the contrary. High-ranking officials in Jerusalem who have been dealing with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program doubt Tehran’s willingness to accede to the West’s demands, but they are also pleased that the talks are resuming after such a long hiatus.
The American administration, along with the U.K., France and Germany, are in close contact with Israel and have been coordinating with it ahead of the talks in Kazakhstan. Immediately after the talks, an American negotiating team headed by Wendy Sherman, the under secretary for political affairs, is expected to come to Jerusalem.
Sherman intends to meet with National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, Foreign Ministry Director General for Strategic Affairs Jeremy Issacharoff and other high-ranking officials to update them about the content of the talks with Iran. Last week, Amidror visited Washington and discussed the Iranian nuclear program with his American counterpart, Thomas E. Donilon.
“A long time has passed without talks,” said a high-ranking Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “At the end of the day, that time has been lost, because the Iranians have worked, unhindered, in establishing themselves as a near-nuclear state without trying to reach a diplomatic solution,” the official added.
In the days leading up to the Kazakhstan talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency published a new report about Iran’s nuclear program that showed Iran’s continued progress toward nuclear weapons – a cause for concern.
According to the report, the Iranians installed new advanced centrifuges in the Natanz facility, which enrich uranium at five times the previous rate. They have also continued accumulating uranium enriched at 3.5 percent and also at 20 percent and also developed the heavy water reactor in Arak, which could enable them to construct a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.
At the same time, the report was somewhat encouraging. The Iranians were careful not to approach the red line that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set: a stockpile of 240 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium. The report showed that Iran is continuing to transform its enriched uranium into nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.
The American and European representatives are approaching the Kazakhstan talks realistically: Iranian presidential elections this June give the regime in Tehran little wiggle room. As such, no one is expecting a breakthrough from the talks in Almaty. But if several rounds of closely-spaced talks can be scheduled before and after the elections, it would be considered a worthy achievement.
American diplomats on Monday told reporters in Almaty that the world powers are coming to the talks with an updated, improved proposal about Iran’s nuclear program. The proposal was sent to the Iranians several weeks ago so they could consider it before the talks and arrive in Almaty with a prepared response. The proposal includes easing some of the international sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in recent years.
World powers are willing to lift the ban on trade with Iran in gold and precious metals. Because of the harsh sanctions on the Iranian banking system, trade in gold is one of the only ways that the regime can buy merchandise abroad. Since the ban on trade in gold is even tougher on the Iranian economy, its removal will ease the pressure on the regime to some extent.
But in exchange for the easing of the sanctions, the P5+1 demand that Iran close the underground uranium-enrichment compound in Fordo, the flagship of its nuclear program. At the Fordo compound, where the new, advanced centrifuges were recently installed, uranium is enriched at the high rate of 20 percent.
An American diplomat told reporters Monday that the new proposal was “real, substantive and serious,” adding, “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The president has been clear, if Iran keeps all its obligations...under the NPT and IAEA...there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”
The world powers are also offering the Iranians replacement parts for their fleet of civilian aircraft, most of which has been grounded due to poor maintenance, as well as help in improving security at its civilian nuclear installations.
As usual, the Iranians have flexed their muscles in the past week. They began large-scale military exercises and made declarations about discovering enormous uranium deposits that would end their reliance on external uranium suppliers for their nuclear program.
The Iranians are expected to take a hardline position during the talks as well. They will demand that the West recognize their right to enrich uranium within their borders, ask for new sanctions to be avoided and for existing sanctions, specifically the EU’s oil embargo, to be lifted. The Iranians will also try to raise other issues, such as the Shiite minority in Bahrain and resolving the crisis in Syria, into the talks.
Jerusalem officials aren't concerned by the upgraded proposal the world powers are to present the Iranians. That's because it doesn’t dramatically ease the sanctions – and because they believe that the Iranians will reject it anyway. “We don’t think the Iranians intend to be flexible,” a high-ranking Israeli official said. “It’s hard to approach the talks in Almaty with optimism. We don’t think there’s going to be a breakthrough. Instead, the Iranians will just try to buy more and more time.”
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