Iran offers opening gambit as it warms to nuclear talks

Ahead of UN negotiations, Iran's parliament speaker suggests the country might part with 'surplus' uranium

Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament, at a press conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

Iran placed its opening bid ahead of next week’s nuclear non-proliferation talks on Wednesday when the Speaker of the Islamic Republc's parliament  suggested the country might be willing to negotiate away parts of its enriched-uranium stockpile, and stop enriching uranium to 20% purity -- a concern of the international community because it shortens the time frame Tehran would require to create weapons-grade materiel. Those offers bode well for negotiators hoping to make headway at the taks in Geneva, although Iran's price for those concessions is  substantial relief from international sanctions.

Ali Larijani, a former chief nuclear negotiator, told The Associated Press that Iran has more enriched 20%-enriched uranium than it needs for research and medical uses, and might be willing to part with the “surplus” pending “discussion.”

“We have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don't need. But over that we can have some discussions," he said.

Larijani's comments fuelled rising optimism that this next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — could be the most productive in years.

Larijani also conveyed that Iran was amenable to halting its enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent threshold, the level used in its research reactor in Tehran that creates medical isotopes, but which also considerably shortens the time frame required to create fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose inspectors monitor Tehran's nuclear work, reports that Iran has converted half of its current stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into forms that make it very difficult to turn into weapons-grade fuel. Still, the ongoing enrichment at that level is the most urgent concern of Western powers.

"Through the process of negotiations, yes, things can be said, and they can discuss this matter," Larijani said.

The Tehran talks will focus on the search for a formula under which Iran's nuclear work can be limited and international confidence established, through verification, in its peaceful intentions. Specific concerns include  uranium-enrichment, and construction of a heavy-water reactor that could produce  plutonium. Iran is demanding recognition of its nuclear rights as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and insists its nuclear work has no military dimension. But Iran has been judged to be in violation of the treaty, and is required by U.N. Security Council resolutions to suspend uranium enrichment until it satisfies the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Vahid Salemi/AP



The International Crisis Group's Ali Vaez explains the world's concerns about Iran's nuclear activities and why a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable.


Iran's immediate goal in the talks is to seek an agreement under which crippling oil and financial sanctions might be lifted by Western powers, and Larijani's comments suggest that enrichment to 20% may be used as a bargaining chip in pursuit of that goal. Larijani told the AP that there could be no progress at the Oct. 15-16 talks unless Western powers offers to ease sanctions.

Larijani's statement of willingness to give ground on two critical concerns is in line with the softening rhetoric on Iran’s part since the new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

Valerie Lincy, the executive director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control and editor of the project’s Iran Watch website, said Larijani’s tone on Wednesday is consistent with Iran’s attitude since Rouhani was unexpectedly elected. These are “vague indications that there might be a willingness to compromise on some parts of the nuclear program that are of most concern,” she said.

Himself a former chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, Rouhani appears to have the backing of the key decision maker in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in seeking a nuclear deal. Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the U.S., which he labeled "untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical and a promise-breaker" even as he backed Rouhani's outreach. Still, the fact that Khamenei  has blocked previous attempts at compromise on the nuclear question makes his approval of the latest effort potentially more significant. 

“We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever," Rouhani told NBC last month.

Another step in the direction of thawing relations between Iran and the United States took place on Sept. 26, when Obama and Rouhani spoke over the phone for 15 minutes. The phone call was the first direct contact between the two countries' leaders since diplomatic relations were suspended in 1979.

The U.S. hopes these steps translate into progress on the nuclear front, which has been stalemated for a decade.

Still, the U.S. and its allies are unlikely to take Rouhani’s assurances at face value. The current U.S. intelligence assessment is that while Iran is not currently developing a nuclear weapon -- and has not taken a decision to do so -- it is steadily accumulating the technical wherewithal to weaponize nuclear materiel.

Obama told the AP on Saturday that U.S. intelligence assessments show Iran is “still a year away” from the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon. 

"The world has heard a lot from President Rouhani's administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran's relations with the international community, and President (Barack) Obama believes we should test that assertion," a White House spokeswoman said following Obama's phone call with Rouhani.

Though Larijani told reporters during a Wednesday news conference in Geneva that he was optimistic about the upcoming negotiations, the meeting “mostly concerns building confidence rather than a commercial give-and-take.”

Lincy says comments like these are cause to temper optimism.

“Rouhani has been emphasizing moving quickly, so there have already been a lot of talks aimed at building confidence,” she says. “If Iranians are serious, everyone would want to be moving towards an actual negotiation on the substance.”

Lincy also notes that since negotiations began a decade ago, Iran has built up its nuclear capacity — and with it, bargaining chips.

“At this point you’re trying to negotiate away things that didn’t exist 10 years ago, so the problem has grown considerably and dealing with it has become more complex,” she adds.

Al Jazeera wth wire services

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