September 24, 2013

U.S.-Iran talks seen as possible ice-breaker

Thursday's meeting on Iran's nuclear program will be the highest level since the nations cut diplomatic ties in 1979.

By HANNAH ALLAM McClatchy Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

John Kerry
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Secretary of State of John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet at the United Nation on Thursday for the highest level of talks since the nations cut diplomatic ties in 1979.


The letter said Iran had quintupled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium since 2009 and was racing toward completion of the Fordow enrichment facility by more than doubling the number of centrifuges there since July 2012.

The senators said the evidence signals that "Iran is very much in hot pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability," and they urged Obama to stop it. The message they'd like to see delivered in any U.S.-Iran talks is that the nuclear program "will not be tolerated."

"That's the rub. Can Obama, even if he wants to, lift the sanctions the Iranians care about?" said Geneive Abdo, a former journalist who lived in Iran and is now an Iran specialist at the Stimson Center research institute in Washington.

Abdo said Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate authority in the country, has indicated for months that he'd like to see some sanctions lifted, in particular European Union blocks on petroleum exports that severely cut Iran's sales and deprived it of hard currency. Abdo said Iran, now forced to barter for goods with other countries, isn't interested in a deal that doesn't include major changes in trade restrictions.

"If they say, 'Oh, we'll have academic exchanges and allow you to sell your carpets and pistachios,' that's not going to work," Abdo said.

Abdo added that it's unclear how far the Iranians would be willing to go in their own concessions. One theory is that they might bargain away support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in return for Western powers dropping their insistence that Iran stop enriching uranium or close down a nuclear facility.

"Iran might come to the table and say, 'OK, Assad will leave power in 2014, and that's our sacrifice,'" Abdo said.

Talks on Iran's nuclear program have stalled for years, with Iran flouting U.N. orders for it to halt uranium enrichment while trying to persuade the world that its program is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity generation, and not construction of weapons.

Obama administration officials have handled news of the Kerry-Zarif meeting gingerly, working to reassure skeptics at home and abroad. U.S. officials stress that, for now, there are no plans for a U.N. encounter between Obama and Rouhani.

"Secretary Kerry will be meeting with his P5-plus-1 counterparts as well as the Iranian foreign minister, so that's an opportunity for us to reaffirm, together with our P5-plus-1 partners, the importance of Iran coming in line with international obligations," said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes added: "But we have no meeting scheduled with President Rouhani, though, as you've heard us say repeatedly, we don't rule out that type of engagement."


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