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Iran hails 'softer' and 'smarter' approach to its nuclear program

Iranian nuclear negotiators said a revised proposal from six world powers to limit its nuclear work was 'more realistic' than previous proposals and offered to continue talks next month.

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Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili listens to a question during a final news conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.

Pavel Mikheyev/AP

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Talks on Iran's nuclear program made unexpected progress in Kazakhstan, reaching what Iran called a potential “turning point” to limit its most sensitive nuclear work in exchange for modest sanctions relief.

Tehran reacted positively to a revised proposal that eases demands from six world powers on Iran's 20 percent uranium enrichment and its deeply buried Fordow facility.

The concession caught Iran's attention. It is now being asked to "suspend" its 20 percent enrichment and can use its uranium stockpile already enriched to that level for nuclear fuel. It also only needs to modify equipment at Fordow – not close it down permanently – so that the facility cannot quickly and secretly resume operations there.

Those steps are the first from the United States and other world powers to diverge from demands laid down last spring – and rejected ever since by Tehran – to completely stop 20 percent enrichment, ship out its stockpile, and shut Fordow for good. That proposal also offered no reciprocal concessions on easing sanctions.  

The P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) said it was waiting for action, not words, but Iranian diplomats hailed a “softer” and “smarter” approach from the P5+1 and sought to portray it as proof that sanctions pressure had failed to work.

The new offer was “closer” to Iran’s position and “more realistic comparing to what they said in the past,” Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili told journalists after the two-day talks ended yesterday. 

“If this is a sign of a change of strategy … we believe this is a momentum and a turning point,” Mr. Jalili said.

Jalili later told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview, “What is important today is we repeated our advice to them that the strategy of pressure is wrong and could not bring any results.”

A different reading

Iran’s positive assessment was not matched by that of the P5+1, whose diplomats would only say talks were “useful,” and did not amount to a “softening of position.”

“Concrete results” will matter more than atmospherics in handling “the most destabilizing and urgent elements of Iran’s nuclear program," said a senior US diplomat.

Diplomats on both sides cautioned that a “long road” lies ahead to find any deal that can satisfy all. The P5+1 wants to cap Iran’s nuclear advances, and ensure the Islamic Republic will never have nuclear weapons. Iran wants its “right” to peaceful nuclear power recognized, and all sanctions lifted.

The new P5+1 package includes no easing of debilitating oil or financial sanctions that have choked the lifeblood of the Iranian economy and severely restricted all financial transactions. Other measures on the table, however, “are meaningful and would be of substantial benefit to Iran,” said the American diplomat. 

“We recognize [the revised P5+1 offer] as a modest initial measure … that does not address our full range of concerns,” said the US diplomat. The aim was to “put time on the clock to reach the comprehensive agreement we all seek.”

Both sides will convene for technical meetings in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 18 and for another full round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on April 5- 6, picking up the diplomatic pace after an eight-month gap.

Steps only Iran can take

Iran said it was not deterred by what it called the “very small steps” of sanctions relief on offer, such as resuming trade in gold and precious metals, and petrochemicals. It is likely to ask for more at the Istanbul talks.

“It is not important that these steps are small,” Jalili told the Monitor. “The important thing is that those steps should be balanced. A response to a small step is a small step. We have a readiness for taking longer steps.”

Jalili said that Iran has already taken a number of steps that the P5+1 has not responded to.

“Some of the confidence measures that we have taken are unique,” Jalili told the Monitor. He lists as most important a fatwa against nuclear weapons by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has repeatedly rejected the bomb as un-Islamic.

Another step is conversion of a substantial portion of Iran’s 20 percent stockpile – detailed last week in a report by United Nations nuclear inspectors – into oxide for fuel. That makes it very difficult to now use in any weapons push.

“What we said [to the P5+1] was we have taken several steps – we didn’t enter into the details – of these types of confidence-building measures,” said Jalili. “We have taken a lot, [and] they should respond.”

The senior US official says the fatwa and 20 percent conversion are both “useful” steps, but that those signals do not count so clearly as confidence-building measures in the P5+1 process.

“Neither of those things solve the underlying issue here, which is, in the first confidence-building measure: halting the [20 percent] enrichment … dealing with the stockpile, and dealing with Fordow.”

“We may have changed the way it all looks, but the overall effect of it is quite substantial,” says the US diplomat. “We have listened to their concerns. We have tried to put a meaningful, fair, and balanced package on the table.”

A 'softer' tone

For the Iranians – whose leader Mr. Khamenei has recently lambasted the negotiations and increasing sanctions pressure as a plot to destroy the regime – the P5+1 change was palpable.

“The fact that they didn’t ask to close Fordow and stop all enrichment is a big achievement,” said an Iranian diplomat, noting a six-month timeline for these initial steps put forward by the P5+1. “Their tone was softer, more realistic, and smarter. But as Mr. Jalili said, there is a long way to go.”

UN Security Council resolutions require Iran to stop all enrichment, until questions are resolved about alleged past weapons-related work. That applies to the 20 percent level – which is just a few technical steps away from being turned into bomb-grade – as well as Iran’s much wider-scale enrichment to 3.5 percent purity, to fuel power reactors.

The revised P5+1 proposal uses careful language to achieve some of those ends, but in a more face-saving way. Iran is now asked to “suspend” 20 percent enrichment, and agree to “significantly restrict the accumulation” of that material, says the American diplomat. Intriguingly, that is to be done “while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” which still requires fuel made from uranium enriched to 20 percent, adds the American. 

Fordow – a small facility monitored by UN inspectors but impregnably buried beneath a mountain – would need to be altered to “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there,” says the senior US official.

Enhanced inspections by the UN would also be required, to “provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium,” the US diplomat says.

The Kazakh venue is especially relevant: More than two decades ago, the newly formed nation gave up its own nuclear weapons soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev last year called on Iran to limit its nuclear ambitions: "Kazakhstan's experience shows that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons," he wrote in The New York Times.

Iran had dates ready for the next two stages – a signal of interest that surprised P5+1 diplomats because determining past times and venues took weeks of haggling.

“Their answers are now closer to our ideas,” said Iran’s deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri, who will lead the next round of technical talks in Istanbul. “For these ideas to come even closer, we need a meeting to make them more active.” 

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