Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nuke Talks With Mullahs: Chances for a Breakthrough Are Low

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The drama of last week's revelation that Iran has been secretly building an underground uranium enrichment facility may have raised expectations that this week's Geneva talks would be a kind of high-noon showdown. Instead, Thursday's meeting between Iran's nuclear negotiator and representatives of the Western powers, Russia and China is more likely to be the opening exchange of a tortuous conversation that will continue for months. The renewal of talks with Tehran follows President Barack Obama's warning to Iran that it must discuss Western concerns over its nuclear program or else face a new round of sanctions. But Iran has hardly been in an accommodating mood. A week ago it wrote to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to reveal it was building a uranium enrichment facility in the mountains near Qom. (President Obama announced the existence of the hitherto secret facility four days later, and U.S. officials claimed that Tehran had preempted him only because it was aware that it had been caught red-handed.)

The U.S. and its allies point to signs in the Qom facility of what they say is Iran's military intent: first, the project's secrecy and partially underground location on a military base, and second, the fact that its limited capacity (3,000 centrifuges) makes it unsuitable for supplying reactor fuel but potentially capable of slowly amassing weapons-grade material. Iran continues to insist that it is simply exercising its right to develop nuclear energy infrastructure as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But on Monday, Tehran also test-fired a medium-range missile capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Gulf, underscoring its threat to retaliate for any attack on its nuclear facilities. And Iranian officials have insisted that they will not even negotiate over Iran's "nuclear rights."

But Iran's approach to Thursday's talks is unlikely to be uniformly defiant or belligerent. Its response to demands from the U.S. and other international players to open the Qom enrichment site to inspection may be indicative of its broader approach. While declaring its refusal even to discuss the Qom plant at Geneva, Tehran has indicated that it will open the site to IAEA inspectors "in the near future." The Iranians are likely hoping for a repeat of the experience of its main enrichment facility at Natanz — which was also constructed in secret, but then subjected to an ongoing IAEA inspection regime. The result is that Natanz, which gives Iran the capacity to produce fissile material, has become an increasingly intractable fact on the ground, although IAEA oversight prevents such material from being diverted for covert weapons work. (Read more...)