- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The U.S. and five other world powers on Wednesday resumed negotiations with Iran Wednesday to try to resolve concerns over its nuclear program, as signs emerged that the sanction-plagued Islamic republic might seek a face-saving deal.

The talks held in Baghdad between chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China produced no immediate breakthroughs.

The world powers offered Iran modest incentives in return for its agreement to cease uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, from which it is relatively easy to develop weapons grade material, and to export 20 percent of its stockpiles.

Iran, which claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, countered with a five-point proposal.

“In previous talks, Iran wasn’t even willing to discuss the nuclear issue, so the fact that they’re willing to put an actual proposal on the table is a positive step,” said Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now the question is, are they going to engage in serious deal-making within an accelerated time frame, or are they just playing for time?”

The talks come at a delicate moment for Iran, whose economy has suffered from international sanctions and whose currency is plunging in value.

U.S. sanctions on Iran’s central bank are set to take effect June 28, and an EU embargo on Iranian oil on July 1. U.S. and EU officials indicated Wednesday that there would be no postponement of the measures despite Iranian entreaties.

The Baghdad talks also came a day after International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano announced that he expected a deal to allow inspectors access to military facilities with suspected bomb-making properties that the agency expressed concern about in a recent report.

The new round of diplomacy has been met warily in Jerusalem, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet have been mulling airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Netanyahu has invoked the Holocaust when warning of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned Tuesday that Iran would seek a “technical deal” on certain issues to “create an appearance as if there is progress in the talks.”

But even a technical deal, if it paves the way for further talks, could foreclose Israel’s option of striking Iran this year - a step Mr. Barak and Mr. Netanyahu are believed to favor.

Israel, which sees its window of military opportunity closing, has unsuccessfully pressed the Obama administration for assurances that, if Israel holds off on attacking and diplomacy fails, the U.S. will strike.

An Israeli strike would be a highly complex operation requiring sustained clear skies - conditions that expire in the fall.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that would, among other things, sanction firms that supply Iran with weapons used for domestic repression and require firms traded on U.S. stock exchanges to report dealings with Iran to the Securities and Exchange Commission.