- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

The Obama administration will open a fresh round of six-nation talks Tuesday aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, but Iran’s top leader predicted on the eve of negotiations that diplomacy will fail.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday that he accepted the talks at the urging of other Iranian leaders but added that Washington will be to blame when the negotiations collapse.

“The nuclear issue is an excuse,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state TV. “Iran will not violate what it has promised, but Americans are hostile toward the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic republic.”

The talks in Vienna will bring together the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., France, Britain, Russia and China — and Germany with the goal of finalizing an interim deal reached in November in Geneva. Under that six-month deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for reduced economic sanctions by the West.

Ahead of the talks, Secretary of State John F. Kerry blasted Iran and Russia for continuing to support the Syrian regime in its 3-year-old civil war, after he arrived Monday in the United Arab Emirates.

President Obama has said the chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement on Iranian denuclearization are no more than “50/50,” but that the U.S. must try anyway.

Analysts expect the talks to last at least six months as negotiators work on resolving issues such as dismantling Iran’s 10,000 centrifuges that enrich uranium and converting the heavy-water plant at Arak, which could be used to create plutonium bombs.

“I’d call it ‘Mission Implausible,’” said Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “It’s going to be excruciatingly difficult to find the right balance of interests that would satisfy all the constituencies.”

The U.S. and its allies believe Iran’s $100 billion nuclear infrastructure is intended to produce an atomic weapon. Iran denies that and says its program is aimed at peaceful purposes such as power generation and medical treatment.

To fulfill commitments under the interim deal, Iran stopped enriching uranium to 20 percent Jan. 20 and started neutralizing its stockpile enriched to that level — just steps away from weapons-grade material.

U.S. officials are seeking a permanent deal that would allow Tehran, which insists it will never dismantle equipment, to save face with its citizens. Mr. Obama has said any accord must provide a “dignified path for Iran to forge a new beginning with the wider world.”

Mr. Miller said one proposed solution would be for a third party to take possession of Iran’s centrifuges, which would allow Tehran to claim its program is still intact.

Other thorny issues include what to do with Iran’s deeply buried uranium enrichment plant at Fordow. The U.S. and its allies insist that the bomb-resistant site be dismantled because it could enable Iran to create a weapon before Western forces could destroy the complex.

Another question is the length of any potential agreement, Mr. Miller said.

“I would think you’d have to build in some degree of longevity here, a time span that goes well beyond four to eight years,” the analyst said. “Otherwise, what have we done? The best you can do is put enough time on Iran’s nuclear clock that you would have hopefully at least a year to detect, deter or set the stage through diplomacy for an attack.”

The talks are crucial for Mr. Obama, who will meet soon with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as he seeks ways forward on Syria’s civil war, Palestinian-Israeli relations and unrest in Egypt. Iran’s influence in the region hangs over many of those issues.

“There are forms of Iranian behavior outside of the nuclear issue that continue to affect the way Washington looks at the mullahs — particularly Iran’s continuing support for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,” Mr. Miller said. “These are beyond the scope of the agreement, but they influence and color the political space that is required to sustain an agreement.”

Mr. Miller said Mr. Obama’s bottom line is to avoid a nuclear-capable Iran during his tenure.

“Since the Iranian nuclear issue is the only issue that could seriously muck up the remaining years of his presidency, his objective is to see whether for not he can extract out of this something that’s credible and at the end of the day will not allow anybody to say that Iran on Barack Obama’s watch crossed the nuclear threshold,” he said.

As the talks resume, Tehran’s leaders are leaving no doubt that they mistrust the Obama administration’s intentions.

“Even if one day, against all the odds it is solved based on the Americans’ expectations, then Americans will seek another issue to follow it,” said Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say in all of Iran’s policies. “Just pay attention to the spokespersons of the U.S. government, who have also raised the issue of human rights, missiles and arms.”

After the interim deal was reached, the U.S. and the European Union announced the lifting of sanctions on petrochemical products, insurance, gold and other precious metals, the auto industry and passenger plane parts and services. They also plan to release $4.2 billion in Iranian assets from oil revenue blocked overseas, in eight installments over six months. The first installment of $550 million was provided to Iran on Feb. 1, Iranian officials said.

Last week, while hosting a visit by French President Francois Hollande, Mr. Obama vowed to enforce existing sanctions against Iran and warned potential violators that “we will come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

He made the comments after Paris allowed some French business executives to go to Iran.

Mr. Obama said that while some businesses may be evaluating opportunities before a final deal is reached on Iran’s nuclear program, “I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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