- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Crippling economic sanctions and tough talk of military strikes on its nuclear sites likely have prodded Iran to resume talks with the international community over its secretive nuclear program.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., Britain, Russia, France and China — and Germany, which are collaborating in an effort to persuade Iran to freeze all uranium enrichment, accepted Tehran’s offer Tuesday to restart talks.

Meanwhile, Iran agreed to grant U.N. inspectors access to its Parchin military facility southeast of Tehran, Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

The activity on Iran’s nuclear program comes amid U.S. and EU sanctions against the Islamic regime’s central bank and oil industry, and Israel’s reported mulling of military strikes on Iran’s atomic sites.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suspects Iran has been carrying out nuclear work at the Parchin military facility, despite Iran’s assertions that its nuclear activities are only for peaceful, civilian uses.

Iran prevented U.N. inspectors from visiting Parchin earlier this year. On Tuesday, Tehran said it would require an agreement with the international community to set the guidelines for an inspection, the ISNA report said.

“Iran is clearly feeling the pressure from the sanctions and from the escalating rhetoric coming from the region,” said Daniel Brumberg, an associate government professor at Georgetown University.

Increasing pressure

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country, which views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, must have the right to defend itself from Iranian aggression.

“We have waited for diplomacy to work. We have waited for sanctions to work. We cannot afford to wait much longer,” Mr. Netanyahu told the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington late Monday.

At a White House news conference Tuesday, President Obama said he thinks “we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.” He promised to keep applying pressure and reiterating that the U.S. will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

However, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East told a Senate hearing Tuesday that America’s military alone cannot prevent Iran from producing atomic weapons.

“The best we can do is to delay them,” Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Only the Iranian people can stop this program.”

U.S. and European sanctions, a severe EU oil embargo and last week’s parliamentary elections, which showed weakening support for Iran’s president, have contributed to Tehran’s decision to resume nuclear talks, said Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

“The Iranians are seeing the same speeches we are, and I think they are becoming convinced that President Obama might, indeed, go forward with some type of military action if they don’t start compromising,” Mr. Katzman said.

“I am not convinced that we are in an inexorable drive toward a conflict,” Mr. Katzman added. “It could be headed off by diplomacy.”

Iran, which has called for Israel’s destruction, has lost a partner in the region: Senior Hamas leader Salah Bardawil said Tuesday in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, that his Islamist militant group would not take part in an Israeli-Iranian conflict.

The newspaper also quoted another Hamas official as saying that the group, which controls the Gaza Strip, “would not get involved” in a war between Israel and Iran, which has cut off funding to Hamas over the group’s opposition to Tehran’s support for the crackdown in Syria.

Israel has been planning to face rocket attacks from Gaza and from Hezbollah in Lebanon in a war with Iran.

Access and caution

Iran’s enrichment of uranium reportedly has exceeded the limits for civilian uses, prompting suspicions that Tehran’s nuclear program is geared toward producing weapons-grade material.

Consequently, the international community had demanded access to Iran’s Parchin military facility, which is dedicated to research and development of ammunition, rockets and explosives.

“If the Iranians are knowledgeable and careful, the IAEA will find nothing [at Parchin],” said Robert Kelley, a former director of the IAEA. “So IAEA will have to explain why they made this visit a matter of highest priority.”

Bruce MacDonald, a senior adviser for nonproliferation issues at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, “The question is how much access.”

He noted that Parchin’s explosives “would be a very important component in developing a nuclear device using plutonium, as opposed to highly enriched uranium.”

In announcing the decision to resume talks with Iran, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hopes Iran will enter into a “sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community’s long-standing concerns on its nuclear program.”

She made the comments in response to a Feb. 14 letter from Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, in which he offered to resume nuclear talks that broke off in January 2011.

The time and venue for the resumed talks have yet to be decided.

Ms. Ashton said confidence-building steps would be the main focus of the initial stage of the process.

“Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty],” she wrote to Mr. Jalili.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the “onus will be on Iran to convince the international community that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, by taking concrete actions.”

However, Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Iran’s offer to resume talks is a delaying tactic, not a genuine attempt at resolving the nuclear crisis.

“Tehran believes that, as long as the negotiations continue, the United States would not launch military strikes against nuclear installations in Iran,” Mr. Alfoneh said.

“Iran also believes the negotiation line would make the Obama administration try more energetically to dissuade Israel from launching attacks against Iran.”

Talks between Iran and the European Union have been conducted for several years without producing results.

Mr. Brumberg said the absence of a clear road map is to blame.

“The leaders of [the U.S. and Iran] have been unclear what they want from the other,” he said.

“The paradox of a negotiating process is that it succeeds when, in fact at the start, you have a pretty good sense of where you want to go,” he added.

Kristina Wong in Washington and Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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