- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Obama administration responded with caution Tuesday to a new Iranian offer to scale back — but not eliminate — its uranium enrichment program and allow increased international monitoring in exchange for the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions that have damaged the Islamic republic’s economy and oil industry in recent years.

Specific details of the Iranian offer remained vague. But in what appeared to be a grand gesture following a month of warming relations between Washington and Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly made the proposal during a closed-door presentation as international negotiators gathered in Geneva for the first day of highly anticipated talks aimed at blocking Iran’s suspected drive to develop nuclear weapons.

One Western negotiator in Geneva told The Associated Press that the Iranian offer includes reductions in both the levels of uranium enrichment being conducted by Iran and the number of centrifuges doing the enrichment — a key demand of the Obama administration and its allies. The diplomat demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details.

Iran’s state TV, which closely reflects government views, said Tehran offered to discuss uranium enrichment levels. The report also said Iran proposed adopting the additional protocols of the U.N.’s nuclear treaty — effectively opening its nuclear facilities to wider inspection and monitoring — if the West recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian uses.

The parameters of the proposal are expected to emerge Wednesday as Iranian negotiators head into a second day of talks with representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will respond, facing pressure from Israel — Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East — to resist rushing into a hasty deal with Tehran.

The administration has taken a softer rhetorical posture toward Iran since the June election of reformist President Hasan Rouhani, who some analysts believe has the political power and skill to influence anti-Western hard-liners among Tehran’s leadership toward more positive relations with Washington.

But as a thaw appeared imminent following last month’s gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Israeli pressure on Washington has mounted.

Israeli fears

As the Iranian nuclear talks were getting underway Tuesday in Geneva, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stark warning to international negotiators against moving too quickly toward lifting the sanctions against Tehran — asserting that the Iranian leaders have “systematically defied” past U.N. Security Council resolutions that had called for an end to uranium enrichment activities.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s security cabinet urged the “P5+1” group gathering in Geneva — composed of the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany — to demand a full suspension of all uranium enrichment activities from Iran. Iran contends its nuclear activities are intended solely for civilian power use.

While the Israeli statement acknowledges that the window may be open for “a genuine diplomatic solution that peacefully ends Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” it warns that “this opportunity can be realized only if the international community continues to put pressure on Iran and does not ease the sanctions prematurely.”

In Washington, Obama administration officials walked a delicate line. On the one hand, the administration appeared eager to embrace a potentially historic opening with Iran. On the other, it seemed soberly committed to the protection of Israel, where fears are rampant that Iran is close to having enriched enough uranium for a bomb.

“The mistrust here is very deep, but we hope for progress,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney, who told reporters at the White House that it was too early to describe Iran’s presentation in Geneva as a “breakthrough.”

“Although we appreciate the recent change in tone from the Iranian government on this issue,” Mr. Carney said, “we will be looking for specific steps that address core issues, such as the pace and scope of its enrichment program, the transparency of its overall nuclear program and its stockpiles of enrichment.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to say specifically whether the administration is considering lifting existing sanctions on Tehran, or relaxing what has been a two-year push by the Obama administration to bring about a global embargo on crude oil from Iran.

“We are going into these discussions with our eyes open,” Ms. Psaki said. “We have put in place the most crippling sanctions — some of the most crippling sanctions in history here, which is why Iran is at the point it’s at.”

“We wouldn’t take any action unless we felt it was warranted and it was proportional,” she said. “But we also have a responsibility to seek diplomatic options when the door opens, and that’s the point we’re at now.”

With Iran signaling a desire to retain some uranium-enrichment capabilities and Israel demanding a halt of enrichment activity, it remains to be seen how the administration will proceed.

Still, many Middle East scholars in Washington were guardedly optimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough.

“I think that a deal can be attained that provides sufficient constraints on the Iranian program and sufficient transparency for the international community and would probably reach Israel’s bottom-line requirements as well,” said Suzanne Maloney, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Iran, the political economy of the Persian Gulf and Middle East energy policy.

“Whether or not we reach that,” she added, “is very uncertain.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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