Iran Nuclear Talks: To Keep Global Support, US Must Seize Diplomatic Opportunities

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Talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul April 14 show that negotiations aimed at addressing Tehran's nuclear ambitions appear to be on track. Diplomatic momentum should quell loose talk about the 'military option.' The top priority now must be to halt Iran's uranium enrichment.

After a long delay, serious negotiations to resolve concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions and its growing capacity to enrich uranium appear to be back on track. Though no breakthrough was achieved, the April 14 round of talks with Iran in Istanbul established a good foundation for progress.

At the close of the talks involving senior officials from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the two sides will hold expert-level talks and then will meet again at the senior political level in Baghdad on May 23. Future political and technical talks, she said, will be guided by the "principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity."

Now the task is to reach agreement on specific, concrete proposals that can help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, beginning with the most urgent proliferation problems. The top priority must be to halt Iran's accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium - which is above normal fuel-grade and closer to weapons grade - in exchange for fuel assemblies for its Tehran Research Reactor, which Iran uses to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment.

Further uranium enrichment at these levels has the potential to significantly shorten the time Tehran would require to build nuclear weapons if it decided to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A deal to halt enrichment above normal fuel grade would provide negotiators with more time and space to address other key issues.

If Iran received fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, its needs for medical-isotope production would be met for the next decade. Such an arrangement would also establish a principle that Iran would not enrich beyond normal-reactor grade of about 4 percent as a first step toward restricting Iran's nuclear program to peaceful uses.

The principle that Iran would only enrich according to its fuel needs could serve as a basis for a deal to limit the size and scope of its enrichment program as a whole.

In the next phase of talks, Washington and its allies must press Iran to improve cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran must fully implement its safeguards agreement intended to verify that its program is peaceful. It must finally answer longstanding questions about suspected nuclear weapons- related research prior to 2003. …