Iran Nuclear Talks: What's on the Table, What's at Stake

By Peterson, Scott | The Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Iran Nuclear Talks: What's on the Table, What's at Stake


Peterson, Scott, The Christian Science Monitor


Iran nuclear talks began in Istanbul today with topics that could include a revamped version of a nuclear fuel swap deal and ongoing sanctions.

With its nuclear program under fire, Iran sat down at the table with world powers today in Istanbul for talks with an uncertain agenda and uncertain chances of a breakthrough.

Expectations were low but the stakes high in only the third set of such high-level talks in 16 months.

"The positions of neither side have changed fundamentally," says Elahe Mohtasham, an Iran nuclear specialist recently with the Foreign Policy Centre in London. "Iran continues to use these talks as a way of furthering its overall strategic objective [and] the US position that Iran must stop its enrichment program ... hasn't changed."

Iranian media presented the talks as pushing Iran's "security agenda ... rather than specifically talking about nuclear issues," says Ms. Mohtasham. Such reports have not shown "any positive way forward, in the way the West would define [it]. There is no sign that Iran is going to stop its enrichment program. There is no sign that Iran is going to step back from any of its activities."

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?

The distance between the two sides was evident even at the close of the last round of talks in Geneva in December.

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili had said the "only outcome" after two days had been agreement on eight words that included "cooperation to find common ground" - but not the word "nuclear." That position was hailed in Iran as a "victory" because Iran made no compromises.

'Practical ideas' on the nuclear issue

In contrast, Europe's top diplomat Catherine Ashton - representing the P5+1 group of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany - had said the Istanbul talks would "discuss practical ideas [to resolve] our full concerns about the nuclear issue."

Iranian media is couching the Istanbul agenda in the broadest terms, saying that "success" would hinge on the P5+1 sticking to their previous agreement. For Iran, that means discussing issues like reforming the United Nations Security Council, nuclear disarmament, and regional security - but not haggling over Iran's nuclear "rights."

On Friday, with the prospect of further sanctions looming against Iran and patience wearing thin on both sides, the two days of talks commenced behind closed doors in an ornate Ottoman-era palace along the Bosphorus. Iran has had difficult relations with the West - and especially arch-foes Britain, the US, and Israel - since the 1979 Islamic revolution swept away a brutal pro-Western monarchy.

"We will absolutely not allow the talks to go into the issue of our basic rights like the issue of suspending enrichment," Abolfazl Zohrevand, an aide to Mr. Jalili, told reporters during a break for prayers. "We will focus on cooperation... The talks have been positive because both sides have come to take positive steps."

What might be on the table

But other aspects of Iran's nuclear program may well enter the discussion. The negotiators - with undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns representing the US - are likely to be grappling with several key topics, such as a revamped version of a nuclear fuel swap deal, in which Iran would agree to export much of its homemade enriched uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel rods it needs for a small reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes.

Billed as a confidence-building measure in October 2009 the proposal went nowhere. A similar version mediated by Turkey and Brazil was agreed with Iran in May 2010, but rejected by Western nations because it left enough nuclear material in Iran to serve as a building block for a weapon. News reports suggest both sides may have prepared updated proposals.

Iranian analysts suggest a "win-win" solution, in which the US and other world powers accept uranium enrichment in Iran - a process that has already been underway for years in the Islamic Republic - in exchange for much more intrusive inspections and guarantees.

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