The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2010
Iranians Agree to Talks in Istanbul
U.S. Sets Sights on Reviving a Fuel-Swap Agreement When Effort to Re-Engage Tehran on its Nuclear Program Resumes
GENEVA—Iran and six global powers agreed to extend their first diplomatic engagement in more than a year, ending two days of talks with a plan to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program again in late January in Istanbul—a venue that is closer to Tehran’s home turf.
A senior American official said the U.S. and its diplomatic partners will seek to use the Turkey negotiations to revive a proposal in which Iran would ship a sizable amount of its nuclear-fuel stockpile to third countries in exchange for energy and medical assistance. The U.S. has sought such an arrangement to deny Iran the fissile material required to quickly assemble an atomic weapon.
U.S. and European officials also said Tuesday that they would press Iran at the Istanbul round to take additional confidence-building measures—in particular, by giving the United Nations nuclear watchdog more access and information on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The choice of Istanbul is significant in part because Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly sought to play a role in the Iran diplomacy. Ankara negotiated its own nuclear-fuel-swap agreement with Tehran in May, but the U.S. refused to endorse it.
Iranians officials have lobbied to hold talks in Turkey, which they view as an increasingly important ally. Iran’s ambassador to Turkey on Tuesday said his country would seek to shift a large part of its trade from ports in the Gulf to Turkish ports on the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
The talks in Geneva included the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., China, Russia, France and U.K.—plus Germany. U.S. and European officials were cautious coming into the meeting, noting that the best possible outcome would likely be a confirmed time for more negotiations.
After Tuesday’s session, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saaed Jalili, highlighted why many officials remain skeptical that any major breakthroughs will be made in the coming months.
Mr. Jalili was adamant that Iran would never give up its right to produce nuclear fuel, a key demand, at least in the short term, of the U.S. and U.N. “I am telling you clearly and openly that halting uranium enrichment will not be discussed at the Istanbul meeting,” he said at a news briefing.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also damped hopes for diplomatic momentum by saying in a nationally televised speech Tuesday that the U.S., European Union and U.N. must lift economic sanctions on his country before progress is made on the nuclear issue.
Some U.S. officials had worried that the Geneva talks might quickly break down if Mr. Jalili failed to engage on Tehran’s nuclear program or launched sustained rhetorical attacks on Israel’s presumed nuclear-weapons program.
But officials involved in the talks said that, in the end, roughly 75% of their nearly nine hours of discussions were focused on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The senior U.S. official said the American delegation also raised concerns about Tehran’s alleged human-rights abuses and Iran’s role in undermining the Mideast peace process. The official said, however, that Mr. Jalili would sometimes lapse into Tehran’s traditional attacks on U.S. foreign policy.
The talks were also undercut by Iran’s announcement Sunday of developments that bring it closer to mastering the entire nuclear-fuel cycle—which would weaken international leverage on Tehran—and by Iran’s accusations that the West and Israel were behind attacks last week in Tehran in which one nuclear scientist was killed and another injured. The U.S. has denied a role in the attacks.
U.S. and European officials acknowledged that their engagement track with the Iranians can’t be limitless. President Barack Obama faces political pressure to quickly achieve results in the diplomacy or consider more aggressive measures, including military power.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers wrote Mr. Obama, stressing that diplomacy with Iran can’t be open-ended. “We remain concerned about the possibility that the Iranian regime will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of diplomacy through unrelated ‘confidence-building measures,’ ” said the letter, which was spearheaded by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I.-Conn.) “Such tactical maneuverings are of course no substitute for a real negotiation.”