Major powers examine long-shot options in Iran talks
24 October, 2012
BRUSSELS/VIENNA: Big powers may ask Iran for stricter limits on its nuclear work if it wants an easing of harsh sanctions - a long-shot approach aimed at yielding a negotiated solution that has eluded them for more than a decade.
A solution to the standoff is increasingly urgent. The longer the impasse goes on, the closer Iran could get to the technological threshold of a capability to build an atom bomb, raising the odds of Israeli strikes against its installations. Western diplomats say the possibility of revising their negotiating tactic is under discussion as they prepare for possible talks with Iran after the Nov 6 presidential election in the United States, following three inconclusive rounds this year.
One option could be for each side to put more on the table - both in terms of demands and possible rewards - than in previous meetings in a bid to break the stalemate despite deep scepticism about the chances of a breakthrough any time soon. Years of diplomacy and sanctions have failed to resolve a dispute between the West and Iran over its nuclear programme, raising fears of Israeli military action against its arch foe and a new Middle East war damaging to a fragile world economy.
"The next meeting would have to be well prepared," said one Western diplomat. "There could be interesting new developments, like more demands and more concessions." Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power and convinced a nuclear Tehran would pose a mortal threat, says Iran could arrive at the point of being able to "weaponise" enriched uranium next spring or summer.
Iran denies accusations it is seeking nuclear weapons and has so far refused to meet demands that it scales back its atomic activity, insisting on immediate sanctions relief. Western powers have rejected that and, instead, offered limited incentives focused on technology cooperation. They have also ramped up punitive measures to draw Iran, one of the world's biggest oil producers, into meaningful talks.
Another Western diplomat cautioned that a new strategy for diplomacy had yet to be finalised by Iran's six interlocutors: the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. But he said a new meeting with Iran soon after the US vote could not be ruled out, and preparations were under way. "It is possible there may indeed be some meeting in November to discuss an offer ... and that we ask more of the Iranians, in which case we could offer more," this diplomat said.
In a possible sign diplomacy could gather speed after the U.S. election, the New York Times has reported Washington and Iran have agreed in principle to hold one-on-one negotiations, although the White House denied that any talks had been set. In the earlier meetings this year, the powers called on Iran to stop producing higher-grade enriched uranium, shut down its Fordow underground facility and ship out its stockpile.
Iran rejected the proposal, described by Western officials as an initial step to build confidence, and demanded recognition of its "right" to refine uranium, activity which can have both civilian and military purposes, as well as lifting of sanctions. But for Iran to secure any relaxation of the pressure, it would have to take substantial additional action beyond the so-called "stop, shut and ship" demand, another Western official said. "For a lifting of sanctions they would have to do much more than just these three steps," the official said.