US Pushes Iran Hard as Talks Set to Begin

After much hemming and hawing, negotiations with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program appear ready to start this week in Istanbul.

US officials have leaked the demands they are making along with their European allies, and they are surprisingly tough and ingenious.

According to The New York Times, the Obama administration is pushing for the “closing and ultimate dismantling” of the highly fortified Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, as well as halting production of highly enriched uranium and shipping existing stockpiles outside the country.

It comes on the heels of reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran was moving forward in its uranium enrichment program, the precondition to developing nuclear weapons. It also occurs as punishing sanctions are starting to bite, with a tougher oil embargo beginning in July.

It also takes place amid a power struggle in Iran that has left supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini victorious over lame duck President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose outrageous statements denying the Holocaust while threatening to wipe Israel off the map have made him a lightning rod for criticism.

As the well-connected David Ignatius reported in The Washington Post last week, President Obama indicated indirectly to Khameini that he would accept an Iranian nuclear program if the Supreme Leader “can back up his recent public claim that his nation ‘will never pursue nuclear weapons.’”

In a speech in February the Supreme Leader said:

Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.

The administration sees that as a possible opening , as does Muslim NATO ally Turkey, a critical diplomatic intermediary with Iran.

President Obama with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a January Cabinet meeting. Photo: Rex Features via AP Images.

Negotiations with Iran have broken down several times. But this time may be different, for several reasons:

  1. Sanctions are working and are about to get tighter, with surprisingly broad participation, posing a potential danger to the shaky Iranian economy.
  2. The president has signaled he would accept an Iranian nuclear program, but only with strict limits and supervision. So, by taking the Ayatollah at his word, he’s giving him a face-saving way out.
  3. By insisting Fordo be closed, the president addresses Israeli leaders’ concerns about a “zone of immunity.” That hardened facility, buried deep in a mountain, may be out of reach of Israeli weapons. If Fordo is dismantled, Israel would be more able to nip a future Iranian nuclear weapons program in the bud, so the pressure for a military solution now would diminish.

I have no idea if this will work, but the approach looks promising. It’s also much smarter than the knee-jerk “attack, attack, attack” mantra chanted  by neoconservative war hawks and endorsed by likely GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Along with the administration’s brilliant surround-China strategy unveiled late last year, the Iranian initiative shows the national security team of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has serious diplomatic chops. If only they were so clever and confident about domestic policy and the economy!

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